While I perused the shelves of black hair-care products at the newly opened beauty boutique, Marsh + Mane, no one rushed me as I inspected each and every pretty, color-blocked, and floral shower cap stacked neatly in a 6-foot-tall pine armoire.
I didn’t feel any distrusting eyes on my back as I rubbed a sample of an almond-scented lock gel between my thumb and forefinger to check its consistency: silky but not sticky. And I wasn’t followed to the back of the store when I went to check out the plush bathrobes. I bet it would be OK if I tried one on.
Behind me were shelves lined with bougie curly-girl products. Some of the brands I’d heard of, like Shea Moisture, Cantu, and Organic Root Stimulator. Others, like The Doux (as seen in Issa’s bathroom on HBO’s Insecure) and Anita Grant, are Instagram-famous brands that I wasn’t as familiar with. Either way, the plethora of product was real and included shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, lock and twist gels, and my new curiosity: edge control — the pomade black women use to keep their hair lines sleek.
“Why is castor oil such a popular ingredient in edge control?” I asked owner, 33-year-old Jenea Robinson, who most recently served as the director of public relations at Visit Philly.
“Because,” Robinson, said, “it stimulates hair growth."
She knows her stuff. Robinson is part of the second wave natural hair-care movement that started in the early 2000s that led young women to grow out our relaxers and give up the Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer for baby locks and kinky curls. Today she wears her thick, black hair in a full, this-is-not-your-mama’s-Afro coily twist-out.
“Our biggest complaint when we [black women] go to the neighborhood beauty store is how we are treated,” Robinson said. “We feel rushed, followed, and no one seems to know anything about our products. My goal was to create a space that is calm and inviting.”
Boy, do we need it.
At a time when it feels like natural black hair ― to say nothing of black bodies ― is under attack, Marsh + Mane has thankfully emerged as quite the soft place to land for people of color determined to define beauty on our own terms.
This need is particularly felt after what went down last month involving Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson and referee Alan Maloney. Johnson’s hair was sheared at the behest of the now-sidelined referee because Maloney said Johnson’s hair was too long and the young man didn’t have a regulation hair cover. And, this is the kicker: According to Johnson’s family, Maloney, who erroneously referred to Johnson’s hair as braids, refused to let him pull it back because, he said, Johnson’s hair "wasn’t in its natural state.”
This is where I start to seethe inside and why we need a place like Marsh + Mane.
“I think this behavior comes from two places,” Robinson told me. “Ignorance: That man was ignorant in not knowing that locks are, in fact, black hair’s most natural state. It also comes from a place of supreme entitlement and privilege that certain people still think they have the right to tell us [black people] what our hair should and shouldn’t look like.”
That’s one of the reasons Robinson designed Marsh + Mane to be a 1,200-square-foot sanctuary of self-care. The space’s design was inspired by the marshy swamplands of rural Southern towns Omaha, Ga., and Longwood, N.C., where Robinson’s mom and dad hail from. Here, Robinson said, is where her ancestors gathered plants and spent hours ― if not a full day ― grooming their own hair.
A 7-foot-wide art installation fashioned from moss, cotton, and grass hangs low from the ceiling. Robinson used the leftover moss to top the bookcases where products are shelved. The cash wrap is made from pine, too. And there is a minty green accent wall that Robinson says is there to re-create the serenity that comes from nature. It makes me feel like I’m looking out at the sea. “I wanted my visitors to feel like they were sitting on their grandmother’s porch down South,” Robinson said.
There is a center table toward the back of the store is dedicated to everything a girl (or a guy — she sells men’s products, too) would need on wash day. After all there is no reason to rush through this process, right? We are talking fancy teapots and mugs, diffusers, cooling charcoal and clay face masks, and robes just for lounging.
“Taking care of our hair is an extremely important part of self-care,” Robinson said. “And that is so important right now because we are all feeling overworked. And the political climate is taxing: the attack on black bodies. It’s a lot and we are definitely feeling the effects of it.”
Black people have been going to black-owned salons and barbershops to ensure that our hair is properly cut, styled, fried, dyed and laid to the side for centuries. But the products used to keep our curly to woolly manes up are made, for the most part, by majority-owned corporations, like L’Oreal, which owns Carol’s Daughter and Dark & Lovely. And we buy these products in big-box stores like Walmart and Target or neighborhood stores owned in large part by Asians.
According to an August report by London-based market research group, Mintel, the black hair-care industry is valued at $2.5 billion and that doesn’t include wigs, weaves, accessories and electric styling products. If you add in services, American black women collectively spend billions of dollars each year on their hair.
But only a fraction of that goes to black-owned businesses.
Thanks to entrepreneurs like Robinson, change is on the horizon. Three years ago, Robinson had her DIY product line but decided to give that up in favor of getting Marsh + Maine up and running. It is now one of the of few black-owned beauty-supply stores in the region, joining Brilliance Hair Extensions and Beauty Supply in North Philadelphia and Paris Hair and Beauty Supply in Trenton.
“I want people to see that you can shop for these products in a place that’s beautiful where people will help you," Robinson said. "I’m here to make sure we don’t have to settle for mediocre customer service."