Earlier this year, beauty brand Shea Moisture launched a campaign called #BreaktheWalls. In their first ever TV commercial, Shea calls for an end to the “Ethnic Hair” section found in many a major department and convenience store. This section labels and separates products made for and/or marketed to black women from other mainstream beauty products. Shea Moisture wants to break the walls in order to create a more inclusive beauty aisle.
It’s clear why they would want to do so: the commercial is also the official announcement that Shea Moisture will no longer be found in the “discriminatory” ethnic care section to which it had been relegated since its release. The brand has successfully integrated, and will now be located in beauty aisle. There are certainly some valid critiques about the erasure of black women and their specific hair and skin needs by mainstream advertisers and retailers. But what #breakthewalls ignores is an establishment that has always existed to address this erasure: the beauty supply store.
These magical little shops can be found in any neighborhood with a significant black population and are fully stocked with a huge selection of beauty products, most of which are catered specifically to women of color. If you’re unfamiliar with beauty supply stores and what they provide, consider this analogy: You can stroll into your local Target or Walmart to pick up windshield wipers, antifreeze, or maybe even some oil for the engine. But if you need something more specific, you know that a visit to Autozone is probably in order.
For black women, the same concept applies to our beauty needs — we require specialty retailers, and we have them in abundance “around the way.” As a kid, whatever money my friends and I hadn’t already spent on Lilttle Debbie pastries and chocolate milk was used in what we simply referred to as “the beauty supply.” At that age I bought cheap lip gloss and hair pins with butterfly wings that would flap as you moved. As a teenager it was colored contacts. As an adult it was wigs, weaves, flexi rods, and eyebrow razors. Having lived in urban metropolises my entire life, I’ve never had to travel more than a few blocks for any of these things.
Witnessing beauty supply stores in abundance can be quite puzzling to those unfamiliar with the landscape of black neighborhoods and culture. But to truly understand the importance of these establishments, you have to grasp the unique versatility of black women’s hair. Hair has a rich and complicated history for black women. Our uniquely diverse textures allow us to experiment with different styles — styles that are often criticized for being unprofessional, distracting, dirty, and ghetto. We accomplish these styles using a variety of products that go beyond shampoo, conditioner, curling irons, hairspray, and dyes. We use specific products to keep our edges (a.k.a. baby hair) neat so that our hair looks polished. We prefer hard brushes to lay our real hair down and paddle brushes to detangle the hair we purchased. We need items like bonnets, durags, and silk scarves to keep our styles in place while we sleep, or until we are ready to be cute again. We need special gels to hold our hair in place, moisturizers to keep our curls healthy, pomades to retwist our locs, and relaxers to keep our hair straight if we want to. We need weave… a hundred different kinds of weave. We need hair glue to adhere the weave, we need a special kind of needle & thread to sew the weave in. We need wigs for the days when we don’t want to do our hair at all. You simply won’t find these products at major chain retailers, and breaking their walls won’t change that.
The beauty supply works so well in communities of color because they do more than supply people with the products they need to look their best. With the advent of YouTube tutorials, you can imagine that black hair is DIY oriented. But this has been the case for communities of color who were economically disenfranchised since before YouTube or the internet were a thing. For many of us, paying a professional at a salon to style our hair and maintain its upkeep is a luxury. Even when the decision to pay someone else to style our hair, it was likely that we relied on personal networks in order to get the best deal and service. And we are more likely to make it a collaborative effort by bringing our own weave or products for a stylist to use. Beauty supply stores source these materials at extremely affordable prices. Not to mention that in addition to products for hair, local beauty supply stores are often stocked up on cosmetics, skin products, clothes, accessories, shoes, lingerie, socks, fragrances etc. If it’s a really trill store, you will probably find some bootleg DVDs and loose cigarettes as well.
I am forever grateful for this community hub. When I see those two words proudly on display with an advertisement for Velvet Remi hair in the window, I immediately feel at home. Easily recognizable and accessible, the beauty supply is permanently engraved in the memories of what it means to black and femme for many of us. And even with its issues — these stores are often owned by non-black people of color who support anti-black racism by monopolizing the sector and making it harder for black owners to get access to vendors and suppliers — the beauty supply is still the only place I can undoubtedly depend on to keep me on fleek and at the highest levels of slayage.