October 3, 2022

women hair

I have a mixture of 3c and 4a textured hair. After doing the big chop nearly two years ago, it’s been a trial-and-error journey of figuring out what works best for my curls. Going from relaxed, straight hair to low-definition curls required me to change my entire hair routine—I had to focus on hydration, shine and softness. In the beginning of my natural hair journey, I would scour the beauty aisles of Target, CVS, Walgreens and the like to find deep conditioners, leave-in sprays, curl creams and sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner. As a new natural, I appreciated going to these stores and knowing exactly where to go to get key products: the “ethnic” section.

Coined as “ethnic”, or “natural” in some stores, this section is home to Black-owned products and haircare lines that offer products specifically for textured hair. In this section, you’ll find brands like SheaMoisture, Cantu, Carol’s Daughter, Palmers, Aunt Jackie’s, and Africa’s Best. Although the ethnic section is squished in the back of the aisle, dimly-lit and only populated by people who look like me, I appreciated the visibility. The easy navigation was beneficial as a new natural. But as I progressed in my natural hair journey, my appreciation quickly turned into confusion and frustration.

As I learned more about caring from my curls from natural hair blogs, Black magazines, YouTube curl enthusiasts, and family and friends, my product awareness increased. I was introduced to Garnier’s curly line, Minazi, Alaffia, Innersense, Hairstory, As I Am, Uncle Funky’s, and was eager to try them out. But when I went to the store—any drugstore or general store for that matter—the ethnic section didn’t sell it.

Confused on how this could be after reading thousands of reviews on the popularity of these brands, I asked a sales associate if they carried the product. To my surprise, I was directed to the next aisle, in the regular beauty section, and found the brands scattered throughout. In plain sight, my sought-out natural-approved products were mixed in with Pantene, Aussie and other widely-known mass hair brands. I felt like an outsider and a traitor shopping in this section that was typically marketed to a white audience.

As a Black woman, it was troubling to shop in the main beauty aisle after being conditioned into a small corner. After feeling othered for so long, I was under the assumption that because of my ethnicity, there were only certain brands that could handle my hair type. It made me feel like, because I am Black, I can’t shop the main aisles.

Sectioning off Black hair care products into a couple shelves—with never enough products or variety—perpetuates a racial stereotype that Black hair doesn’t fit in.

natural hair

Sectioning off Black hair care products into a couple shelves—with never enough products or variety—perpetuates a racial stereotype that Black hair doesn’t fit in. It reinforces the dictatorship in beauty that European features are desirable and expected. The ethnic hair section is a lingering symbol of segregation, strengthening the old doctrine of “separate but equal.” The truth is, separating Black-hair products from white-hair products is segregation.

For myself and other Black women I know, it triggers the hair trauma we have from being discriminated against in school, work and personal settings. It tells us that we are not normal and subliminally guides us to think natural hair is inferior and less desirable. By putting ethnic products to the side, the retailer is singling out an entire community. Their reasoning? Planograms.

Planograms, used by most retailers, are maps that explain how to section and organize a store. This strategy stresses the placement of all Items, stating that products placed near eye-level will sell better than products at other heights. It also encourages managers to place popular, well-known items at the front of the aisle to entice a consumer to shop the aisle. Of course, not all items can be at eye-level or the front so there is a hierarchy that takes place to maximize sales.

The small margin of product for textured hair that makes it into this mold is then squeezed into the back of the aisle with a “natural” or “ethnic” placard placed above. Black men and women spend nine times more on hair products than the average customer, so although this strategy may have been the standard previously, it is no longer valid.

It’s time for retailers and marketers to end the segregation in the beauty aisle. Instead of separating products by ethnicity, it should be separated by hair type. There should be sections for straight, wavy, curl and then for frizz, volume, shape, definition and hydration. Retailers that segregated Black-hair products are not catering to our community—they are rejecting us. My hope is that with the racial awakening occurring in our country, the beauty aisle will receive a much needed face lift. It’s time to unlearn these ancient standards and systems that demote Black hair and instead, promote variety and equality.