A few weeks ago, at the end of a Word of Mouth interview with English teacher and fitness instructor Courtney Marshall, we asked her: Did she have a question about the state that we could try to answer for our Only in NH series?
"Right now in New Hampshire I'm trying to find another hairdresser. I'm in a state of emergency. I do not want to have to cross state lines to get a haircut."
Why is it so hard for a woman of color to get a good haircut in New Hampshire?
Editor's note: The version of this story appeared on an episode of Word of Mouth, which you can listen to right here.
While there are a few options in Manchester, depending on the time of day, that could be a 45-minute drive from Courtney's home in Exeter. She is looking for a consistent, convenient option.
"Preferably it would be a whole salon, because I miss black beauty salons. The magazines, the conversation," she explained.
We made a plan to meet the following week in Exeter to visit a few salons together.
But Courtney is far from the only person with this problem.
Roslyn Chavda, or Roz, lives in Nottingham, New Hampshire with her husband and twin children. Their house is right on the edge of a pond where she sometimes kayaks while she reads the paper and drinks her morning coffee.
"This is after my mom was like your hair is not growing properly," Roz said, scrolling through an album of hair photos on her phone. She's 48 years old, and she stopped at a picture from middle school.
"And she totally cut it all off. I was, I think, 11. My children are like, wow Mom. That's a bad haircut. And I'm like, yes. Yes it is."
For a lot of people, finding the hair that’s right for them can be a journey. In Roz's case, that journey was a literal one.
"For the first four years that we lived here, I drove to New Jersey every three months to get my hair done. It’s about 5 hours if you leave at 5 a.m. so you don’t hit traffic. "
"I had lots of friends who were like, oh my god, you are so fancy. You drive all the way to New York to get your hair done."
"And I'm like, no... it's sort of out of necessity. Hairdressers up here just don't... I'm not going to say they can't do a black woman's hair, but I want someone who has daily experience, and I'm not one of their 60 clients, or the last time they did someone’s hair who is black was months ago."
Roz grew up believing that kinky, curly hair was somehow inferior to straight hair. It started when she was around 8 years old, when her mom straightened Roz's hair by chemically relaxing it.
"For her, this was the best way to take care of my very tight curl pattern hair. Although my mom was a trained cosmetologist, licensed and everything, she only knew how to do hair with a loose curl pattern, a straight or wavy type of hair."
"So, although my mom was a black woman, she had no idea what to do with naturally kinky hair. And once you relax your hair, you’re basically breaking the bonds and you have to take even better care of it."
"So you had a whole generation of little girls who had hair that was relaxed and then breaking off because their parents didn’t know how to take care of their hair."
Roz relaxed her hair through her twenties, thirties, and early forties. She kept it straight, about shoulder length. Four years ago, she decided to stop.
"I have a son and daughter who are both half black, and I wanted them to see that unrelaxed tight curl pattern hair is beautiful. And it's hard to tell them that when I keep relaxing my hair."
The last time Roz straightened her hair was on March 21, 2014. Her twin children were 7 years old.
"My daughter has hair past her hips and it is medium curl pattern hair. But she, for a little while, would have loved nothing better than to have straight hair and it’s just because that's what she sees."
"Not that there's anything wrong with relaxing your hair! I just wanted them to see that not relaxing your hair is beautiful also."
Roz's son and daughter watched her hair grow out from relaxed to natural.
"They actually cut all my relaxed hair off for me," she said. "They were totally participants. It was amazing. We filmed it all. We took pictures."
Her first natural hairstyle was a two-strand twist, which she describes as "just okay."
"It's definitely a journey. I had many moments when my children were like, I'm not sure that hairstyle looks good. And I was like, listen, I'm learning. Go away! Let me work it out."
But Roz loves that they got to see and be a part of the whole process.
"They would put hands in my hair and they'd be like wow, it’s so different from what we’re used to on your head."
When she first started growing it out, Roz still unconsciously thought of kinky hair as "bad hair."
