By Deborah Johnson
When I was four my mother traumatised me in a way in which I thought I could never forgive her.
Tired of my consistent resistance and whinging whenever she attempted to thread my hair she had, unbeknownst to me, decided to cut it all off.
The morning of a school trip may I add.
Naively I sat in the bath with my eyes closed as instructed and offered no question as to what the sensation of feathers falling over me was.
When I was allowed to open my eyes, I hopped out of the bath innocently and headed over to the sink to brush my teeth as usual. Looking up into the mirror the reflection staring back at me wasn’t my own.
Yes the eyes, nose, and mouth so obviously inherited from my mum were the same, people had always commented on how similar we looked but where she still had her thick and full head of hair, I stood aghast at the uneven tuffs she had left me with.
And bawled my eyes out.
She pleaded with me at 13 when I decided to relax mine. Her pleading fell on death ears and unlike 7 years prior I had full control over the destiny of my hair and was convinced that straighter and smoother was the gateway to becoming to feeling at ease in my own beauty.
The dyeing of my hair various shades of purple/red/blue were met with tears as she bemoaned that I was forever ruining its texture, and I I would return with words to the effect of: “you ruined it the day you decided it send me to school looking like a bush baby”.
These are two things that we have never agreed on but also things that we both felt strongly about and formed integral parts of how we individually viewed ourselves.
My mum’s comments on how inelegant and crazy I looked went ignored and I found such frustration in how much she cared about other people’s opinions.
Eventually we stopped attending family gatherings. About two years ago I discovered a rift had been planted between her and an aunt owing to her (my mum’s) defence of me.
It isn’t without irony that we should find ourselves here now. Working together over the thing that has long been a contentious issue between us.
Don’t get me wrong; I have the most amazing relationship with her. Over the years we’ve come to accept and in fact nurture our differences, something that comes with age and in the realisation that we’re not that dissimilar.
It was in my first year at university when during a conversation that she told me she was opening a hair salon called SIMPLYGorgeous.
Ashamedly, my first response was “You are not serious?”. She had never previously mentioned any desire to start her own business- let alone a hair salon.
In retrospect I can understand why.
Whilst working her day job she would attend evening courses, and after being made redundant she established enough confidence to began working at a number of hair salons in order to get a rounded experience before reaching her end game – to open one of her very own.
In parallel I was out living the carefree life afforded to me by the sacrifices of a Nigerian immigrant mother. She was and always has grafted to create better opportunities for my brothers and me, and saw now as her time.
I dropped out of university in my second year, a decision my mum was mortified about, blaming herself for what she saw as ‘my indifference’ over my future.
Again our relationship became strained. University was never going to be for me and in all honesty the reason I went was because I knew how proud it would make her (it’s a badge of honour for any Nigerian mother to say her child has a degree) .
Although I was aware of the great privilege, I felt hindered by being at university.
Moving back home I threw myself into PR internships and eventually got a full time position, deciding that this was the career path I wanted to go down.
Over the years my mum would suggest I get involved in the “great family business” but I had no desire or skill to do hair, and that was the only avenue I saw when looking on it. She would accept this, content with the fact that I was working and showing some of the determination and ambition she thought absent in my decision to leave uni.
The 6 days a week- and on some occasions Sundays- to accommodate a client’s schedule. I’ve watched her do this for about 10 years now. Her determination, graft, frustration and tears – all without quitting – it’s not within her to quit but it is within her to slow down, something that I’ve watched as she’s gotten older.
Whilst she was working to build her own dream I was slowly questioning what I was working to build. Working within the beauty industry provided great insight into how overlooked people of colour are from a consumer and business level and I began to understand the importance of creating opportunities within your own communities as a vital means of elevation.
I understood that I wanted to do just that but did not fully understand how. It was during this process that I came to realise that working with my mum on the family business is the path I’d overlooked for so long.
Reflecting on salon experiences of my youth and through conversations with my friends I’ve realised that the ‘Afro hair salon experience’ has not really evolved over the years, something that my mum agreed on.
I’ve heard and witnessed people’s frustrations with timing at Afro hair salons, girlfriends tell me that they find visits to their salons as a daunting chore because of rowdy atmospheres or being treated as an inconvenience – things I recalled as a child.
But I’d never fully understood why this was the case. During research I was told, ”It won’t ever change, black people understanding that they have to wait”. This was a statement that shocked and spurred me to try and make SIMPLYGorgeous different.
Who says we don’t deserve better just because it has become the status quo?
We’re currently in the process of re-branding and re-configuring the salon, the long term goal for SIMPLYGorgeous is to create a ‘destination Afro Hair Salon’, at an affordable price point, that provides a top level service to all customers seeking the best in afro hair styles, care and products but also with an emphasis on supporting and elevating black community and business as a whole.
A salon in more ways than one, SIMPLYGorgeous will act as a space for like-minded women to gather for a cross section of SIMPLYG events covering beauty, art, culture and much more with the idea of encouraging knowledge and conversation and further connection amongst women of colour,, within our own community.
Our first SIMPLYG event will be this summer. We’re working with Gina Knight of Natural Belle , who I have longed admired and met through my work in PR to hold workshops on how to create your own custom made wigs as part of her new service offering The Wig Witch.
Women like Gina and Oyin of The Good Hair Club are great examples of women of colour creating great services for individuals like me, and I believe that in order for ‘black business’ to compete, that we as a community have to support that. Initiatives such as the recently launched #UKBlackOwnedBusinesses are a great insight to how many opportunities there are to do so.
This is just the beginning for my mother and I, she says that the salon was started in 2006 and now we are watching it grow. It’s going to be a hard and long journey, but one that she’s made for so long.
and visit The Wig Witch Custom made wig service
Visit The Good Hair Club
Visit UK Black Owned Business