CLIFTON PARK — Stefanie Thomas’ path to running her own business closely follows her journey to liking her hair as it is, and her desire to help other Black women and girls make that journey.
“Honestly, this store really is just the store I never had growing up and always needed,” Thomas said. “I was one of five Black students at my high school, I was teased about my hair. I straightened the hell out of it for decades.”
Thomas held the grand opening for Stefanie’s Beauty Supply at The Crossing shopping center on Thursday, months after a soft opening Dec. 23. The early days were very quiet due to the surging pandemic and related difficulties that kept her sign from being installed until February.
“I thought I was pretty much invisible before that,” Thomas said. “Last month was amazing, this month has been doing very well.”
The population of her hometown, Glens Falls, is just 2% Black, Census data show, and Thomas had to drive significant distances or go online to find hair products made for her.
Sally Beauty or Walmart will have some products for African-American hair in stock, she said, but not a lot and only the best sellers, and without knowledgeable advice from the sales staff.
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t convenience that led her to open a store. It was the events of 2020.
Thomas’ children were switched to remote learning and she had to leave her job teaching criminal justice at Hudson Valley Community College to be home with them. Meanwhile, her daughter was growing up in Clifton Park (Black population 4%) and developing the insecurities Thomas once had.
“She started going through the same thing, hating her own hair and all that. It was kind of foolish of me to sit there telling her it was beautiful while straightening my own. So I went natural, and she stopped asking me and we’re kind of going on this natural hair journey together.”
Factor in the racial injustice and interracial tensions that came to the fore nationwide in 2020, and the beauty shop seemed like an opportunity to do something positive amid a lot of negative, Thomas said. “Everyone that comes in makes me feel even more confident in that decision.”
There’s a little of everything: hair care products, dyes, wigs and extensions, mainly for women but also for men, who can buy scalp and beard treatments.
And not only for Black people.
“I also have a lot of white parents come in because they have no idea what to do with their [biracial] children’s hair and they don’t feel comfortable going all the way to Albany,” she said. “I don’t even like going down there. And then I also have white women with curly hair. And then I have wigs — for everyone.”
Beauty standards established by and for the majority race in America have always tilted toward white hair types and hairstyles, Thomas said, and the overt or subtle pressure to conform leads to the stresses millions of Black women experience.
The hair care industry broadly categorizes hair as Type 1, 2, 3, or 4 — straight, wavy, curly, and tight curls. Thomas is biracial, with Type 3 hair, but she has felt many of the same insecurities as Black women born with tight Type 4 coils.
“If you ask a Black woman, any Black woman, honestly, about their relationship with their hair, they’re going to have a whole story for you,” she said. “Because it is so ingrained in all of us. It’s just one of the biggest battles we have for ourselves, with our hair.”
Even at 33 years old, a mother of four far-removed from the shenanigans of high school, Thomas still feels that internal struggle.
“I’ve been told to go home,” she said. “My friend was fired for wearing a blonde wig. Another friend couldn’t wear locks in her hair. Even to this day when I go on job interviews I worry — maybe I should straighten my hair so I look more professional.”
All this led her to build a non-commercial component into her store: A corner with a blackboard and stack of books teaching self-acceptance and self-empowerment to children starting to feel their own pressures to fit in.
“I just want them to feel like it’s OK that they might look different from the other kids,” Thomas said.