"Eventually they were like, oh Mom, you know, it's really nice, like, why are you saying it like that? And I'm like, oh, huh. Was I saying it in a negative way? So my hair journey has also been an internal, emotional, and psychological journey about how I feel about kinky coily hair."
Roz's personal journey reflects shifts in societal attitudes around black women's hair. Lori Tharps is the co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She’s also an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and writer of the blog My American Melting Pot.
"What you do with your hair is often the first thing people fixate on," Tharps said. "It's often the first thing people use to judge you. It is more than just hair. I think people need to understand that this isn't just a beauty issue. It's an identity issue."
The book, which she cowrote with journalist Ayana Byrd, traces the history of black hair from 15th century West Africa to contemporary natural hair movement.
"In West African societies -- where most African-Americans trace their heritage to -- before European contact, the hair was really what told people who you were. A person could look at your hair and understand what family you belong to, what your status in society was. The more status you had the more elaborate your hairstyle was and that was for true for men or women.
"So, one of the first things that the slave traders would do when they would load Africans onto these boats, they would shave their hair. They would say it was done for hygiene purposes, but what it was effectively doing was erasing identity.
The message was: black people, and black hair, are inferior to white people and white hair. Long after the Emancipation Proclamation, these ideas persisted in the form of cultural expectations and codes of professionalism. Certain kinds of hair would not be allowed in certain spaces.
"You wouldn't want to wear braids or anything that would signify that you were not a professional, cosmopolitan, forward-thinking progressive woman," said Tharps.
"For black women, to make your hair look 'civilized' and/or straight and/or white-looking, you had to go through a lot of work. You had to straighten it with either heat and or chemicals."
This persisted for decades -- that is, until the civil rights movement of the late 50s and early 60s.
"One of the things that black people did that was really revolutionary, considering there was 400 years of slavery, was that they stopped trying to look like make their hair look like white people's hair."
"That was a real symbol of defiance and a symbol of saying: you must accept me for who I am. I am no longer going to assimilate to make you comfortable."
"Which is why even today people often think that if a black person is wearing their hair in a natural style, meaning a non-straightened style, they think it's a sign of protest or defiance. That isn't the case anymore. Now we are in a time period where we have the natural hair movement, where black women and men are realizing that their natural hair isn't ugly. It isn't inferior. Contrary to what they had been told for hundreds of years. It's beautiful. It is manageable."
Still, people have different and specific needs when it comes to hair care.
"The difference between white hair and black hair in terms of care is products and time, essentially," said Tharps.
"At its most basic, black hair and white hair would be the same in that you have to wash it, you have to condition it, and you have to style it."
"Keep in mind that black hair is such a misnomer because there are 45 million different shades of black people and 45 million different textures of black hair. But in general, a black person usually isn't just washing their hair and then walking out the door. They have to then do something to style it in some way, whether it's again blow drying it and then styling it, like braiding it or twisting it, putting more products on it in order to be able to comb it all the way through because it tends to be very curly."
"It could take upwards of 1 hour to 3 hours depending on the style."
"And it's not optional. People seem to assume that black women are being indulgent because they take so much time with their hair or that they spend money on these extra products but it's not a choice. If they want their hair to be healthy and they want that style to look good, and not cause attention, then they're going to have to spend that time."
In the absence of an adequate salon, in regions like New Hampshire that might be described as "black salon deserts", Youtube and the internet have become a way for women to connect with each other and self-educate, like Roz did.
When she relaxed her hair, Roz drove to a salon she trusted in New Jersey. But now, she does everything herself.
"I have a closet full of concoctions that I make," she said. "I order shea butter... grapeseed oil, hemp seed oil, aloe vera juice, mango butter, avocado seed butter... and I make my own stuff."
"Slowly but surely, I gained the knowledge, patience, self love, and acceptance necessary to nurture my hair. 'Now...I [love] myself. I’m glad I’m me. There’s no one else I’d rather be!' (I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont)"Credit Roslyn K. ChavdaEdit | Remove
"I’ve been to two hairdressers in New Hampshire and one in Massachusetts. She was an hour and a half away. But even the one in Massachusetts was not very respectful of kinky, curly hair."
