An in-depth interview with the woman who invented Sisterlocks: JoAnn Cornwell
Hello JoAnn. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Sisterlocks. Did you always want to work in the beauty industry?
So how did the idea for Sisterlocks started?
During the 1980s I wore a short natural and loved it! But, I got tired of it after 8 years or so and because I wasn’t aware of any other natural options, I went back to chemicals. Soon after, I became aware of locks as an option, but it took me at least 2 years to get the courage to go that way. Then it had to be my way, not the larger, traditional locks. That’s when I began experimenting with what would eventually become Sisterlocks.
The big problem with locks for me was that there was no good way to start them. Also, the edges always looked shabby, shampooing disrupted the groomed look, and they were too large for elaborate styling. After roughly 2 years of experimenting with Sisterlocks, I found it solved all of these problems.
How did it evolve?
The Inaugural issue of our Sisterlocks Lifestyle Journal contains a reprint of a chapter from my 1997 book (now out of print), That Hair Thing and the Sisterlocks Approach. The chapter is titled, “So, How Did You Come Up With This Idea Anyway? It gives a detailed account of the entire discovery process. Essentially, I experimented over a 2 year period (1991-1993) before coming up with Sisterlocks. The early years of my own Sisterlocks reflected the fits and starts of the creation process. My locks were irregular and full of bunching and random sizes. I can’t really set a ‘starting date’ to my Sisterlocks because they were such a work in progress in the early years. ALL of the initial 5-6 inches of experimental Sisterlocks had to be gradually cut off over the years in order to obtain a uniform look once I had finally figured things out.
I heard about Sisterlocks court victory. What was the case about?
In 1997 a group of natural hair businesses teamed up with a DC public interest law firm and the director of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, and we filed suit against the cosmetology board in California. What prompted this was that some braiders were being targeted by the board and a number of them had gotten fed up with the fines, harassment and inappropriate interference of the cosmetology industry. My business was eventually identified as the ideal test case for this challenge. At the time, I didn’t realize how devastating it would have been if we had lost! (I can remember after the fact saying “What was I thinking!!??”) Anyway, after two-and-a-half years in court, we prevailed and got legal exemption. If you read the judge’s decision you’ll see that “Sisterlocks” is specifically named there, but in practice, ALL natural hair care businesses in California are now exempt, thanks to our victory. PLUS, since the victory was in Federal court, the precedent has been established for many other states as well.
What was the effect of the victory on your business?
Though it has been a source of pride, the case really had no direct effect on our business. Indirectly, I think our victory may have inspired more confidence about the legitimacy of natural hair care among average people. Maybe it also made more people feel it was safer to take our classes than they had believed before.
Where is Sisterlocks today and maybe more important where are you taking Sisterlocks?
Today we have Consultants in around 35 states in the US, and 10 countries outside the US. We have approximately 1500 active Consultants at this time. I should note though, that Consultants are not employed by Sisterlocks. They run their own businesses, and the Sisterlocks Company does not profit directly when they perform our hair technique. Many think we’re getting rich because there are so many Sisterlocks wearers. The truth is that unless people are purchasing products from us, we get nothing – except “bragging rights!” (smile)
Running the Sisterlocks business continues to be a challenge. I’m still confident though, that it will continue to grow and will one day really prosper!
We have not stopped developing our training program – just the opposite! We’ve taken the last couple of years to completely re-structure how we do things. We’ve also expanded our classes to four days. We have a class scheduled at the end of April in San Diego where we will be training six new Associate Trainers from around the country, plus one from Jamaica!
According to Dr. Miller, a dermatologist at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey “73% of African American women complain of breakage, split ends, and dryness caused by relaxers. Why do you think the majority of us still uses chemicals to straighten?
I’m not surprised to learn about Dr. Miller’s statistics. I believe the majority of us know that relaxers are ultimately harmful to our health. Why do we continue with this behavior? For me it is plainly obvious, though I’m moved with sadness every time I think about it: Most of our women continue using chemicals and other means to alter their hair because, on some level, as a culture we have bought into the lie that our natural physical attributes are somehow inferior. We believe we have to cover them up or ‘correct’ them in order to be beautiful and feel good about ourselves.
