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Stylists Tie Lack of Knowledge on Textured Hair to Education Shortfalls

Majority of the US has textured hair, but cosmetology schools aren't teaching students how to style it

Dashelle White, poses in a striped jumpsuit and her hair in an afro
Dashelle White, stylist at 1213 Studio in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Ashley Frisk)

It’s believed that around 65% of the United States population has textured hair — defined as kinky, coiled, curly or wavy hair — and if you were to ask any one of those millions of people, they’d likely tell you of regular experiences leaving a salon with a choppy haircut or overly frizzy blowout. 

Despite the fact that they make up the majority of people in the United States and worldwide, treating and styling for textured-hair clients has gone largely untaught in American cosmetology schools. 

The material covered in such schools was so that aspiring stylists can usually pass the North Carolina State Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners’ (BCAE) 110-question licensing test — flooded with outdated information and tedious topics — without ever learning the ins and outs of textured hair care. 

Things have begun to change more recently, however, as the natural hair movement has become more popular and accepted.

A change comes to cosmetology

Sarah Havas, owner of Head Space Studio in the Echo Hills neighborhood of southeast Charlotte, learned cosmetology at Paul Mitchell The School in 2011. Havas said she never saw a single practice mannequin with textured hair during her time there.

“The only training was to make curly hair straight,” Havas recalled. “Never what do you do with curly hair? How do you diffuse it? What if someone loves their curly hair? It was like, ‘No, just straighten it out.’” 

Head Space Studio stylist Hannah Morris started at the Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute in Charlotte in late 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic began during her first year there, and the school was unable to take clients for stylists to train on. Students were left with all the old straight-haired mannequins for practice — like those that Havas’ Paul Mitchell class trained on

They weren’t having it.

“A bunch of classmates told them, ‘We’re gonna need extra mannequins and we want curly-hair mannequins,’” Morris said. The school agreed, and the Charlotte Aveda Institute obtained curly-haired mannequins for stylists to train on.

Paul Mitchell and Aveda are both branded schools, meaning they use only their products in their teaching programs. According to Morris, if a stylist needed to use a product that was not made by Aveda at their institute, the label had to be ripped off or taped over. 

While both brands have product lines made for curly hair, those lines are limited and not all curls are built the same. There are nine curl types that vary in density, coarseness and porosity, and they require different products. If a student wanted to cater to curls with products other than the Aveda line, they would have to invest their own money and cover the label, Morris said.

It begins with the state board

The lack of curly hair education goes beyond cosmetology school curriculums and shampoo lines. The schools aim to train students for the state board, which according to both Havas and Morris, asked nothing about natural textured hair.

On the state board test that Morris took in 2021, the only questions pertaining to texture involved chemical relaxer, a substance that rids the hair of curl. 

“We did not do any diffusing, no finger curls, nothing for styling,” Morris said.

According to many in the industry, the issues with textured hair go back to white supremacist thought, as white people are far more likely to have straight hair than people of color, leading cosmetology schools to favor straight hair as the beauty standard.

A look inside Sarah Havas’ Head Space Studio
A look inside Sarah Havas’ Head Space Studio. (Photo by Irissa Lu)

“It’s kind of racially coded in a way,” said Head Space Studio stylist Sammie Ramirez. “It’s saying your hair needs to be relaxed and shouldn’t be in its natural state or else it’s not pretty. We need to know how to diffuse hair and what products to use.”  

According to Havas, if aspiring stylists do want to learn about textured hair, they have to find someone in their class who is knowledgeable and willing to teach them. This often leaves Black students and other students of color teaching classmates for free, all while going through a 1,500-hour program that does not cater to them.

If stylists are not taught by fellow students, they often have to invest in extra classes after graduation, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Information is available online through YouTube videos and blog posts, but online learning lacks what can be the most important aspect of education: hands-on experience.

The age of specialization in hair care

According to Havas, today is the age of specialization in hair care. Many stylists have a niche, whether that be vivid colors, blonding or extensions. Since textured hair care is not taught in most cosmetology schools, it has become a specialty, leaving it harder to access and much more expensive. 

“When have you ever heard someone say, ‘I specialize in straight hair?’” Havas asked. “You have to be careful that you’re not choosing to alienate a whole group of people. It’s just what you choose to specialize in, not what you choose to neglect.”

One of Havas’ first assistants initially declined learning about curly hair, claiming that it was not what she wanted to do. Despite the objection, Havas said she pushed her assistant through the curly hair training segment.

“If you’re a bob specialist, if you’re a color specialist, if you’re a pivot specialist, you better be ready to do it on some curly hair,” Havas said.

