Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
Gabrielle Union has dealt with some less-than-ideal hair styling in her years in Hollywood, and she's got a few things to say about it. This week, the Being Mary Jane star was a keynote speaker at the #BlogHer Creators Summit in New York City, an event that celebrates women who tell their stories to inspire others. For Union, the story she wants to tell right now is about how the needs and concerns of women of color are not being heard, or served — and that includes the lack of options for products and stylists who know how to handle their hair.
"Like a lot of things in the world, we tend to center whiteness in every narrative and industry," Union told InStyle ahead of her speech this week. "The needs of the textured hair community are generally never centered in any discussion. I think that the textured hair community is still growing, and we're very vocal about our need for products that are effective, but aren't harmful to the environment or to our hair — whether it's chemically straightened, natural, or curly."
While lines for textured and natural hair do exist, they're often relegated to a niche section at drugstores and beauty retailers. "There's haircare and then there's black or textured haircare," said Union. "If you look at women with textured hair on a global scale, there are billions of us. So to ignore billions of people and their needs is outrageous. And from a business standpoint, it's terrible business to ignore billions of people with very specific hair needs."
She hopes her now year-old haircare line will better serve those billions of people. With Flawless by Gabrielle Union, a line of styling and treatment products for textured and curly hair, she's catering to a need that she knows from experience is being underserved. But, she says that everyone has to be on the same page for things to really change — including Hollywood. "For me, my revelation [to start Flawless] came from my experience in Hollywood hair chairs, and being forced to sit in the chair of people who have no idea or understanding of how to style, manage, and maintain healthy textured hair," she explained.
The lack of knowledge among Hollywood hairstylists starts in beauty school, where it's commonplace not to teach students how to style textured hair, Union said. In her experience, a lot of stylists she's encountered have only been trained on very straight hair types, so often the people in charge of staffing Hollywood hair and makeup trailers, along with the pros who work in them, are widely uneducated about the needs of textured hair.
"Any textured-haired celebrity you could talk to is going to have multiple horror stories of being forced to sit in the chairs of people who not only don’t have the products, but also don’t have the know-how, and no one is feeling the need to rectify this," she said. "If there’s a huge push to increase diversity and inclusion in front of the camera, there has to be the same behind the camera. There’s a lot of issues to address, and plenty of blame to go around, but we all have to do what we can with our platforms to address as many needs as possible."
Union's relationship with her own hair has been part of her journey in working to change how textured hair is handled in Hollywood and the beauty industry as a whole. Earlier this summer, at 45 years old, Union cut her natural hair into a chin-length bob for the first time. "I think it’s taken my entire life to be ok with me, and knowing that my worth isn’t in how straight my hair can be or how long my hair can be," she said. "My value as a human being and my character has no baring in how I wear my hair. So I let go of this weird obsession and inclination to cling to longer hairstyles."
Once her longtime stylist Larry Sims cut her hair, Union says she felt more confident and sexier than she had in years. "It felt like a bad movie montage: a girl cuts her hair after a breakup and she's like, 'I feel free!' and it turns out that shit is true," she says. "I needed to do it to prove to myself that no matter where you are in your hair journey, who you are as a human being doesn’t reflect it. They’re just hair choices, and you need to do what’s right for you and what makes you feel amazing."