Hide Your Roots: How High-End Salons Are Whitewashing Their Hairstylists

For women of color and trans women, working a dream job at a high-end salon often comes with a price: their hair, their names, and their identities.

by Scout MacEachron
Sep 16 2015, 3:05pm

Photos by Marija Anicic via Stocksy

When Crystal was hired as an assistant at an illustrious Upper East Side salon in New York City, it was, at the time, her dream job. But on her first day, the manager pulled her aside—he suggested she start going by a different name. Then, he asked her to change her hairstyle to something more "appropriate" for the salon. Crystal is black, and she wears her hair naturally, in an Afro. Her manager wanted her to straighten it and go by Alice.

Crystal quit a day later, and since then she has been bouncing around from blow-dry salon to blow-dry salon, where the pay and prestige aren't as good but no one asks her to be someone else. Nevertheless, it's common for hair salons, especially upscale places, to encourage employees to dress a certain way, change their names, or modify their hairstyles when they begin working there. Sometimes it's an attempt to uphold the salon's brand or avoid the confusion of having two stylists with the same name; other times, it appears to cross the line into discrimination.

Ashley Reid is an aspiring hairstylist based in Brooklyn; she is also black. She recalls going to a blow-dry demo, which is when a potential employee goes into a salon to perform a test blowout on a model for staff to evaluate, at a popular blow-dry bar. The model and salon staff overseeing Reid raved about the blow out. They took photographs and promised to call her back later that week. After following up numerous times with no answer, Reid was finally told that they'd changed there mind and didn't want to continue interviewing her for the position.

"I was very shocked and very angry because my blowout had been so good. At that point I started to put two and two together," said Reid. That day she had worn her hair in two poufy buns. "My natural look, I just had my natural hair in two buns—I guess that's not the image they wanted. In my head I thought, 'OK, I know I didn't get hired because I had my natural hair out.' I fully believe [I didn't get hired] because of my hair."

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While it's possible that Ashley wasn't hired for another reason, it's common practice among salons to police how their employees look, dress, and otherwise present themselves; after all, when you work in an industry that's based on appearances, yours is bound to play a role. And although some high-end salon policies seem racist—asking Crystal to go by Alice, for example—others are born of practicalities.

Jennifer* is also a black hairstylist in New York City. Although she says she's never experienced racism at work, she has experienced something disturbing. When she began her current job as an assistant at a salon on 5th Avenue, there was already a Jennifer working there. This is a common problem; when it happens salons require one of the two, usually the newer or less experienced staff member, to go by a different name. For Jennifer that request—she was told to go by Lynn—was more upsetting than she expected.

Who are you to tell me to change my hair?

"At first I didn't mind," Jennifer said, "but once everyone started calling me the new name, I realized how much I hated it. People outside of work would call me by my real name, and I felt like I wasn't connected to it anymore. It wasn't clicking right away that they were talking to me. I was walking around the salon miserable. Now, if I change jobs I'm going to ask if they have any Jennifer's there—I'm not changing my name again."

"Everybody changes their name in this industry," said a former stylist at the same high-end salon that allegedly asked Crystal to change her name and hair. "There's not necessarily a racial component to it, unless your name is hard to pronounce or extremely ethnic. Sometimes people want to change their name[s]. They're like, 'You know what? That doesn't fit my personality; I want to be known as something else.'"

Of course, one person's "hard to pronounce or extremely ethnic" name is another person's culture and identity. "I had a friend working at [an upscale salon], and she had these long Senegalese twists," Jennifer said. "They're essentially braids, but they're twist[ed], and they're long. [Her salon was] very, very strict about appearances. They didn't really tell her, 'You can't wear those because that's not legal,'" said Jennifer, "but they kept bringing attention to her hair and making her feel uncomfortable, to the point where she just went home the next day and cut them out and got rid of them."

Crystal, Reid, Jennifer, and their friends said they often stay quiet and oblige when "encouraged" to change their appearance. In part, they fear losing their job in a cutthroat industry: There are more hairdressers and cosmetologists in New York state than anywhere else in the country. Employees also don't want to come across as difficult, especially because they may be battling prejudices against them already.

"I think it goes back to a lot of stereotypes," said Reid. "People assume that if you're black, you have a certain personality—you may be difficult to work with, you may not be able to work in groups, you may not be trainable or coachable. That's totally bull. I feel like we have to fight with that a lot. It's hard because you want to find a salon that you feel comfortable in, and you expect people to have more of an open mind. It's discouraging and very frustrating."

