The box braids paradox: are they just another attempt to fit in?
21 Feb 2017
Illustration by Jasmine Thompson
I recently got braids for the first time. I’m not talking a couple of little plaits – I’m talking butt-length, whip-you-in-the-face, Lemonade-inspired braids with a tonne of blonde extensions. It took nine hours, it weighed so much I could barely move my head for a week and it cost me £150. I adored them. I felt like a fucking mermaid.
I’ve never done anything remotely interesting with my hair before and my braids made me look and feel like a different person – which was a little bit unsettling, but also crazy empowering.
They also made me think. I had them for six weeks and during that time I experienced the entire spectrum of possible reactions – some pretty insulting, most really flattering. Either way, people were way more bothered than I anticipated.
I was struck by my own reaction, as well. Why did my braids make me feel so kick-ass? This made we wonder: how can a hairstyle have such a strong effect on how you perceive yourself?
A brief history of my hair. I’m mixed-race – my dad’s parents are Jamaican and my mum is white. I grew up in a pretty white area without much influence from the black side of my family – my dad doesn’t have any hair and we’re not in touch with his parents. I know it was a struggle for my mum. I have vivid memories of my little sister and I sitting on the floor between my mum’s knees as she battled to drag a comb through our untamable frizz – all three of us in tears. At 16 I relaxed my hair for prom and it basically changed my life – it was the poker-straight GHD-era of the mid-noughties and I was willing to risk straightener burns and some serious breakage to look like everyone else.
“It wasn’t until I was about 22 and living in London that I finally ditched the straighteners and embraced my natural curls – but I still didn’t really know how to look after it”
It wasn’t until I was about 22 and living in London that I finally ditched the straighteners and embraced my natural curls – but I still didn’t really know how to look after it. I would buy random hair products, ignore the knots I couldn’t get out, stick it in a bun on top of my head because I didn’t know what else to do – I was winging it.
I finally turned a corner, thanks to YouTube, some of my black friends and a tonne of coconut oil. My curls were bigger, softer, bouncier and I felt more-or-less in control. It wasn’t because I didn’t love my curls that I went for the braids. It was boredom more than anything. I wanted something different, something dramatic, something that reflected the confidence I now had in how I looked.
And you need confidence to wear golden, ass-grazing hair. I loved my braids – I felt like a glorious cross between Rapunzel and Solange. Ok, they were heavy and kind of impractical, and sometimes I’d get them trapped in zippers and doors or accidentally dangle them in my soup – but I didn’t care. I loved them.
What never occurred to me though was that some people I know didn’t expect me to look like that.
Aside from the uninvited touching and the occasional dubious question, I had people tell me that my braids made me look more “urban”, or like I should be at a “reggae dance party” – whatever that is. A friend even asked me when I would “have normal hair again” – I got the feeling from some that they were uncomfortable with my hair – uncomfortable with the recognisable “blackness” of the style.
“Did the feeling of golden locks cascading over my shoulders conjure up Barbie-esque fantasies of my youth?”
When my hairdresser was putting my braids in she warned me that they wouldn’t last longer than about five weeks due to the fine texture of my hair because I was “light”. So despite being considered uncomfortably “urban” by some – I also wasn’t quite black enough for my hairdresser. Maybe I’ll always fall into this awkward in-between space: simultaneously too black and not black enough. But this is where the paradox comes in.
On the one hand my braids seemed to others to signify a more overt identification with being black, but when I look at the reasons why I loved them so much – I wonder if it isn’t the opposite. Why did my braids make me feel so fiercely empowered? Did the feeling of golden locks cascading over my shoulders conjure up Barbie-esque fantasies of my youth? Was it just another attempt to fit in? Maybe it wasn’t an expression of confidence at all, but just the 2017 version of me ironing my hair so I could look like the other girls at school.
I’m not convinced as to what my motivation was. The joy of black and mixed-race hair is its versatility. It’s taken me a long time to realise this. It used to drive me mad when I was younger and everyone would say – “but there’s so much you can do with it!” I just couldn’t see it. All I could see was mountains of frizz and a starkly different reflection to my friends.
Braids are a way of celebrating this difference, of embracing the multi-faceted possibilities that make Afro hair unique. The past six weeks have opened my eyes to this and now I’m kinda hooked.
The night before I was due to have my braids taken out, an elderly woman approached me and tapped me on the shoulder.
“The braids were taken out in a mere three hours – basically nothing in black hairdresser time.”
“I just want to tell you that you have truly beautiful hair,” she said. That was all. She didn’t have questions, she didn’t want to touch it. She made my heart sing.
The braids were taken out in a mere three hours – basically nothing in black hairdresser time. I was ready for them to come out. They made working out really difficult (you try doing burpees with an extra three pounds attached to your head), they were growing out and I was ready to put on a polo neck without accidentally asphyxiating myself with my hair.
But I do miss them and their instant awesomeness. There’s something pretty magical about having the ability to change your appearance so drastically like that – especially when that change can unleash an inner confidence you maybe never knew you had.
I’m already planning my next statement style. I’m thinking box braids with an ombre pastel colour for summer…