DURHAM, N.C. – A good hairstyle begins with a good wash.
It’s early morning at H2O Hair Salon & Spa. Jaliyah Marsh wants to change her style to a flexi rod set, which involves coiling the hair around flexible rods. Although a stylist herself, Marsh has enlisted the help of longtime stylist Kito Jones. Jones spends several minutes washing Marsh’s hair before she begins to style it.
“Natural hair has a tendency to have a lot of product buildup and free radicals from the air,” Jones says. “So it is important to thoroughly rinse all of a week, two weeks, three weeks or longer buildup in the hair by the time our clients come to the salon so that we can make sure that we are working with a clean slate.”
Marsh, who is Black, now wears her hair naturally; that is, free of any chemical straighteners or texturizers. That wasn’t always the case. Before becoming a stylist, Marsh would straighten her hair ahead of job interviews.
“The kinkier your hair was, the more likely you were to straighten it just because it’s something that people look at,” she says. “It can definitely be very frustrating because you have to spend extra money to make sure your hair stays down and stays flat.”
Jones says Marsh’s experience is typical. In the past, she says Black women, in particular, were conditioned not to accept their natural hair as acceptable, particularly in a professional environment. Only within the past 20 years or so has Jones noticed a marked increase in natural hair interest.
In February, a group of Democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation to ban discrimination based on hairstyle or texture traits historically associated with race. Called the CROWN Act by its supporters, similar legislation has already been signed into law in seven states, including Virginia. No such law is currently on the books in North Carolina, but Durham and Greensboro have adopted ordinances to the same effect.
Besides employment, research shows the pressure on Black women to straighten their hair takes a toll on their physical health. A 2019 study by the National Institutes of Health found women who regularly use chemical straighteners were 30% more likely to develop breast cancer. This is particularly important for Black women, who are much more likely to use straighteners.
After Jones wraps Marsh’s hair around a series of flexible rods, Marsh spends an hour under a hairdryer. Once that’s finished, she unrolls the strands, leaving Marsh with a head full of almost tubular coils.
“From looking at her hair in a wavy state, you’d never think that she’d be able to achieve these smooth tresses with a perm rod,” Jones says. “But that’s how the rest of her natural hair is, so it’s a beautiful thing.”
Jones and Marsh say the CROWN Act is long overdue. Marsh says fear of employment discrimination is still causing women of color to discourage their daughters from wearing their hair naturally. She was nervous at first when she started wearing her hair naturally in school.
“I definitely had to learn to have confidence in my natural hair, and so many women I know don’t,” she says. “And as a stylist, I’ve had to really teach women how to take care of their hair, tell them it’s beautiful, and make them feel confident in their hair.”
Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly but has yet to receive a hearing.