"The funniest part to me is that -- we often talk about the racial issue. All three of these women were black. Two of them said they did not want to do natural hair, that they were not interested in doing natural hair, and one told me my hair was not, in her words, "good enough" to go natural."
After that, Roz stays home. If she were to give another salon a try, they'd have to prove they were ready.
"I think they would have to demonstrate mastery of their craft. And respect for curly, kinky hair."
Lori Tharps says that the proliferation of DIY hairstyling videos on Youtube have been revolutionary and freeing for a lot of people, and fueled the natural hair movement. But that doesn't mean that there's no place for an inclusive salon.
"If you have three kids like I do and a full-time job like I do -- I'm not looking for a tutorial on how to do my hair. I am looking for a stylist who can do my hair. So if you are in a situation where you absolutely cannot find someone to do your hair that really is a problem."
Could anything be holding salons back from offering complete services to black women?
Jeanne Chappell is the owner of the Keene Beauty School and serves on the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology, and Aesthetics, the governing body that grants licenses to salons and barbershops.
"There's 60 salons in Keene, New Hampshire. When there's a hair school in town, there's a lot of salons in town," says Chappell.
There are fourteen beauty schools in New Hampshire, more than any other state in New England. But despite that abundance, the schools lack training for natural and curly hair.
"True story. As I'm learning it, I'm teaching it," Chappell said.
When sudents of color pass through her beauty school, they actually teach her skills which she then incorporates into her curriculum. The standards for licensure require a knowledge of a range of techniques, but at present, the only one that really applies to natural, curly hair is chemical relaxing.
"Chemical relaxing is really, really dangerous process. It's a high pH chemical that can burn the hair very quickly, that can burn the scalp very badly very quickly," Chappell explained.
"I'm really glad that's part of the practical exam, but there's so many other things that need to be done with ethnic hair other than straightening it. Even styling and cutting ethnic hair is a different process than cutting straight blond or brown hair."
Each state has different requirements, but they rely on national guidelines to determine them.
Chappell explained that the test is constantly under review. They're determining community needs and making revisions to the test, but those revisions can take five or ten years to take effect.
Chappell does think that things are starting to change. In 2017, state regulations around hair braiding were eliminated, allowing hairdressers to braid hair without an expensive license.
But in the meantime, people of color are left without many options. Chappell gets a lot of calls from parents of biracial children, who have no idea how to do their kids' hair and are searching for resources.
As students of color come to study at colleges and universities in New Hampshire, they face a lack of options as well. Often, they'll travel home to get their hair done or create informal salons in dorms and living rooms.
And as these students graduate and weigh options for their future, some wonder: why stick around in a place where you can barely get a haircut?
But what about Courtney Marshall's problem? She needed a new hairstylist close to her home in Exeter, New Hampshire.
We decided to visit two salons together: first, an inexpensive chain salon; second, a trendy, independent boutique.
Supercuts in Stratham
Justine Paradis: What are your first impressions?
Courtney Marshall: It feels very sleek.
Justine Paradis: Got some photos on the wall. Wood floors.
Courtney Marshall: I looked at the magazines first. What is the reading material people would have here? There's no Essence here. An Essence magazine would go a long way.
Justine Paradis: It is all white people on the walls.
Courtney Marshall: [looking at posters] Yeah, there's this guy who's kind of... maybe? We don't know?
We sat down in a back office with the manager Courtney Brodie and Dremessa Dinardo, the assistant manager at the Supercuts in Dover.
Dinardo explained that Supercuts mostly offers haircuts. Their most common cut is a men's short fade. Their pricing is standard, so even if the cut takes longer than an hour, the price will cut off and stays the same despite the time it takes.
Justine Paradis: Do you do black hair here?
Dremessa Dinardo: Absolutely. We get lots of different kinds of people that come in every day. Everyone's welcome. We'll do anyone's hair
Courtney Marshall: What do you think a black woman might need from a salon? You say you have all people who come in, all different, and different ages. I'm sure you probably say, well, if there's an older person... they probably need an experience that's different, that’s kind of centered in thinking about them. And I wonder if that happens around issues of race?
