Of all of the misconceptions surrounding the Black women's experience, somehow, one that is persistent yet rarely challenged is the belief that all Black women can braid (etc, etc, etc). I can’t tell you the number of times my friends, Black or otherwise, have plonked themselves in front of me, confident that I’ll be able to give them 24-inch stitch braids without any evidence proving that I can.
Youtube, TikTok, and Instagram have exacerbated this myth in recent years. The natural hair movement supports a largely DIY hair culture, with countless talented Black creators (people I’ve dubbed as “God’s favourites”) sharing hair tutorials that aim to make Black hair styling at home simpler. Creators like Naptural85 have been doing the Lord’s work, challenging misinformation and solving the lack of education about afro hair care with digestible tips — all while boasting perfect coils. Yet, I’ve watched some of these tutorials, comb in hand, afro parted down the centre, defeated and knowing my personal truth: it’s not easy for me. Not only can’t I cornrow my own hair, but I’ve also never attempted box braids on myself and every twist-out I’ve ever tried on my hair has flat-out failed.
But, also — and this is important — I’ve accepted that I don’t want to learn.
As I grapple with my tricky relationship with my natural texture, I have been seeking out representation for the ‘can’t braid, won’t braid’ community...
As I create a softer life for myself, rid of unnecessary struggle, I’ve come to accept the areas in my life where I need help and I ask for it — including my hair. Truthfully, my hair in its most natural state doesn’t always conjure feelings of bliss and ease. I associate it with extended stints sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs, wincing as my tender-headed self struggled with the fine-toothed comb; there is the first and last time I got micro braids (hundreds of tiny individual braids that I believed would make me look like Brandy) that took days to put in, and even more days to take out. Then there is that one bad relaxer, and the times I left my braids in for that bit too long.
Treating my hair like a luxury purchase and seeking out experts — albeit hairstylists, aunties or my mother — has gone a long way in learning how to love and importantly care for my afro. I wash, treat, twist and style my own hair but when it comes to more-advanced protective styles, well, that’s entirely outsourced.
As I grapple with my tricky relationship with my natural texture, I have been seeking out representation for the ‘can’t braid, won’t braid’ community, and I am comforted by super-blogger Jackie Aina, who romanticises her braid refresh days by inviting two braiders to come to her home, “as often as I want.”
“Being taken care of looks like several different things to me,” she says in her video, “and that really looks like a better quality of life.”
It is, of course, a privilege to make this (expensive) choice month-on-month. On average I spend around £1500 - £2000 a year on my hair (this is for hair treatments, hair products, hair extensions and hair weaves), including many freebies from PRs and styling by my heaven-sent mother. I’ve been told by other Black women — considered the biggest spenders of hair products in both the UK and US — that by their standard, this amount is not “that bad” all things considered.
Doing Black hair at home isn’t necessarily cheaper. According to research by Treasure Tress, 58% of Black British women buy hair products at least once a month, and of the estimated £168m Black British women are said to spend per year on hair products, they are mainly for home use. We often hear how much Black women spend on our hair, but it’s also worth examining just how much time is spent maintaining our hair. It’s time I don’t have.
“When I last did my own Marley twists it took me 12 hours,” says my friend and content creator, Samio, laughing. Like many millennial Black and mixed-race women, she taught herself through videos and now, she regularly schedules days out of her life to devote to her hair. “I enjoy [the process] when I’m finished and I can say I did that.”
“To be honest, if I knew someone I could trust, I’d go to them,” she admits. “I just get scared because you always hear horror stories about people having their hair pulled too tight and also the thought of sitting in a chair for 10 plus hours whilst a complete stranger does my hair fills me with dread.”
It is more than reasonable to assume that Black people in western societies have needed to know how to do their own hair out of necessity more than just convenience. In the UK, it wasn’t until last year that the National Occupational Standards for hairdressing (NOS) was updated, declaring that all hairdressers across the UK are now required to learn how to style afro and textured hair types. And, depending on where you live, Black salons can be few and far between. Per research obtained by the New York Times, Britain has just 314 Afro hairdressing salons out of almost 45,000 registered hair and beauty salons.
“Learning to cornrow is as important for Black women as scrubbing your teeth."
When it comes to hair, Black people have always been extra resourceful. And the need to become a kitchen beautician became even more essential during the most restrictive parts of the pandemic. As R29 reported last year, when many Black hair salons in the UK were decimated as a result of the pandemic, a “Quarantine Curls” movement ensued, with many Black people simultaneously, learning, accepting, celebrating and exploring their hair in a way they may not have tried before.
“Being able to recreate a hairstyle that is so important to me and many other Black women worldwide is a brilliant feeling,” says journalist Christine Ochefe who shared in 2020 that learning to braid her own hair was more than just about beauty. “For Black women, achieving styling feats like this can be crucial in creating cultural shifts, especially in regard to how we see ourselves and, ultimately, how we come to accept and love our natural hair,” she writes.
“‘[Learning to cornrow] is as important [for Black women] as scrubbing your teeth,’ says my mum, kissing her teeth, 'because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it."
“When I left school one of my first jobs was working in community hairdressers and I learned to plait and cornrow there,” she shares. “At 16 years old, I didn’t know how important that skill would be for my community and my family.”
Growing up in a close-knit Caribbean community in Manchester, it wasn’t uncommon for me to tag along with my mother to her friends' homes and watch her work her magic on their heads of hair. For decades, my mother’s dexterous hands have decorated the heads of her community, my siblings and my own. It is, undoubtedly, one of her love languages. I sometimes wish I could relate.
As a third-generation Caribbean woman, fully assimilated into British culture, there’s this unspoken fear that I may lose aspects of my heritage; recipes, language, music and, yes, hairstyles. Are we all responsible for upholding definitive aspects of Black culture, across the diaspora, and passing them along to future generations?
“You have to learn how to braid, L’Oréal, to teach the next generation how to care for their own hair because you’ll set up your children to have a dry ‘ead,” my mother laughs in patois. “My mum braided my hair every day, I did yours. Will you braid your children’s hair?”
It’s a good question. Clearly, I’ve had ample opportunity to learn braiding skills via my mother and I realise that learning how to cornrow is a life skill, like cooking or driving, that for many is an essential part of adulting. But *I* don’t have to. As the scope of Black hair-care services improves in the UK and beyond, I will continue to seek out the experts for now. I am happy to leave my head of hair in their hands.