And women of color aren't the only ones with employers who try to edit their images. Tiffany Nguyen, a transgender stylist and cosmetologist living in Las Vegas, took a long time to come to terms with her identity. The industry still hasn't.

They didn't really tell her, 'You can't wear those because that's not legal,' but they kept bringing attention to her hair and making her feel uncomfortable.

"I went to school to become a mechanic and joined the army. I did everything I could to hide who I am," said Nguyen. "One day my wife at the time randomly asked me if I still think about transitioning, and that was the beginning of that."

Nguyen began her transition in July 2014. Overall, her experience as a hairstylist has been positive, but there have been hard times. In the upscale salon where she currently works, clients will occasionally refuse to let her cut their hair because she is transgender. Other times, salon owners have refused to accept that she is a woman.

"I've been asked to change what I wear to male attire; I've been told that I'm the reason clients don't come in," said Nguyen. "I've been told not to grow my hair out, not to wear nail polish. Everything that a woman gets to do I can't do." One manager once told her that "men wear certain clothing and women wear certain things."

Being asked to change how you look or dress for work isn't unique to hair salons. Private employers retain the right to ask employees to appear a certain way when at work. They can ask staff to cover tattoos or dress in all black, as long as that standard of dress is applied to all employees and it isn't violating religious beliefs (as in the recent, high-profile case where the Supreme Court ruled Abercrombie & Fitch was in the wrong for refusing to hire Samantha Elauf because she wears a hijab or head scarf).

Historically, labor law has upheld the preservation of a brand's or business's image. In the 2004 case Cloutier v. Costco, the First Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled it was reasonable for Costco to fire an employee who refused to remove her eyebrow piercing. The rationale was that, if Costco made an exception for this woman, it would put "undue hardship" on the company and conflict with its public image. In 2013, a New Jersey court ruled that the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City could require employees to maintain a certain weight and size. The policy was determined non-discriminatory because it applied to both men and women, and because staff were made aware of it when hired. The only exception is pregnant women, who are given six months to lose baby weight after giving birth. After that, they are fired.

I've been told that I'm the reason clients don't come in.

"It's a two-way street," said Christina Karkhanis, who goes by "CK" and works at a well-known salon in San Francisco. CK is Asian. "There are certain boundaries, and there is always a back-and-forth discussion. I think it's more about upholding the brand. For example, you don't want to have crazy, acrylic nails when you're working with Upper East Side clients. It's an image thing. It's really just an image thing."

Nevertheless, when "an image thing" is rooted in systemic racism, it looks more like a dead end than a two-way street. It still isn't legal is for an employer to insist on appearance changes that violate a person's religious right or medical safety, or are discriminatory based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability. (Men have sued, and lost, cases against employers who required them to shave off their beards, except when those beards were part of a religious tradition.) The question is: Is what happens to Crystal, Reid, Jennifer, and Tiffany at the high-end salons where they work—where appearances are tied to the employer's brand, which may be tied to a discriminatory customer base—illegal?

Title VII says maybe. The somewhat vague and highly situational law deems it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race unless the request is job-related or necessary for business. A salon owner could argue that Tiffany wearing men's clothing was necessary or that Jennifer's friend removing her braids was somehow related to her work at the salon. To date, no hair salon employee has filed a case against an employer for asking them to change their appearance.

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For now, aspiring stylists like Crystal and Jennifer are simply forced to make choices as to whether or not they are willing to change their look or identity in order to work in top salons.

"I want to make a good impression. I want a certain type of clientele to be attracted to me, so I am going to change my image a little bit," Jennifer said. While she has never felt she has experienced racism at her job, she does wear her hair long and straight, and she works at a salon she describes as "more hip"; stylists can have tattoos or piercings as well. Nevertheless, she plans on removing her extensions, changing the color of her hair, and getting "a fresh trim." "When you look a certain way it draws people to you. The money is better. People will take care of you depending on how you come across in the industry."

Others, like Reid, aren't so willing.

"This is who I am," she said. "That is my hair. That is how my hair is. There's nothing wrong with that. If you don't trust me to work in your salon just because of my hair, then...I don't care how much money you're paying me. Who are you to tell me to change my hair?"

*Name has been changed.