Dremessa Dinardo: I think that even just having this conversation has already sparked a lot more awareness in my specific salon. In the Northeast we don't have a lot of black people that come into our salon on a daily basis. We do see them once in a while but it's just in our area, it's just not what we do a lot of haircuts for. I know I've definitely sparked a lot more awareness of... educating our stylists. Like, hey... sometimes people come in and their hair needs to be picked out before it has a clipper go through it. And sometimes it just needs to be a metal blade to go through a specific clipper length because the hair is so curly that you can't pick it out at all.
Courtney Marshall: I guess, another question is: have you ever been in the black salon, either of you?
Courtney Brodie: Yup. I have where I grew up. I grew up in Haverhill, so there's obviously more African-American people there, so I've been there before.
Courtney Marshall: So, one of the things that happens as a black salon... one, besides the music, two, are the pictures that are hanging up. The magazines that are out. So, one of the things that I noticed when we came in were the pictures on the wall. And I think Justine said, the woman on the end in that picture, maybe, could be, a little? We don't know? Racially ambiguous?
So, what would signal to someone that hey, not 'you're welcome' because everybody's welcome, but we kind of know something about this culture. And why should... because, I say, well, they get magazines. So why don't I see me? So I wonderered just to what extent do you get to choose, as either managers or the individual stylists?
Dremessa Dinardo: There's no general rules on who... I mean, it's technically up to the managers of what they put up in their salons. We do have little style booklets that correspond with the posters that we have hanging on the wall. So when people come in and they say, "hey, I want that", we can open up the book to it and say, "oh well look it's a number four and a blah blah blah."
So it helps us as stylists and it helps them to choose their haircuts so generally we choose the haircuts that are trending most for us and that we think our people are going to identify with the most.
I will say the company consistently has two to three African American models that come out in the slew of what we call "collateral" which is the box of posters that we're allowed to put on the wall. And they kind of choose based on what they're feeling for the salon, what the styles are around the area, what their clientele base is.
I know this last round of collateral we have at least two gentlemen, I can think of one who actually had a flat top, a really textured flat top which I wasn't happy about because I'm not happy about flat tops. They're a little tougher of a haircut. I have OCD so I can cut that haircut for hours and hours just to get that straight line.
Courtney Marshall: People still wear flat tops?
Dremessa Dinardo: It's coming back girl, it's coming back. Even the tilted side flattop, remember that?
Courtney Marshall: There was a rapper Kwame [correction: Bobby Brown] who had a Gumby, that's what they called it. But that's what I mean! So, when you see the pictures. Right? So, can I come in and say hey I want that?
Dremessa Dinardo: Oh hell yeah.
Courtney Marshall: But if it's not hanging up? Then what lets me know that I can also come in like anybody can come in and say, "hey, I want that."
Dremessa Dinardo: It's something that honestly I haven't even I never even thought about.
When I was over in Rochester, I was there when we got the full boxes up. And I remember opening everything up and seeing all the different kinds of people and getting so excited, like here's an Asian American, and here's these cute little kids over here. And all kinds of different people.
We put the flat top guy up right away because we hardly ever see super textured hair on our posters. Usually it's like short skin fades, because that's generally what we see when we see ethnic hair come in to Supercuts.
So, it's just kind of different on each salon. But it's something again I never even thought about. Like, oh, hey, let's make sure we get all the different ethnicities on the wall to make sure everyone feels represented. It wasn't even a thought in my mind.
So I'm appreciative. Thank you for coming here and and bringing this awareness to me. So I'm going to go back to my salon and make sure we have everyone represented in my salon so everyone feels comfortable.
Courtney Marshall: Well it's like Do the Right Thing when [Buggin' Out] was like, why there no brothas on the wall?
So much of it is the little things. When I talk to other black women, and this is, these are the things that we say. When you walk into say Sally's Beauty Supply, and you see row after row, and you have one teeny section... that sends a message.
Even though the proprietor says, oh, we're for everybody, it doesn't come across that way. Because it's not equal to everybody.
