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Natural Hair Care at Harvard Is Complicated. It Should Not Be.

By Emily N. Dial
By Lyat M. Melese, Crimson Opinion Writer
This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

Harvard students have busy schedules. Google calendars are booked with classes and office hours to attend, countless assignments to complete, and extracurriculars and social activities to top it all off.

But there is another, often overlooked, item on my to-do list: my hair.

Yes — hair. Taking care of my curly hair takes up more time than one would think — and it does not help that I used to struggle to make a basic braid hold.

From washing to detangling to styling, taking care of my natural hair is a big part of my schedule. Moreover, for those of us who either don’t know how, or choose not to do our own hair, finding services that are affordable and easily accessible from Harvard’s campus is another obstacle.

For many Black students adjusting to life at Harvard, hair care is a challenge. Often far from home, we are isolated from the stores, family, friends, and hair stylists who made up our hair community. We are forced to learn to do our hair — a time laborious project — or find natural hair services — a money laborious one.

Hair salons and services for natural Black hair in Cambridge are hard to find and expensive. The few in close distance are, much like everything in Harvard Square, quite expensive. For the most basic styles, prices seem to start near $80, but more generally run from $200 to $300. The price increases from the baseline if you want more intricate styles, like bohemian braids. In 2020, the first Black hair shop opened in Arlington, a neighborhood near Cambridge, attempting to fill this niche for surrounding neighborhoods; but the shop has since closed.

From gaining access to hair products for curly hair, finding affordable hair services, and fitting maintenance into busy schedules, caring for natural curly and coily hair is, simply put, complicated on campus.

The problem is exacerbated considering the importance of natural hair as an expression of identity, culture, and even politics.

Massachusetts itself only recently passed the CROWN act, a law prohibiting discrimination based on natural and protective styles.

In an article for Fifteen Minutes, Katherine A. Okumu ’21 described the importance of outward appearance, writing “At Harvard, where students compete to be both hired and admired, this pressure is magnified. If you can physically imply wealth or institutional knowledge about which trends are popular, you might have an easier time navigating spaces comfortably at Harvard.”

Considering how hair plays a role in public perception, hair care affordability becomes a question of who can afford to navigate Harvard’s spaces with ease.

Given students’ limited control over Cambridge businesses, Harvard should recognize this need within our community, and step in to provide necessary resources for hair care. This is not unrealistic — on-campus projects already happen at a smaller scale.

In Adams House, the Hair Art Project is a student-led initiative that “seeks to create spaces to celebrate natural hair and alleviate stressors that hair maintenance may bring to Black students through workshops and hair care services.” While the project aims to build community by gathering students in person and providing a space to discuss hair woes and triumphs, it also aims to find a more tangible solution.

The project hosts peer-led workshops for students to learn how to do braids, cornrows, and twists, and they also host Black hair stylists to provide free hair services for Adams House residents — including natural and protective styles.

While Adams House has taken the lead, other houses, including freshman dorms, should offer the same services and community for their students.

Hair care affordability should not be a concern for any student — nor should students be stressed over the time it takes to care for their hair. Black students should have access to free or affordable hair services and a community where they can learn the basics of hair styling. Hair care should not be a luxury reserved for Adams House residents; it is a basic request that should be granted to all Black students in the Harvard community.

Lyat M. Melese, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Hollis Hall.

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