If you search my texts the word “braid” pops up over 60 times and that is only in the last two years. Typically, I am talking to friends about new styles, booking an appointment with a braider, or sending myself YouTube tutorials because I’ve convinced myself that I am no longer going to pay ridiculous prices and will actually learn to braid my own hair. Whatever it is, braids and/or hair in general are always a topic of conversation for Black women, and often, those who shouldn’t be wearing them but do. While I can agree with the I am not my hair sentiment because we are much more than our physical appearances, two things can be true. Black women can have depth, while still acknowledging the fact that we are in fact deeply connected to our hair, whether it is the hair that grows out of our scalp, or a style we hold close.
I was in college the first time I got my hair braided. I walked into one of the African braiding shops a few blocks away from my house unsure of what the experience would be like. Aside from the perm I had from ages 10-16 I hadn’t really done anything drastic to my hair, until I transitioned back to my natural curls. After transitioning for a little over a year, I cut my hair off the day before driving to Syracuse for my freshman year. I wore a wash and go every day until I got my hair braided during the break between the fall and spring semesters. I still remember the initial shock when I felt the stiffness of the braiding hair prior to the steaming hot water that not so gently grazed my neck and the headache that lasted days. After the headache went away I started to like the style a bit more, though it was still very foreign.
Since getting my hair braided that winter, I’ve gotten box braids, straight backs, boho braids, and gypsy braids more times than I can count. And I’ve noticed that my experience many years ago is definitely not my experience today. I never really thought about the differences and the impact it had been having on my experience of getting my hair done.
A while back I saw two things on Instagram, one a post advertising knotless box braids for $200, any size and length and another a video of a woman crying in the car with her husband because she went into a salon for box braids and left with a silk press. She looked great with the silk press, but I understood what it felt like to leave the salon with a style you did not want. The bigger issue was the fact that she showed up, communicated her choice, and simply did not leave with them having met her expectations, something we can all relate to. It wasn’t until I saw these two things that I really thought about how the braiding experience has changed, and for some it the changes are more negative than positive.
I’ve spent close to $600 on boho knotless box braids. This included the service and hair (packs of braiding hair and a human hair bundle) that I purchased separately. I’ve always been quiet about how much I spend on my hair because, while there are people that spend more, for me this does seem a bit outlandish. For some context, I have seborrheic dermatitis so I don’t keep my braids in longer than three weeks to a month. In the past I never paid more than $250 for braids and that price included travel to my home.
“New rules” include non-refundable deposits, hair length requirements, wash and blow dry requirements and late fees that only apply to the client to name a few. Though I’ve never personally had an issue arise because of these rules, I don’t doubt that things can come up or I may one day be faced with a last minute cancellation because my hair isn’t as straight as the braider would like. Regarding blow drying, in the past I never used heat to stretch my hair prior to braiding. I’d wash it and put it in a low bun, which worked for both myself and my braider at the time. As for hair length, I suppose we have all been spoiled by African braiding shops where their grip game is top tier.
Simple vs. Luxury:
For many, including myself, hair braiding has become a luxury experience. In recent years, I’ve been to salons that offered mimosas with my service, which I loved. Mimosas aside, these salons and the braiders that operate out of them are either appointment only, or they prioritize those with appointments, another “luxury” I enjoy.
I can see why the ever-changing braid industry and experience has been jarring for some. This isn’t a change that occurred while our mothers, aunties and grandmothers were getting their hair done. The shift in the types of services, offerings and sometimes treatment of clients happened as our generation grew into adulthood. It is important to note that the “old” experience has not disappeared. The NYC girlies are still going uptown to get their hair done. It is not impossible to build a relationship with a braider that still operates in the manner we were used to as children, teenagers and even in our early twenties.
Unfortunately, I don’t exactly have an answer when it comes to the braiding experience and whether it is better now or was better in the past. I now have two braiders that I absolutely adore, and the time I share with them is very personal for me. It gives me the main character energy that I do not always feel in the other areas or spaces. I enjoy the convenience of making an appointment, showing up when it is my turn, and being serviced right away. Most importantly, I cherish the relationship I have developed and nourished over the years with these women who put their hands in my hair, which again, is a part of me that I am connected to in ways that are sometimes inexplicable.
Ashley Fern is a Brooklyn based writer. She is a health copywriter by day and holds an M.S in Publishing. Her interests include exploring health, wellness and beauty through the lens of Black women.