I also think it's good for white people to see people of color. they can learn what a flat top is. I think that's a good thing.
Courtney Brodie: Absolutely. I agree with you.
Courtney Marshall: So that later on, you know, they're not calling somebody's hair style unprofessional. Which is important! You lose your job. If somebody doesn't think that this is professional hair, you don't get hired. That has real consequences.
And that's why I say, the training about hair, to know the history of black hair and why it's such a contentious issue, and how hurtful that can be.
I know like you say, you don't want to hurt people, and you want people to feel happy and you want them to feel handsome and feel pretty. But unfortunately this is what happens. This is the experience here.
Courtney Brodie: Thank you for making me more aware of things I never noticed. Something like magazines and posters... I was very unaware that would happen when you walked in. So thank you.
Black Cat Studio in downtown Exeter
The salon exposed brick walls, vintage art, and antique barber chairs, one painted a powdery mint green.
Angela Sullivan is a hairstylist and the owner of the studio and Donny Smith is a classically trained master barber. He’s been at the salon for four months.
Justine Paradis: It's challenging to find many options of getting your hair done as a black person in New Hampshire.
Angela Sullivan: I did try and inquire about it months ago, to try to get someone to actually do ethnic hair because it is very different, and so we want to have the best for everyone.
And I actually have a client who said that she would love to come and get it done because she goes all the way to, I think, Lawrence to get hers done and she's like, I want to come here. I want to come to this salon. And I'm like, I would love to have you. But unfortunately we're not trained, and it's very different.
But I think that someone like your hair? Donny could definitely do.
[to Donny] Yeah? What do you think?
Donny Smith: If it's that length.
Angela Sullivan: I mean so it is a thing can happen. It's just trying to find the right people to get here even if it's like two days a week.
[Philips Exeter Academy] has someone come up once a month. I would love to get that person to come in here at least two days a week. I bet she could do wonderfully because we've had inquiries. We just aren't able to accommodate.
Donny Smith: I can cut male ethnic hair. I can fade anything. I'm a barber. I can do that no problem. I'm kind of like the only one around this area offering the type of services that I offer.
A lot of people that I've been getting even said that they were driving 30 to 40 minutes to get a quality male haircut because the other options for male haircutting here are, not saying they're bad, they're just it's different.
Courtney Marshall: So, I'm an English teacher over at [Philips Exeter Academy]. And so often at the school we talk about diversity and inclusion and how do we retain kids? What do our kids need?
So for me this story is, as much about my own hair, I can drive! But we have kids... do you get kids?
Donny Smith: I get a bunch of PA kids. I just started, so... a lot of them weren't... I had kids sitting in my chair who were like -- white kids too, both! -- saying, geez, I didn't even get my haircut around here because male haircuts were just not quality. And tehse kids can't travel to the destinations where they were.
So since I've cut a few of the staff's hair and a couple of the kids, more and more started coming. A couple Asian descent, a couple white, I think I did one black from the school. And they were all thrilled. I’d do their hair and a few more would come.
Courtney Marshall: So one thing I will say... the fact that your flyer says 'fades', right? It doesn't say, 'we specialize in haircuts'. So, 'fade', in my mind, is a particular type of haircut and I associate in my case with black guys.
So, the fact that you use that language... I peeped all your brushes and all your different combs. That signals to me that, okay, this person would know how to work with my hair. He actually has an appreciation for the different types of hair that people bring. And by extension the different people that come in.
Because I think to love black hair you have to love black people.
Angela Sullivan: And honestly, I think you wouldn't get that signal downstairs. It's not because I don't want people on here. I do. It's just finding the right person to come in to do it.
Justine Paradis: You mean downstairs because that's where you do the hairdressing.
Angela Sullivan: Yeah. Because he does ,you know what I mean, but I unfortunately don't. And it's not because I don't want to. It's because I don't know how to get there.
As we left, Angela told me she was planning to call the state boards to ask questions about the state’s curriculum. But at the beginning of our conversation, Donny looked at Courtney’s hair, which is pretty short. At that length, he said, I could do it.
When we left the barber shop, Courtney said she might just give him a shot.