"They never knew what to do with my hair"

With natural hair
With natural hair
Jana Heyns

Maya Rudolph is on the cover of The New York Times (NYT) Magazine. It's an artwork of the actress and she's been painted by an artist called Vanessa Prager. Interestingly her older sister Alex Prager is the photographer.

The Forever and Bridesmaids star's hair was done by Bobby Eliot - who on searching for his bio and scrolling through his Instagram page for a couple of minutes, appears mainly to have worked with white models and celebrities. 

There are two posts of Maya and another of the NYT cover.

Before the shoot crew read they piece I wonder if Vanessa as she painted Maya's strands and Bobby as he styled her autumn coloured tresses, knew what she'd been through before as she sat in chairs like the one I'm assuming she sat in for this occasion. 

Highlighted in a Nylon article from the NYT piece is how Maya was hair-shamed while working on SNL. Maya talks about how she struggled as a child with the lack of products for her hair type but it's what she said about her experiences working at Saturday Night Live that stirred similar memories of my own.

READ MORE: 16-year-old Zulaikha Patel is still fighting for women’s rights

She says that her hair was too thick to fit under wigs so she started straightening it every Friday night. And that "the blow-dry area was on the same hallway as a lot of her male castmates' rooms."

"And every [expletive] Friday night, we'd hear some [expletive] white guy walking down the hall going, 'Is something burning in here? What's burning?".

Of course the sketches she would have to do for SNL would require her to wear wigs for the different characters she played. But it was the reaction to what became a necessary requirement for her to be able to work that was problematic.

Before SNL, she says that, "Every time I'd work, they'd be like, 'I really don't - like, can I touch? - I really don't know what to do with your hair.' And worse responses.

I've been there. As a beauty editor, editor and magazine journalist. Having to sit in the same kind of hot seat Maya had to.

Often I would be grateful when my hair was braided so it would stop any potentially awkward or infuriating conversation short. Or maybe the extent of the chat would only goes as far as a question of whether I would like to wear it up or down.

Sometimes it would involve a cosmetic brand launching a new hair product they wanted to test on the beauty editors or it would be a visit to the hairdressers to get our hair washed and styled.

And it's worse than any damage that the most incapable hairstylist could do to our hair.

Most products would be aimed at white women and even if there were products that black women could use, there was no one with any expertise or interest in testing them out in your hair.

In those days only a handful of haircare brands like Dark and Lovely would even hold big media events (let alone had products available in the country) where there might be opportunities to get our hair done. I can't remember any. I may have missed them for whatever reason.

Admittedly, when I could sense any discomfort on the part of the hired hair stylist who usually wasn't black or had experience with our hair, I would bow out of the exercise and let them know any thinly veiled offers were unnecessary because I'd already styled my hair at home. And that's what I would begin to do as a habit anyway.

Makeup was another minefield but more easily navigable. 

READ MORE: Rihanna's makeup range will offer over 40 shades - celebrating every kind of beauty

It was only ever slightly easier when my hair was recently relaxed and cut into a bob because they might be able to blowdry it and restyle it. Most hairstylists on the job didn't ever know what to do with natural hair.

I've even had my hair photoshopped once to disguise the stylist's shortcomings.

Why not request hairstylists that can accommodate working with any hair texture? Until you develop a certain kind of celebrity, you can't send hair and makeup riders. And certainly not when you've been invited to an event, TV set or shoot. Maya hopefully should be able to by now.

Why is it important? Because it says that you don't matter enough for the shoot or event's organisers to make sure that you will also be able to enjoy the day or look your best for a photo spread or screen appearance. It dehumanises. It devalues. 

And it's worse than any damage that the most incapable hairstylist could do to your hair.

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