The Root: Your Hairstories

Yodith Dammlash and Delece Smith-Barrow
Contributors to The Root
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; 12:00 PM

"For many black women, a trip to the salon is more than just pampering. A missed appointment can add hours to a black woman's week -- pulling through tangles and wrestling with blow-dryers and flatirons. More than the tiresome manual labor, missing a regular spot means missing the black salon experience: the enclave of warmth, comfort and fellowship guided gently by a stylist, who serves triple duty as BFF, therapist and family member all rolled into one."

What's your "hairstory?" The Root is currently offering a "twist" on the ever-hot topic of black women and hair, with a collection of stories including a photo gallery by photographer Yodith Dammlash and a piece on how hair salons are faring in the economic downturn by writer Delece Smith-Barrow. Dammlash and Smith-Barrow were online Wednesday, April 1 at 12 noon ET to discuss their hairstories -- and yours.

A transcript follows.


Delece Smith-Barrow: Morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us in today's chat. Has the economy caused any of you to change the frequency of your salon visits? It's something I've given a lot of thought too, but for a number of reasons I'd rather cut back on other luxuries before doing my own roller set or touch up.


Yodith Dammlash: Hi, everyone. My name is Yodith Dammlash and I am a photographer. I am a recent graduate of Corcoran College of Art & Design. My series Strands of Strength focuses on black women and the relationship we have with our hair. I'm excited to read your thoughts and answer your questions!


Washington D.C.: True, your hairdresser can be your BFF. But for me, it can also be CHD, or controlling hairdresser. I have been with my hairdresser (off and on) since I was 18 years; I am 57 years old now. Except for a couple of breaks from perming, and an episode with chemotherapy (when I didn't have any hair), we have had our ups and downs. I am at the point in my life where I do not want to have to deal with chemicals; this is the sound of death to my hairdresser. She is an older hairdresser who believes that a woman is not "finely coiffed" unless her hair has been "dyed, fried, and laid to the side". I do not want this anymore, and whenever I tell her that I want my own natural hair, she and her sister (they own their shop together) look at me as though I am crazy. My hairdresser and her sister are dead set against natural hair; they are strictly from the press and curl, perm, jheri curl generation. What must a sister do to make a clean, friendly break from this kind of control?

Delece Smith-Barrow: I've had a hairdresser like this, too. I've considered going natural and she bluntly told me that she didn't think anyone should ever do it because it doesn't look good to her. It made me sad to hear her say it, but I realized that if I wanted to do it I'd just have to find a new hairdresser. If she really is a friend to you, she'll realize that it's nothing personal. If she can't meet your needs, she's left you with no choice. And you can always refer people back to your perm-loving stylist to show that you don't doubt her skills.

Yodith Dammlash: I agree with Delece on this one. You would like to think a friend would understand but she is your hairdresser first. I've had a similar situation with a former hairdresser of mine who just loved straightening my hair but never was enthusiastic to try natural styles (My hair was chemical-free). But she eventually realized that I would not hesitate to try someone new if she didn't get with my program.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It has often been said that elections are determined in the barbershops and bars where people gather to spread their political opinions. I always wondered, as I've heard this saying repeated: do women discuss politics much in hair salons? Has anyone looked into this: who spends more time discussing politics: groups of men, or groups of women, or is there no real difference?

Delece Smith-Barrow: I've never looked into this extensively, but from my personal experience political chatter is a big part of the salon experience. During the last presidential campaign season, my stylist and many of the clients at the salon loved to analyze the debates. But the discussions would also include a lot of talk about Michelle Obama's and Cindy McCain's hair and clothes. I'm not sure if the fashion sense of the candidates' wives was a popular topic at barber shops also.


Arlington, Va.: OH, please please PLEASE, will someone out there help me? I live in Pentagon City, newly transplanted from MoCo. I NEED to find a hairdresser near me. I have the WORST roots growing in! Can you PLEASE post this to the chat, in case someone has a recommendation for me? On a sidenote, the roots of my hair are so beautifully wavy... wish they'd grow out that way, instead of giving me a huge 'fro! -sigh- THANKS!

Delece Smith-Barrow: Any readers out there who can help?


Hyattsville, Md.: What goes into the decision on whether to go with a natural style or continue to get those expensive hair treatments every other week?

Yodith Dammlash: It is a big decision. I had a relaxer from the age of 12 to 17 when I decided to grow it out. For me it was about the cost of getting a relaxer regularly, realizing there were other places that money could go. Also it was about the care of my hair and the fact that I could change up my hair styles with natural hair. I can flat iron and press/curl my natural hair to give it a relaxed look but I cannot wear the kinky twists I've become so fond of on relaxed hair. Versatility was the deciding factor for me.

Delece Smith-Barrow: I didn't get a relaxer until I was 18 (I'm 24 now). Using chemicals to straighten it was a way for me to explore new styles that didn't seem possible in my natural state.


