When Dianne Austin decided to ditch her relaxer and transition back to her natural hair in 2011, she had no idea that four years later she would be hit with the heartbreaking news of a breast cancer diagnosis.
"My first thoughts were how ironic it was that I went down this path of embracing my natural hair just to lose every strand of it," she shares with InStyle. "It was a huge decision for me to stop relaxing my hair and to begin to embrace my natural texture after years of relaxing."
As she began to say goodbye to her own hair, Austin, like many in cancer treatment, was in search of a wig. And while they're sometimes covered, depending on the healthcare insurance provider, she wasn't able to find any that even came close to matching her natural coily texture.
That's why in 2019, she created Coils to Locs alongside natural hair blogger Pamela Shaddock. She wanted other Black women to find kinky, coily, braided, or locked wig styles with ease at cancer hospitals across the U.S.
Here, we spoke with Austin about her own wig journey, diversifying the medical wig space, and what she envisions for the future of Coils to Locs.
What’s the main difference between a medical wig and a traditional wig?
One of the main differences between a medical wig and traditional wig is that a traditional wig cap uses combs to attach to the wearer’s head — something that is not feasible for medical wigs when most wearers do not have any hair. Medical hair loss often causes a sensitive scalp, so patients don't want a comb scratching their head. Medical wigs are made of a softer, more comfortable material without any combs.
Another main difference between these wigs is where you purchase them. When purchasing wigs at a cancer center boutique, you are able to try wigs on in a private room, working with a licensed cosmetologist. You are able to maintain your sense of dignity and sense of self, versus purchasing a wig at a beauty salon which can be very impersonal. Additionally, beauty supply stores offer only register receipts which do not meet the criteria for reimbursement with insurance. When buying a traditional wig many cancer patients will have to pay for the cost of the wigs themselves instead of using insurance, this can become very costly.
When you were diagnosed in 2015, it was nearly impossible for you to find an afro-textured wig. What type of hair did you go for at the time?
It was difficult to find a coily, curly wig in cancer center retail stores and medical salons that accepted health insurance. I ended up going to a beauty supply store in the Black community and I purchased a wig out of pocket that somewhat resembled my hair. The wig was good enough — I didn’t want to purchase a straight haired wig and I didn’t want to wear a scarf — but it looked "wiggy" and the hair tangled a lot.
Also, when I approached the first cancer center boutique, I was told that I could use my insurance to purchase a straight-haired wig and then take it to a local salon to have chemicals put into the wig to “kink” the wig up. Using my health insurance to buy a wig that I didn’t want and then taking it to another salon and paying money to “kink” up the wig was not an acceptable solution. All women, regardless of hair type, should be able to walk into a cancer center boutique or medical salon and find something that looks like the hair that grows out of their heads.
In your own collection, you're going to launch loc'd and braided wigs. Why was it important to include these styles?
Our goal at Coils to Locs is to address the healthcare disparity for all cancer patients of color who lack access to these stylish coily, curly wigs as they are going through cancer treatment. Most importantly, we want patients to feel more like themselves. To do this, we wanted to make sure we had wig styles that represent all hair types and styles, including loc and braided wigs that will be released soon.
You currently only sell medical wigs at cancer center hospitals. Do you have any plans to expand beyond those locations?
Our plans are to expand both nationally and globally. We would like to expand to both cancer center hospitals and medical hair salons nationwide. We found that these wig styles are not available at hospitals nationwide and [we] are setting out to change that.
Are there any plans to sell the wigs online?
Not in the near future but we are always evaluating new markets for Coils to Locs.
Coils to Locs wigs are made of synthetic hair. Do you have any plans to offer human hair wigs? I know it’s quite difficult to source afro-textured human hair.
Our wigs are made of very high-quality synthetic hair that mimics the look and feel of human hair, and we’ve received very good feedback from our cancer center retailers in regards to the quality.
We know that some women have a preference for wigs made of human hair, but we currently have no immediate plans to offer human hair wigs. We have issues with the way that some — not all — human hair is sourced. For example, there are women in India who sell their hair for pennies and then the hair is sold in the marketplace for so much more money than what they were paid for it. I have received some inquiries from women with locs who want to be able to donate their hair to be used to make wigs for cancer patients, but I’ve heard anecdotally from some of these women that organizations that take donated hair often will not take this type of hair.
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So often, Black women going through chemotherapy are told that they shouldn’t focus on their hair, and instead just be thankful to still be alive. Why do you think beauty still matters in these moments?
It is okay to both feel blessed to be alive and grieve for something that was important to you. We so often are made to feel that we are being shallow just because we are trying to adjust to hair loss during what is already a very difficult time. You don't just lose the hair on your head when going through some types of chemotherapy. You lose your eyebrows and lashes too. And despite what you are told, sometimes your hair doesn't grow back or it grows back thinner or a different texture. Your nails turn black and sometimes fall off. Your skin turns gray. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have some control over your appearance and feel blessed to be alive at the same time.
A hairstyle is more than just external beauty for a woman, a woman’s hair is part of her core identity and every patient should have the option to select a style that mimics her pre-cancer hair. While in treatment, patients may not want to draw obvious attention to themselves by wearing a dramatically different hairstyle, or even no hairstyle when they lose their hair. Having hair that matches how they want to see themselves provides privacy and dignity.
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