Toronto's Black Hair Salons Helped Me To Embrace My Heritage & My Hair

I finally feel heard and accepted for who I am.

Toronto's Black Hair Salons Helped Me To Embrace My Heritage & My Hair
Hillary LeBlanc

This Essay article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

Being born biracial poses some different challenges in terms of finding strength in your identity. I was raised in a single-parent household by my white mom in small-town New Brunswick, living in an apartment on top of a convenience store.

I remember my very first real insecurity dating back to the second grade revolved around my hair. In the early 2000s, New Brunswick wasn't quite as diverse as it is now. I was one of five Black students in a school of one thousand kids, and those kids were not used to seeing Afros at that stage in their lives.

I remember this one blonde, blue-eyed girl asking why I had such tight curls. When supply teachers mistook me for a boy, the other girls explained it had to be my short hair. I was often extremely uncomfortable with my own existence, and I felt that my mom didn't really understand what I was going through because she was white. Initially, a family friend cut my afro into the same round shape when it became too "unruly" for my mom to Afro-pick out. Google wasn't as widely used as it is now, and my mom didn't have the tools to learn how to deal with my curls. She also didn't have any Black friends or want to reach out to my father's side of the family for advice.

Toronto's Black Hair Salons Helped Me To Embrace My Heritage & My HairHillary LeBlanc

I recall getting cornrows in the 5th grade as the first time I was actually excited about standing out. Surely my "uniqueness" would make me the coolest kid in school when I showed up for the first day with braids. I waited all summer for that day, and although they didn't look as sharp by the time school started, I still got compliments. When I took my braids out, I hated my afro even more, but at the time, there were next to no Black-owned salons in New Brunswick.

My "straightening" years

In the 7th grade, my mom and I started going to a new salon run by a white owner. He was a flamboyant, fun man who encouraged me to try relaxing my hair. I had seen hair relaxing disasters within the very small circle of Black people I knew, one of whom was a cousin who fried a lot of her hair. I was skeptical but I tried it. After four hours, I had short, straight hair, which made me feel like I was on top of the world. Now I would fit in better with my peers, and teachers definitely wouldn't confuse me for a boy. By this point, I had equated my straightened hair to femininity and thought the "boyishness" of my Afro was contributing to my lack of playground romance. I just wanted attention and thought my hair was standing in my way. For the next decade, I chemically straightened my hair a few times a year, resulting in a ton of damage and stunted hair growth.

Embracing my heritage

When I moved to Toronto in 2017, I decided I would give my hair a break. I had started to develop hair loss from personal stress and I could feel the damage from the years of chemical straightening. I promised to begin loving my curls, especially when I could see all the diversity of women in the streets of Toronto embracing so many styles — more styles than I could have even dreamt of. I finally decided to let my hair go back to its natural curls, investing in products and slowly avoiding my flat iron.

I made a very brave choice to move in with my father during the pandemic. Up until this point, we had a rocky relationship and weren't close. My mother had made me very aware of his lack of financial support. Our weeklong summer visits were never enough to actually feel as if I belonged or was even really his daughter. However, as I got to know him, I became more exposed to my Black family and culture, which helped me finally start accepting myself for who I am — a Black woman who didn't need to fit into a white ideal of womanhood. Less than a year into my stay, I went to a Congolese colleague's house to get "box braids" for the first time.

It was a powerful feeling of becoming who I had always longed to be. I had this preconceived notion that the stereotypes and negativity around box braids, weaves, and fake hair being an unnatural aesthetic, somehow made Black women lesser. I think back to episodes of Real Housewives of Atlanta, where the show focused on "ratchet" Black women pulling on each other's weaves.

I didn't want to go to school and have assumptions made that I was like those women or have to field questions about the authenticity of my hair. I've come to realize that this stigma created by the media and broader culture was the main reason I was afraid to embrace my hair. However, once I was brave enough to put my braids in, I never wanted to take them out. I've since braided my hair on several occasions.

Falling in love with my hair & community

When the COVID-19 restrictions eased after the second wave, I sought out a Black-owned salon to continue my Black hair care, and the experience continues to be incredible for me.

I stepped into Clarisse's Hair Salon on Bloor and my eyes were opened to a new feeling of inclusion. Being with other Black people who spoke like me, had similar political interests and concerns as me, and were open to sharing their knowledge of products and items for my hair care journey was extremely rewarding. The energy was simply different, but in a good way.

That energy has followed me into several other Black-owned hair salons in Toronto, my favourites aside from Clarisse’s being Zoma Beauty Salon and Urban Curls. You can tell them I sent you and thank me later!

The level of acceptance, diversity and Black love for me and my hair in Toronto makes it impossible to ever want to go back to changing my appearance to fit into a predominantly white community or standard. In my adopted city, I finally feel heard and accepted for who I am. A big part of that profound sense of newfound pride in myself is connected to how I present myself to the outside world. Skilled, Black hair practitioners in Black-owned salons are as much a cornerstone of any Black community as the church, and are more than about looking good for me.

They have helped me achieve a level of self-acceptance and appreciation for my Black identity that I didn't have growing up, and have been crucial to my mental wellness and sense of self.