What do you think of the argument that so many other women perm their hair to get curls?
We shouldn’t use discussions about “other women” or “other groups” to diminish the fact that WE. African descended people (especially those in the Diaspora: ie. the US, Europe, Caribbean, Canada, etc.) still suffer to some degree from a ‘victim’ or ‘oppressed’ mentality. This is at the core of why we judge what we look like (hair, skin, noses, lips, etc.) against what we believe on some level we should look like. This produces a need to replicate the norm promoted by the majority culture: straight hair, light skin, narrow noses, thin lips, etc. I generally refrain from debating this point though. I find there is so much emotion and anger behind people’s arguments (not surprising!) that these discussions can be counter-productive. I just walk through my life proudly and in love with myself – my hair, my nose, ALL of it – and I welcome people lovingly into Sisterlocks if they decide they want to do more to embrace their own natural selves.
Your locs are really long. Do you know how long they are and do you trim them?
I have never measured my locks, but the longest ones are starting to touch the chair seat when I sit down. I trim my Sisterlocks every year to eliminate weak ends and unevenness.
One of the unique and beautiful characteristics of Sisterlocks is that they are really tiny. Aren’t they prone to breakage?
When people fail to provide the minimum recommended maintenance for their Sisterlocks, they will most likely have problems. So many of our women are used to thinking about their natural hair just as something to tie other hair into, or attach hair pieces onto, or pin wigs to, or scorch, or ‘fix’ with chemicals. We’re not that accustomed to what our OWN hair really needs, or how it REALLY looks when it is healthy, and things like that. Sisterlocks Consultants are trained to re-educate their clients in new ways of caring for their natural hair. Also, our product line is custom made for our own natural hair types. When people take care of their Sisterlocks properly, they will very easily grow more hair than they ever dreamed possible! (Individuals with diseases of the scalp, medical issues, drug-related hair breakage, etc. may have special issues, but this would be true for them regardless of the hair technique.)
So is Sisterlocks a solution for women who suffer from breakage?
Problems like hair breakage can have several causes from poor maintenance to reactions to medications and stress. An individual should always seek to discover why they are experiencing breakage before seeking a remedy. Generally speaking, having the hair in locks protects the individual hair strands more than if these strands were loose. In this way it can be good for hair that is weak and has a tendency to break. However, if the cause of breakage is internal, nothing external – not even Sisterlocks – will correct the problem. Also, if the person neglects their Sisterlocks they may eventually break as well.
I know that you are a doctor working on the University. How do you combine Sisterlocks with your university job, which I am sure is also demanding. What does a typical day in your life look like?
My typical day is hectic! Too hectic! I try to start each day with exercise though. I may go to the gym, or pop in an exercise tape at home. Then, I generally spend a few hours doing Sisterlocks work – not hair, but running the business side. (For many years I also maintained a client base, but today I only re-tighten a couple of friends.) My Sisterlocks duties range from meeting with staff, to working on product development, to coaching consultants by phone, to managing certification issues, to planning training classes and speaking engagements, and so forth.
I generally schedule my university teaching for after noon. My time there is spent preparing classes and teaching, attending meetings, working with student assistants and meeting with colleagues. When I return home, it’s Sisterlocks business again! Generally, I find I have to address issues that have come up during the afternoon while I was away. I try not to work into the evening or nighttime though. I like to keep that time for myself, even if I just choose to be a couch potato. My fun activities include salsa dancing (my partner and I are pretty good too!), hitting poetry spots and art walks, exercising and working in my yard.
For anyone wanting to learn more about Sisterlocks, I recommend two things:
• We have an extensive website www.sisterlocks.com
• Get a copy of the “Sisterlocks Lifestyle Journal.” There is an “Information Gallery” in every issue geared to newcomers and anyone curious about what they can/should expect from the Sisterlocks experience.