A Story of Reinvention, Self-Love, and Community

A Story of Reinvention, Self-Love, and Community

The sizzle of a hot comb passing through coils the night before a fancy event. Ribbons and bobos and six packs of braided hair. Grease, edge control, and a whole tub of bobby pins. When it is time to look and feel our best, Black women start with our crowns.

It goes without saying that we have a very intimate relationship with the way we wear our hair. One that is at once political (see: the Crown Act), personal, and deeply connected to our history. The significance of finding the styles that properly express who we are and allow our hair to shine at its fullest potential dates back to our ancestors mapping out paths to freedom on the scalps of their loved ones.

Whether we choose to rock it the way it naturally grows from our heads or decide to change it with the seasons, our hair requires a level of intentionality that, perhaps, no other race of women can relate to. The way Black women wear our hair is always a statement. Be it rebellion, authenticity, or simply the essence of beauty, a hairstyle, for us, is never quite that simple. And if our relationship to our hair is one of such great importance, then what does that mean for how and where we buy the products necessary to sustain it?

beauty supply


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Beauty supply stores, where we spend time dreaming up the looks that we plan to present to the world, are integral to our self-expression. It is not just a matter of color or texture; Black women’s hair requires a completely different amount of care and attention. The recent influx of beauty companies catering to our hair needs specifically is further proof of that. But before we could go into everyday retail stores and reach for products made for us, by us, we’d flock to beauty supply stores in our neighborhoods and scour the shelves for things that would help us achieve our desired look(s).

Unfortunately for many Black women, this is where they were first dismissed, disregarded, and/or racially profiled. Because though these stores primarily serviced them, the vast majority of beauty supply stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods are owned by people of Korean descent, according to MPR, which is something that young beauty entrepreneurs are working to change. However, the road to turning their love for our hair into a profitable supply business is no easy feat in an industry that seeks to maintain the status quo.

Essence Shabazz, 30, of E.Bazz Beauty Supply in St. Paul, Minnesota, says the problem runs deeper than brick and mortar, spreading all the way to the acquisition of the products themselves. “It hurts because it’s like we are buying back what was stolen from us,” she says. “We still don’t really own any distribution centers where we receive the products to fill our stores.”

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Less than 5 percent of the beauty supply stores in the country are owned and operated by Black people, and the percentage of companies that distribute beauty products in bulk is even lower. Shabazz believes that though the numbers show a staggering need for more diversity, they also provide Black women in the space an opportunity to foster more than just customers. “It is about community when you come into our space. We laugh, talk, and help one another with everything,” she says. “We are so criticized out in this world, but within these walls we understand each other, we love each other, and most importantly, we respect each other, and we need that type of love again within our culture.”

As the world continues to become more keenly aware — via TikTok trends and other viral content — of the way that Black women’s style influences the world around them, more of us are seeking out ways to ensure that our dollars are spent supporting businesses that actually respect and honor our presence. For Andrea Johnson of Mirror Mirror Beauty Center in Woodland Hills, California, the key to making room in the industry may lie in simply knowing what we deserve as the demographic who statistically spends the most money on hair products.

“We deserve a beauty space where we feel good about our purchases, feel appreciated, and gain knowledge while we shop,” Johnson says. Where YouTube tutorials brought Black women all over the world together in support of one another’s hair needs, Black-owned beauty supply stores seek to provide the viable next step in representation. Johnson, who operates a 1,500-square-foot space in a “desirable stretch of San Fernando Valley,” says the response to her store’s presence has been one that pushes her forward even with the odds stacked against her. “The store immediately incites trust and enthusiasm from customers,” she says, “and we welcome them as family like any neighborhood staple would.”

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That sense of family is what Black women have had to cultivate on our own in spaces that, historically, call for us to conform. At jobs, at airports, and even in our own intimate relationships, our hair can be an invitation for criticism, disdain, and sometimes abuse. So, it is no wonder that the time we take to prepare ourselves and our hair to be seen by the outside world is sacred. The hands that touch our hair are often chosen with the same care as those chosen to babysit our children or prepare our food. For those unable to afford glam teams or who’ve had to scale back on their budget for hair care, going into a place where your presence means more than just a dollar can alleviate the strain we are often under as a result of simply existing. It is not purely a moment for Black ownership; it is also a moment for Black pride.

For some owners, the prevailing hurdle for Black women-owned beauty supply stores is one that calls for us all to remember our why. Entrepreneurs Charis McWhorter and Dana Hawkins, who co-own Zoet Beauty Supply, which boasts two locations in Georgia, believe that some of the problems facing women in this industry are actually homegrown.

“We have to be intentional about circulating dollars in our community … strengthening our buying power, closing the gap of disparities, economically and mentally, as well as discontinuing shopping in places where we aren’t treated with respect,” McWhorter says. According to the Beauty Supply Institute, of the $50 billion brought in by the beauty supply market in 2020, only 3 percent of that market was owned by Black people specifically.

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A crucial factor? Location.

Though the number of Black-owned supply stores has risen, they are often still relegated to areas that can be less convenient for those looking for quick fixes to their hair problems. Choosing spaces that are close to other beauty supply stores already operating in predominantly Black neighborhoods can also put owners at risk of not being able to secure products directly from companies who fear oversaturation in a particular market.

Shabazz, who operates her business in a mostly white neighborhood in Minnesota, says her plan to open a location in north Minneapolis, a more diverse area, was soured due to a lack of resources and availability. “We still have reservations from some people. … They are not sure how to either accept us being in this community or not sure how to approach our store,” she says. “We are basically the only Black-owned store in that entire Highland Park community.”

With higher costs for inventory, a consumer base that has been forced almost completely online over the last two years, and the uphill battle of being able to afford real estate in close proximity to their customers, Black women owners of supply stores are forced, once again, to find a way to persist in spite of these obstacles.

Much like the story of our hair in this country, the journey of Black women owning stores that specifically serve our needs is one riddled with prejudice, politics, and perseverance. And yet, the absolute joy at seeing more and more of these neighborhood staples belonging to those who understand the delicate relationship we all have with our crowns is enough to keep more and more women joining the ranks. When it comes to filling in the gaps left by industries that need us but do not respect us, Black women are always first in line to put the collective on our backs and pave the paths that lead to equality. The hope is that we don’t have to continue to walk alone.

Iman N. Milner is an actress and writer living and working in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @imannmilner

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