Reflecting on “A Hair Story”

Each month at Gordon Salon, Tony Gordon chooses a particular nonfiction book for the staff to read. This past fall, the staff at Gordon Salon were given a book titled “A Hair Story : Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America” as their book of the month. One stylist in particular, Holly Pistas, was heavily inspired after reading the book to do more in terms of her education surrounding traditionally black haircare and hair styling. We are grateful that Holly, a Cosmetology Educator and Senior Master Hair Designer at Gordon in the Glen, took the time to discuss her thoughts with us.

(Holly) : I knew I was meant to be a hairdresser at a young age. I went home one day after school and styled my mom's hair. I’ll never forget her telling me how nice it looked and how good she felt afterwards. As much as I love being able to be creative and artistic, the ability to connect with human beings and make them feel better than before is the part of my work that keeps me going day after day. Connecting with my clients is still my favorite part, even after being in the beauty industry for almost 20 years. Even when times get hard like this past year, I am still so happy that I have chosen this career path. Being able to deliver that confidence while doing something fun and artistic at the same time was what sold me on the industry. It wasn’t long before I went to beauty school to become a cosmetologist. Ever since then, I have dedicated myself to not only furthering my own education surrounding hair, but I have become passionate about being an educator myself as well.

To be transparent, my beauty school was in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where the demographics of the surrounding towns are mostly caucasian. I learned how to do many different types of haircuts, color, and styles throughout the years and was rarely exposed to any techniques for styling afros, locs, or anything that was culturally black. To be a cosmetologist means to learn all aspects of the trade and all kinds of hair types, however, I never learned how to do coily textured hair.

Luckily, Gordon Salon, my place of work for almost 15 years, has been doing book clubs in recent years to encourage the staff to educate themselves beyond the technical work. It could be a subject on personal growth, how to be a good team player, or in this case, the history of hair. Several months ago, we read “Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America” by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps.

Looking back, continuing education to solve this issue was not readily available either, and it seems this specific type of styling education was very segregated. Living in the north suburbs you’ll find that even searching for certain tools to do coily hair is difficult. They are simply not available in our local supply stores. I realized just how little I have been exposed to this side of the hair industry as I was going to have to expand my scope, while doing my own research to learn these particular skills. Aside from obtaining knowledge about actual techniques, I thought it was important to also know the history of black hair. And that’s when I decided that is was important to start reading “A Hair Story.”

I’ve read about hairstyles changing in different cultures over the centuries, but nothing like the evolution of hair with African-Americans. It was incredible to understand the intricate designs, that once projected status in the communities of Africa, had then been taken away from those that were brought over in slavery. They were subjected to a beauty standard to adopt a look more like white America, only to be criticized by fellow peers if they didn’t uphold a “neater” beauty standard. Not being able to appreciate your natural born characteristics is unimaginable to me and was a timely reminder of my own privileges with my hair and the color of my skin.

That puts a lot into perspective. Being in a country that did not celebrate who they were or where they came from and essentially encouraged them to change everything about who they are and what they look like to conform to a white standard, I can’t even begin to fathom what that must have felt like. To be given even a sliver of opportunity at a better life, they had to pretend they were someone else.

Then, in the 60s, the natural Afro came back into style, for fashion and political reasons. Gloria Wade-Gayles said “an activist with straight hair was a contradiction, a lie, a joke really.” Yo