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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.” You had to walk the walk and talk the talk during the Civil Rights era, and not wear your hair straight to conform to white standards.

Police captain Craig Price states “ I had been made to wear my [pre-Afro] hair so short-cropped because of white people. It was all about conforming to look like [them]. Afros were the first time that whites could look at you and collectively think, this person doesn’t go along with my philosophy and doesn’t care that I know”(p.55) What a powerful statement, how someone wears their hair can say so much without even speaking a word.

As far as in the workplace, I feel fortunate that I work in the hair industry, so having unique styles, colors, and cuts is often encouraged. After learning about the history of black hair, and learning more about the hair techniques, it was time to put all that new knowledge to work. I was honored to find several models that were willing to let me practice some styles that I’ve learned.

One of the first people I went to was my good friend and coworker, Marshay. She has been one of our Front Desk Coordinators and QNITY leaders for over a year now. She has our back at the front desk all day long, making sure operations go according to plan. If anyone was going to be willing to let me practice on them for the sake of learning, I knew Marshay would be happy to!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Marshay. We shared a great conversation about the history of her personal hair story, information I’ve read about black hair in history, and different products and tips that she used with her hair.

Here’s some feedback from our time together:

(Marshay) “For The last 6 years I’ve worked for two high end Aveda salons. To be honest, I have always been a part of the “it’s only a few of us that work here” club when working at Aveda salons. My experience has been mostly, “Can I touch your hair?‘‘ and “Omg how do you get your hair to do that?” It’s questions like these I hear all the time, and I know that they do not mean any harm. But still, no. It’s always a no.

“No you can not touch it.”

I also might follow up with a “OMG, how did you get your hair to grow so straight and thin?!” I don’t ask to be disrespectful but to provoke them to see how it feels to be asked that question. It’s in those moments they realize their own ignorance. We then can proceed with a conversation if they want too but mostly they don’t. It’s moments like these that remind me how much growing there needs to be. Luckily for me since I work at a salon I don’t get met with the “you can’t wear your hair like this to work.” It blows my mind how fascinated they are by our hair but yet judge us at the same time.

My “mane” is my crown and I love that I can express my personality through different hair looks. Which leads me to be very selective about who I let in my kinks and coils! (Well now locs) I’ve had to have my own come to Jesus moments because like the movie “White men can’t jump”, I used to assume white people can’t do black people hair!” It’s sad I know.l, but I’ve learned there are some white stylists out there who are amazing but they had to learn first. And What’s sad is there’s not taught enough or very little education on textured hair in beauty schools. So I was super happy to hear that Holly was someone who wanted to educate herself more and do more texture services. Okkkk! I was a little hesitant at first when she asked me to be a model to retwist my locs, because again “can white people do black people locs?” But because she wanted to learn and I admired her willingness to put herself out there, I said yes. Plus I was able to guide her along the way if she had any questions. She did an amazing job and I was like dang girl, OK, this white girl can do black hair lol!

It’s these experiences I hope will be more of the norm. I am glad I work in an industry that I can help move the chains and provoke others to grow and add more education! I want to see myself represented more. I want my daughters and nieces to grow up and see themselves on the cover of Aveda and other brands. So, I will continue to do my part and support those white stylists who truly want to grow their craft!“

(Holly) I am hopeful that more guests, like Marshay, will give me the opportunity to grow and learn as a stylist. Having always been a fan of textured hair, I try to help those appreciate their own waves, curls and coils. That being said, I did not have a lot of coily hair education in my career. I never learned coily texture in beauty school, and the proper continuing education that I was looking for never seemed readily available. Aveda is even referenced in “Hair Story”, saying that “eco-friendly companies like Paul Mitchell and Aveda are doing as they inch into the Black hair-care market” (page 94) Referring to the fact that companies are now making a point to have their hair care and cosmetic products be more for just one particular skin color population. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels good to know that Aveda is opening up the world of textured hair and accommodating certain textures and bringing on products to achieve styles more appropriately. Aveda has recently come out with a texture curriculum, and finally, it is everything I’ve been wanting to learn! I have been on a mission to get more comfortable with coily textured hair, because I felt I couldn’t truly call myself a hairdresser until I felt comfortable with ALL hair types. No one should be turned away because of the type of hair they have. I’ve done my own research to learn how to do locs and haircuts for a while now, and taken this quarantine opportunity to get better educated with twist outs and flat twist protective styles. I’m thoroughly enjoying this journey! Speaking with coily haired guests, and learning the history of their hair, who used to do their hair, and what products work for them, has been super educational. I look forward to my continued growth and learning!

To check out Holly on Instagram to follow her educational journey, click here.


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