Bowie, Md.: How do you find the balance between potentially destroying your hair with all of those chemicals and getting the perfect look?

Delece Smith-Barrow: Usually, I'll ask my stylist to help me find the balance and do research on the Internet. I'll try not to get touch ups too frequently, avoid highlights and choose rinses instead when I want color and I've recently tried a relaxer that doesn't include lye. For some women, going natural is the way to achieve their perfect look and that means using no chemicals or very few of them.


Washington, DC: For the newly relocated to Arlington from Montgomery County, try Ivy at Salon Cielo at Pentagon City Mall. She is all about hair care, listens to your concerns and is extremely good. The prices are a bit high, but she is well worth it.

Delece Smith-Barrow: Here's one for our Pentagon City reader.


For the MoCo Transplant: There's Sistah's in Alexandria, on Beauregard. There's also Special Touch in Alexandria, on the opposite end of Beauregard. If you don't mind traveling to Herndon there's Sheldeez. If you go to Sheldeez ask for Brooke, she did really well with my hair. In the meantime, invest in a really good ceramic flat-iron and use some hair oil to get those roots straight until you see a stylist. Good luck!

Delece Smith-Barrow: And another tip for Pentagon City.


Chicago, Ill.: Years ago while sporting the "Halle do" I kept my hair very short and visited the salon once a month, but even though the cut itself took only about 30-45 minutes, the process took my entire morning, because my stylist was also doing several other "heads" at the same time. Not being the most patient person, I grew my hair out and every 6 months or so just snip the ends myself.

Delece Smith-Barrow: Timeliness has always been a BIG factor in my decision when trying to figure out if I should continue seeing a stylist. If it takes more than 2.5 hours to do a basic wash and set, I know I'm not coming back. As much as I love going to the salon, I don't want to spend the entire day there.

Yodith Dammlash: It used to always bother me when a stylist would do other "heads" while working on me. That's how salon visits turn into all day events. Even now that I wear my hair natural and only go to the salon for an occasional straightening, I try to make sure it's on a day when when my stylist has the least customers. I lack patience also.


Washington, DC: To the 57 year old poster, PLEASE find a new stylist. Haircare and styles have come a long way since the perm/jheri curl/press n'curl days. I have gone been natural for 5 years now, and love the versatility. You just need to find the right product mix for your hair when you wear it curly. And my stylist's flat ironing skills are so good my hair is bouncier than it was when it was relaxed.

Delece Smith-Barrow: I agree. There are lots of different options out there.


Washington, D.C.: What is the process like to go from relaxer to natural?

Yodith Dammlash: It definitely varies. Once I made the decision to go natural, I just continued to get it straightened until I felt the natural hair was long enough to cut off the relaxed hair. It was just about past my ears when I cut it. The I would style it by braiding or twisting it and taking it out. It wasn't as painful for me as other stories I've heard.


Laurel, Md.: Because the economy is tough, have you ladies switched to a cheaper hair style (less maintenance), or is the economy not that bad?

Delece Smith-Barrow: The economy is that bad, and I've looked into products that will keep my hair healthy and require me to have less expensive treatments when I'm at the salon. Anything from using the right scarf at night to changing your pillowcase can make a difference in your hair and how often you'll need to go to a professional hairdresser.

Yodith Dammlash: I agree with Delece. Little things can be done at home in between salon visits that may make a difference in your hair and your wallets. You can steam your own hair with a hot towel, deep condition, wrapping your up at night, as Delece mentioned. I twist my own hair unless I need a trim, then I see my hairdresser.


Arlington, Va.: I'm surprised no one has discussed cutting back some things, such as doing your own hair at home and visiting the salon for the major things such as relaxers, color, etc.

Delece Smith-Barrow: I'm all for doing things at home, just as long as you know what you're doing. I've learned the hard way that doing the "easy" things at home (i.e. bumping your hair with a curling iron or flat iron) can damage your hair if not done properly. And repairing damaged hair can be very costly.


Silver Spring, Md.: Interesting topic, although during all my years reading WP online, I believe this is a first. Could the topic have been inspired by First Lady Michelle?

Yodith Dammlash: Interesting connection. I wouldn't say it was inspired by the First Lady but she may be another reason people who may not be familiar with the issues of black hair are taking interest. Some people may see her as the face of black women in America.


Washington, D.C.: As a male who gets a haircut once every three months, and who washes his hair twice a week in winter, three times a week in summer, I ask, in all seriousness: Do you think that men pay such close attention to women's hair? Beyond cleanliness, do men really care? P.S., I have five sisters, so I lived with some of this over the years since my youngest days. And, I've been married for 25 years to the same woman.

Delece Smith-Barrow: I think it depends on the man. I've met some who have strong opinions about women who wear locks or very short styles. But it's important to style your hair in a way that works best for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks.


