The last time I had box braids was around the summer of '97. I didn't hate them, but I didn't love them (granted, this might have been due to the very '90s bobbed length I was forced to get), but after seeing my cousin pull a braid straight out of her sister's head, I became scarred from ever getting them again. That is, until I made the decision to go natural and, about six months in, became frustrated with dealing with two different textures that refused to cooperate with my styling needs. So, to give my hair — and myself — a much-needed break, I turned to box braids.
While box braids are in no way a new trend — women of colour have been wearing them for a long time — there's been something of a revival lately. Everyone from the Knowles sisters to Zoë Kravitz and Tia Mowry has been seen with them. It's not only a great protective hairstyle (one that keeps your hair and ends tucked in and shielded from factors like extreme weather conditions, while still promoting growth), but it's low-maintenance, convenient, and cute. And, with warm weather (hopefully) right around the corner, it's a common go-to look for dealing with the harsh humidity that's sure to come.
I talked with some hairstylists to get the lowdown on everything you need to know — from choosing your ideal braid size to the takedown process. Read on for what they had to say.
Are you going for a thick, rope-like look circa Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice? Or, are smaller braids (think Stacey Dash as Dionne in Clueless) more your style? Dr. Kari Williams, hairstylist and owner of the Mahogany Hair Revolution salon in L.A., recommends taking your hair's health and thickness into account.
"If your hair is more fine, don't choose a braid that's too big because you won't get the volume you desire, and could risk damage to your hair because of the weight," she says. "If your hair is really thick, don't choose a braid that is too small because you will end up with a gazillion braids, and the braids could be too thick to style and also create a lot of weight."
Prep Your Hair
Above all, it's very important to make sure your hair is shampooed, detangled, deep-conditioned, and blowdried before braiding, says Williams. "This creates the healthiest environment for the hair before going into a long-term style like braids," she advises. "While the hair is braided, you can't remove all of the dirt and build-up from the hair or scalp, so starting with clean hair is best."
The Actual Braiding Process
Now, for the not-so-fun part of the 'do: getting it done. As you might expect, the process isn't for the faint of heart and/or easily bored. A common misconception is that it's also super-painful, which might be true if you're either really sensitive or it's your first time getting the style done. Williams says that while yes, the braiding may cause some discomfort, if it starts to become unbearable that means the braids are too tight. "If you're experiencing excessive pain, ask your stylist to adjust the tension they're using to attach the braid, or take them out," she says. "Pain is the first symptom before you begin to experience hair loss."
It can take upwards of eight hours to get them done, depending on the braid size and your stylist's technique (it took me about four, since my braids are on the bulkier side). No intriguing book, fully charged phone, or amount of busywork can prepare you for the restlessness you'll start to feel as time slowly creeps by. Around hour two, your eyes will start to droop, patience starts to dwindle, and you'll start to feel like a little kid on a road trip with their family wondering "Are we there yet?" By hour three, you'll start to question why you thought getting braids was a good idea to begin with. And, by hour four, nothing will matter except getting out of that damn chair (which you can't feel anymore because your butt has gone numb). But, as they say, everything good in life takes time and once you do your first hair flip, you'll quickly realise it was all worth it (and that your head is now exponentially heavier).
Maintaining Your New 'Do
A lot of people think once you get your braids done, the work stops there. But, it's important to remember that, while you may be rocking mostly synthetic hair now, keeping your real strands healthy and hydrated should still be a priority. "A daily moisturiser or oil should be sprayed onto the scalp and the length of the braids to keep the hair lubricated, because synthetic hair can dehydrate the natural hair, causing it to become dry and brittle," says Williams. "This is one of the factors that can cause breakage during the takedown process. If the hair is well-lubricated while the braids are in, you can reduce the incidents of breakage." Williams suggests washing your braids after about three weeks — sooner if you have an active lifestyle or are prone to a flaky or itchy scalp. After washing with a moisturising shampoo and conditioner, she recommends following up with oil. "After washing the style, make sure you reapply your oil to the braids and scalp and sit under a hooded dryer to ensure the style is completely dry," she says. "If you don't dry the hair completely, it can mildew and leave an odour."
Williams also advises against pulling the braids into tight ponytails or buns, because their weight, along with the tension of the tightly pulled styles, can cause temporary or permanent hair loss — particularly along the hairline. Celebrity hairstylist Kim Kimble also recommends sleeping with a silk bonnet or pillowcase to protect the hair. "Silk minimises the amount of friction on the hair, and it helps preserve the moisture," she says.
Both Williams and Kimble advise leaving your braids in for no more than two months at a time. Williams suggests getting a touch-up around the hairline — getting the front portion rebraided — between every four to six weeks in order to preserve both the style and your edges. When the time comes to actually take out your braids, the same patience you exercised during the braiding process is vital; maybe even more so because, this time around, you're the one doing all the work and your hair is going to be more susceptible to breakage. Keep in mind that your hair has gone uncombed, unbrushed, and un-detangled for weeks at a time, so shedding is pretty much inevitable. The key is going slow and making sure to gently remove any knots you might encounter. In order to make things easier, Williams recommends spraying a small amount of witch hazel at the base of the braid to soften and loosen any dirt and build-up that's accumulated. "You should also completely comb through each section of hair as you unbraid it to prevent matting," she says. "The hair will feel dry and brittle while taking down the braids, so apply a cleansing conditioner to the hair as you detangle and remove the braids."
To make the removal process a wee bit less tedious, Kimble suggests planning a takedown party with your friends. "Gather your snacks, set up a TV show you want to binge-watch, and go for it!"
Just Whip It
Enjoy your new braids! Take a cue from Willow Smith and whip your hair back and forth, toss it — put your thing down, flip it, and reverse it, what have you. The style is super-versatile, and you'll look pretty damn fly to boot, so you might as well have fun with it.