Since opening her own salon, Havas has made sure to employ stylists that are comfortable with all textures — or at least stylists who are willing to learn. She suggested that salon owners should provide the education and training their stylists need so that all people, no matter their hair type, feel welcome and can be given the best service possible.

Havas said she is currently in search of a protective stylist (twists, braids, updos) to further expand the services her team offers to textured-haired customers.

Being proactive by teaching others

Dashelle White, stylist at 1213 Studio in Plaza Midwood, had a similar cosmetology school experience to Havas. She went to Stanley Cosmetology College, where she learned a lot about perms, a chemical treatment that puts texture into the hair, but nothing about how to maintain natural texture or care for and cut natural curls.

When White trained as an assistant, her mentor had tight, coily hair and was the only stylist at her salon that focused on texture. After her mentor retired, White inherited her clients her way, inspiring her to hone in on curl care.

“I really love the Mizani line, and Tippi Shorter, who was the artistic director for them, created a haircut for textured hair called the Aircut and so I took that class to get certified in that haircut, which kind of uses a balance of science and art to create the shape that you like,” White explained.

White suggested that cosmetology schools should teach aspiring stylists what to expect and how to approach working with textured hair, as she has found a lot of them to be more comfortable with bleach, relaxers and perms than they are with texture. 

“The curly-haired client’s hair just grows that way, a chemical changes everything,” White said. “I think if people were just more comfortable being around it, touching it, knowing what it does, it would help when you go to that next step after school.”

According to White, knowledge about products is one of the most important pieces to the textured-hair puzzle. 

“Whenever I have people that have challenges with their hair it’s either product, application of products, or the haircut,” she said

In May 2022, White held her first textured hair workshop, in which she taught parents and guardians of children with textured hair how to care for and style it. She explained proper shampooing, detangling, product knowledge and product usage. 

“It can feel overwhelming when there’s so much information out there but I, as a stylist, like it to be low-maintenance because that’s real life,” White said. “I really wanted to make them associate wash days and hair days as a fun, good thing, because that is gonna stick with your kid for the rest of their life.”

White grew up relaxing her hair, just as her mom and grandparents did. She began her natural hair journey five years ago, at the age of 28. 

“It was the first time I ever really saw my hair. And it was a learning process and a learning curve,” White said.

A close up of Dashelle White's afro
Dashelle White (Photo by Ashley Frisk)

White didn’t have the chance to embrace her natural curls when she was a kid, but she’s happy to see that her younger clients are able to make that decision, and wants to help them become more confident about their choice.

“Knowing what to do for your hair specifically can really help with your confidence and your self esteem. Every curl is different,” White said. “If you know as a child what to do for your curls and that it might not look like the next person’s curls, but that they still look good because you love them, I think that can help how you live your life and how you grow and deal with all the other things in your life that aren’t related to self image.”

Where to go from here

Many stylists Queen City Nerve spoke with agree that nothing will change until the government-mandated state board examination does. Until the state board requires students to learn about textured hair, cosmetology schools won’t teach it. 

There are signs that such a change could be on the horizon, as hair texture has become something of a political issue. The CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which bans discrimination against people for wearing their natural hair in professional and educational settings, was passed through the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2022 but failed to pass through the U.S. Senate in December. It’s expected to be reintroduced during the 2023 legislative session. 

Meanwhile, 20 states have passed their own CROWN legislation. While North Carolina was one of those states that passed a law, that doesn’t mean treating such hair will become a priority in cosmetology schools.

“If the very bare minimum of what they had to teach us would have to change that would be on a state level,” Havas said “What do you do, short of everyone going with a sign to Raleigh? Who do you call? Who do you get in contact with? Who is in charge?”

The state board test has changed since Havas was in school. The BCAE removed outdated styles like pin curls and finger waves, showing that changes to the test are not out of the question. 

According to Havas, some states are attempting to remove the state board completely, which she doesn’t see as a good or a bad thing; it may lead to the disappearance of cosmetology schools as a whole, but it may also lead to stylists learning more about textured hair care through apprenticeship experience.

Despite the slow changes to laws and curriculum, one thing is clear: systemic racism exists in the hair-care industry, even if through simple inaction. Until textured hair is treated as “normal” like straight hair is, young children will grow up wishing that they were different and wondering why the stylist declined them at the salon. Those children will still be stuck with the task of learning to love something that society does not.

As the CROWN Act battles its way through the Senate, hair stylists, salon owners and clients alike will continue to push for the inclusivity of textured hair care in styling education so the next generation can grow up educated on their curls and in awe of their own beauty.

As White put it, “Your hair is the crown that you never take off, so why not wear it proud?”

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