Washington, D.C.: How do you tell your hairdresser that you absolutely hate the way she styles your hair? I just recently started going to a new salon and the woman who does my hair emphasizes healthy hair. Since I started going to her my hair has become A LOT healthier. However, she can't style it to save her life. I end up walking out the salon with a hat on or rush to the car to fix the unflattering style. I've tried to gently tell her to make it less puffy or perhaps curl it a little less, but no matter what I always end up looking drab.

Is there a way to coach into her the perfect style or should I just continue my search for the perfect hairdresser?

Delece Smith-Barrow: I think there's certainly a way to coach her on how to style your hair, but that may take time. And if you're running out of the shop embarrassed, it sounds like your visits could be a waste of money.

But back to coaching: you could try showing her a picture of what you'd like or try to direct her as she styles it (although this may get on her nerves).

Don't be afraid to continue your search if you're spending too much time coaching. It's the worst to leave a salon feeling or looking worse than when you walked in.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Delece & Yodith. I have never been a "hair" person. That is, I have never wished for long straight hair & I would rather wear a very short 'fro from days gone past. I don't have the patience for spending my day at the salon & I don't wish to spend the time rolling & hot curling. As a result I have something in between. My hair is naturally curly & is easy to manage as an Afro. The guys in my household (husband, sons & grandson) would rather I let it grow. What's a woman to do?

Delece Smith-Barrow: A woman is to do what works best for her. If your husband, sons and grandson aren't the people who will have to maintain it and live with it, the decision is ultimately yours.

Yodith Dammlash: I would be genuinely unhappy if i had to wear my hair a way I did not want to. Do what makes you happy. After all, it's your hair.


How do you tell your hairdresser that you absolutely hate the way she styles your hair?: Bring a picture of the style you want. As a trained professional she should be able to recreate the look with products that won't forsake the health of your hair.

Delece Smith-Barrow: Another good tip for the person looking to possibly coach her stylist.


Philly, Pa.: Can I ask a question as a clueless white person?

I'm in my mid-40's, and grew up with images of African-Americans with Afros (Jackson 5, Angela Davis for 2 examples). When I see an African-American nowadays with straight hair, is it natural?

I'm sorry to be so obtuse, but this isn't exactly the kind of question I feel like I can ask in person.

Delece Smith-Barrow: It depends on the woman. There's no one-size-fits-all model for how our hair grows.


Lusby, Md.: I just have a comment... I wish we could go back to the days when black women wore their "own" hair! When I grew up in the 80's everyone sported their own locks... whether it was relaxed, pressed, natural or jheri curl, there was no weave in sight! Just about every black celebrity now wears wigs or weaves... what are we telling our black girls... our hair isn't good enough!?

Yodith Dammlash: I think this is a touchy topic. Although I definitely find myself thinking the same thing about our celebrities, is it really fair to say that someone who wears wigs or weaves doesn't think their own hair is "good"? This makes me think of the stereotypes that accompany certain hairstyles. If you have dreadlocks, you're "down for the cause, pro-black". If you have chemically treated hair, you're "controlled by the man". Those may be the extreme stereotypes but they exist nonetheless. Ultimately, I think people should style their hair how they like it. Celebrities included.


Washington, D.C.: I have a 5 yr old daughter and her hair is natural. I use the Kimble line of hair products on her. I'd like to comment on the use of hair extensions, and kiddie perms in children's hair. My hair was pressed & curled my whole life, no perm for me. It was sometimes cornrowed too, mostly in the summer. I know our time is short, but I think we are damaging our children's hair before it gets a chance to just be.

Delece Smith-Barrow: My mom would completely agree with you. She's adamant about not putting chemicals in children's hair. But as I've said before, do what's best for you. Some moms are faced with an enormous challenge when it's time to do their children's hair. And there are lots of children who hate getting their hair pressed and find cornrows much too painful. If chemicals are a better option for your family, go for it.

Yodith Dammlash: My hair was thick and unruly as a child so I don't blame my mom for trying out a couple of those Just For Me kiddie perms on my hair. I didn't like it but I understand it in hindsight. It really just depends on what's right for you and your child.


Austin, Tex.: Unfortunately, the economy has forced me to cut back on my beauty appointments. I used to go twice a month, once for color and then the second time for just a shampoo/blow/style. Now, I just do the monthly color and style to save money. I am also interviewing for a stylist who is more affordable, but that is a last resort. I have been with my stylist since 1989.

Delece Smith-Barrow: I would also try having a heart-to-heart with your stylist and seeing if she'd consider giving you a discount. She may be willing to adjust her prices for the client who's stayed with her for two decades. That's a heck of a long time and she may appreciate your business more than you realize.


Delece Smith-Barrow: Thanks for the great discussion, everyone. Keep sending in your hair stories to to keep the conversation going.


Yodith Dammlash: Thanks everyone for the interesting comments and questions! I'm glad I was a part of such a rare and open discussion. Let's all stay open minded and help each other along the way of our hair journeys!



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