A little over three months ago my friend Diamond, her friend and I went to audition at a strip club in Florida. I was a nervous wreck ― the promoter made it clear that girls who weren’t “up to scratch” would be sent home immediately. Looking up meant getting our nails, hair, and makeup done, our armpits and bikini line waxed, and we each wore an alluring two-piece.
When we got to the back room, my anxiety dissipated as I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw a beautiful black woman staring at me. I put on a red two-piece, pumped up my Afro, reapplied my lip gloss, and waited my turn to audition.
The dance leader, a woman I later knew was Cheryl, told me to stand against the wall and she took pictures of me from different angles. When she was done, she told me she would let me know what the boss thought.
Shortly after, Cheryl pulled me aside and said, “I’m sorry, but the boss says you can’t dance tonight because you don’t have your hair done.
“What?! My hair is done!” I said.
“The boss didn’t like it. You can come back when it’s done,” she said.
My heart clenched in my stomach. I was confused. It was a black-owned club. If I should be accepted everywhere with my Afro, it should be here.
I looked around and noticed that all the other black girls had their hair slicked back, in long braids or wore wigs and the only women with their natural hair were the ones with a pattern of loose curls, 1a -3b.
“I was driving with my friends. I’m an hour away from home ― I guess I could try changing my hairstyle? I stammered.
A few years ago, I straightened my hair at a Dominican salon in the Bronx. The stylist mixed the perm solution with the conditioner which caused my hair to fall out when I washed it a week later. Since they grew back, I take care of my hair like a garden: I rake it gently, starting at the top and working down to the roots. During this experience, I discovered that my hair was admirable, adorable and deserved to be protected and defended by anyone who said otherwise. I felt something inside me give way when I told Cheryl I was going to try changing my hair.
A hard rock sat in my stomach and I felt shame ― not because of the stigma of sex work, nor standing in the hallway in a revealing outfit, but the shame that arises when you have to change ― conform ― to satisfy Eurocentric beauty fashions that say you can be black, but not too black – that you can wear your natural hair, but only if there is a loose curl pattern, not the 4b Afro layer which gracefully sprung from my scalp.
I took a deep breath and went into the back room. There was the smell of burnt flat iron hair, Victoria’s Secret perfume, Chanel and Pink Mist mingling with the smell of feet. Six-inch stilettos were strewn around the room, and more girls had arrived to audition. Those with natural hair had cornrows and were getting ready to melt their lace fronts. Those who didn’t have wigs and had the type of hair where if you run your fingers through it they get stuck ― they should see themselves out of the club.
Diamond was in the corner, plunging its edges into dramatic concentric circles. Her 20mm long lashes fluttered when she asked me how my audition went.
“They didn’t like my hair,” I told her.
“Yeah, that sounds good – I’m surprised they let me dance with my hair on,” she said. Her hair was in box braids.
“The ones without wigs who had the type of hair where if you run your fingers through it they get stuck – they should see themselves out of the club.”
I sighed, gathered some Eco Style gel, edge control, a scrunchie and a pen that I would use as a makeshift comb and went to the bathroom. A girl I later learned was Raven stared intently in the mirror as she patted her face with setting powder. She had long blonde and brown Senegalese twists hanging down gracefully down to her lower back. She wore a Zaffre two-piece with rhinestones highlighting her bralette and panties. I turned on the cold water tap and stuck my head in the sink. I wasn’t looking at Raven, but I could feel her eyes on me as I stood up, my hair now wet, curlier and softer. I grabbed a handkerchief to keep the water from running down my face.
Raven gathered her things in her brown duffel bag and said, “Your hair is beautiful,” as she prepared to leave the room. I laughed sarcastically and said, “Yeah, well, they said I had to change my hair because they didn’t like it.”
“I’m not surprised,” she replied. “I’m surprised no one has said anything about my hair to be honest. It’s like that for black girls.
“They can go to hell,” I said.
She turned to leave, and without turning around she said to me, “Good luck, though.”
When I tell this story to other dancers, colleagues, peers and friends, they give me the same response as Diamond and Raven: that it is and always has been. If you want to make money, you must not appear too black. Even a black-owned club is not guaranteed to be an exception to this rule.
I recently came across “Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Strip Industry,” in which she studies racial stratification and erotic capital in strip clubs using ethnography. Brooks defines erotic capital as “based on what is considered desirable by prevailing standards of beauty in the United States, which often include a white, young, and/or [desirable] body (although what is considered desirable changes over time).
Brooks concludes, as do Diamond and Raven, that “racism against black women in this industry is considered normal because…the sex industry is based on ideas of customer taste and preference.” And these notions of customer taste ― who is desirable and who is not ― do not come from club owners, but rather reflect systemic anti-black constructions of beauty.
Dancers – sex workers in general – especially black people in this industry, are fighting several battles at once. We not only face shame and judgment from our peers and family, but we also regularly experience discrimination, which, in turn, affects the amount of money we can earn. It’s not uncommon for black women to not be hired at clubs because of our skin tone, body type, hair, or any other blackness-related factor. A good friend of mine told me she auditioned at eight clubs in one night and none of them hired her because she was “too dark”.
The night of my audition at this Florida club, I reappeared from the bathroom and looked for Cheryl — this time, my tamed Afro in two braided braids and a puff, with curly locks spilling out the front. I located Cheryl and auditioned for her again. Moments later, she returned from her conversation with the boss with a big contract in hand. “Sign here. Initial there. Meet here,” she told me. And I did. I swallowed my pride and laced my heels.
Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of people mentioned in this article.
Penda Smith is a creative, genre-open writer interested in how black women survive through the use of erotic resistance. She is a second-year MFA candidate at Louisiana State University, Watering Hole Fellow, and future Cave Canem. She adores her little cat, Zoro Neale Hurston. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Voicemail poems, Root Work Journal, Interim Poetics and many others.
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