This is the second installment in our monthly series, Skin Deep, which explores women’s stories of self-perception, visual identity and the cultural forces that influence their choices.
Sitting in a salon chair — draped in black capes with fluorescent lights beaming down — hits differently these days. Pandemic experiments lie exposed as stylists peer down into scalps, examining how their clients have tended to their own hair in lockdown.
But for many others, the pandemic brought on depression, anxiety and exacerbated deep-rooted insecurities and trauma, said Donna Oriowo, a licensed independent clinical social worker and founder of Cocoa Butter & Hair Grease, a skin- and hair-care resource for women of color. “Basic hygiene can suffer when you are in the thick of it.”
Particularly for women with textured hair, their coils and curls can easily begin to mat up and shrivel within themselves after just a few days of neglecting grooming techniques, making it difficult to manage and detangle. In the most extreme of circumstances, some have gone months or years without washing or combing their hair.
She first opened Love 518 Salon in November 2019, just months before the pandemic forced personal-care services and many other industries to shut down. For a new business owner like Felix, the economic downturn could have meant the abrupt end of her venture, as it did for many others. But her hiatus, which only lasted two months before Florida reopened barber shops and salons, was much-needed, she said. It gave her clarity about setting boundaries, taking rest and reevaluating her business.
Felix, who went to cosmetology school and is trained on different hair types, specializes in natural-hair care services and Japanese hair-straightening, a technique that drew significant growth for her on social media.
Her consistent presence online is how one woman, who hadn’t touched her hair in over a year, ended up finding Felix in December 2020. With her client’s permission, Felix filmed the three-day process of detangling her hair and then posted the video on YouTube. It exploded, garnering more than 8 million views to date.
That’s when the floodgates opened, Felix said: “I started getting emails, phone calls, texts from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago … California. They’re all coming in because they cannot find anyone that does this, and if they do find someone they’re kind of shady, and they don’t do hair afterwards and they’re like triple my price.”
Felix estimates half of the more than 40 clients who have seen her for extreme detangling services are Black women, and she believes many are struggling with depression. They include stressed and overworked moms, women undergoing chemotherapy, recent divorcées, new and expecting parents, homeless people, and recovering addicts.
During the lengthy services, Felix has learned personal details about their stories and the events that led them to her chair. “I have people that sit there and cry their whole service,” she said. “I’m not only just detangling their hair, I’m detangling their lives as well.”
When someone experiences a depressive episode, daily grooming routines can become compromised, said Afiya Mbilishaka, a psychologist and chief executive and founder of PsychoHairapy, which uses hair care as an entry point into mental health services.
“The process of detangling, cleansing, and moisturizing [their hair] is perceived as an overwhelming task that will usurp too much energy,” Mbilishaka said. “It can be challenging to even look at yourself when you feel tired and in a state of despair.”
“Their hair is the last thing they’re worrying about,” Felix added. “They’re almost in survival mode at this point. Like ‘either I survive or I focus on my hair.’ So they’re choosing to survive.”
Felix said she can relate to her clients who are battling with their mental health. “I’m just a person that understands what it is to be depressed,” she said. “I understand how you’re here, because it’s easy to get there.”
Some of her clients hide their struggles well, Felix said, noting that they’ll wear wigs and scarves to cover up their matted hair in public — or they’ll stop leaving the house entirely. For a majority of them, she added, “their families don’t even know that they’re going through that.”
The impulse to conceal their hair points to ongoing and specific societal pressures around beauty standards that Black women face. Stereotypes and discrimination toward natural afro-textured hair is why the Crown Act was established, said Oriowo, referring to a California law that expands protections for employees against hair-based discrimination in the workplace. Since the bill was introduced in 2019, New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Virginia have followed suit.
Some of that stereotyping is put on display online: Although Felix routinely reminds viewers to be kind and respectful in her videos, her comment sections are often rife with abuse, she said, with followers judging and making assumptions about her clients’ lives.
The most common question Felix receives on social media: Why don’t her clients just cut their hair off and start all over?
“For them, cutting their hair off feels like defeat,” Felix said, it feels like “they lost to the depression, they lost to whatever they were going through.”
While she can’t control what happens online or when they walk out of her doors, Felix has worked hard to create a safe, judge-free, shame-proof salon experience to put her clients at ease during their service, she said.
She offers them robes, lights candles, plays meditative music and quietly speaks motivational words over each of them. “When you walk in, you’re entering like a fairy-tale garden,” she said. “You’re decompressing the outside world and you’re entering a whole other environment.”
Felix can spend anywhere from four hours to four days working on one client’s matted hair, she said, which includes a consultation, a detox wash to help remove buildup and a gentle detangling process that starts with breaking up the biggest clumps of matted hair. Her assistant then steps in to help tackle the easier sections.
Felix isn’t sure how she picked up this technique. “I don't know how I know how to do this service … it’s truly a gift from God,” she said. “My mind and my hands know where to start.”
All the same, she plans to take her talents on the road soon, hosting speaking events and training others to do what she does.
“I never knew people needed this service,” she said. “They don't teach us this in hair school.”
But based on the wide-reaching demand she’s seen, and the fact that she’s booked until November for detangling services, Felix recognizes that she can’t do it alone.
“I’m happy I get to help them because it also helps to remind me, ‘Hadassa take care of yourself,’ ” Felix said. “I’ve learned from everything that they’re going through.”
After each detangling service, Felix said she schedules days off, books a massage, meditates and spends time with family. “I need to make sure myself is on point so I can help others.”
Felix said she often hears back from her clients months after their service. “They call me and send me pictures or text me,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll send me thank-you cards, another one made me a cake.”
Many of them are reaching out to simply say, “Thank you for saving my life,” Felix said.