Do you remember when syndicated radio host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes” back in 2007? Sure, this happened nearly a decade ago, but derogatory statements like these are exactly the reason why the phrase “it’s just hair” is often dismissed by many Black women.
For us, it’s never been just hair mainly because our hair has never solely been ours to begin with. Black women have been told our natural kinks, coils, curls, waves and everything in between aren’t beautiful and should be changed to meet European beauty standards. Yet, when the Kardashian-Jenner clan or anyone non-Black wears hairstyles that first appeared on Black women, such as cornrows, Bantu knots or a Yaki-textured ponytail, it’s considered “new” and “chic” in the mainstream media and renamed in many instances. However, these same hairstyles are often deemed as “ghetto” and “unprofessional” when the person is Black.
From strangers wanting to pet our heads to the cultural appropriation and “columbusing” of some of our most beloved styles, the hair that sits on Black women’s heads has always evoked plenty of fascination and conversation.
Recently, I came across this tweet:
Are Black women notorious for switching up our ‘dos constantly? Absolutely, but that’s part of what makes us us. Let’s own it.
From bountiful afros to bold cornrows and Bantu knots, Black women have rocked some dope hairstyles over the years. Many came and went, but a popular ‘90s hairstyle reemerged a few years ago when Beyoncé and Solange started rocking it again.
We’re talking about box braids, and though Bey may have revived the hairstyle for the masses, Janet Jackson first set the trend in 1993 with her film debut, Poetic Justice. The minute the credits started rolling, nearly every Black woman and girl in America wanted box braids, so they could throw them in a high ponytail, dress them up with a white turban, or simply rock them under a floppy newsboy hat just like Janet.
Brandy kept the trend going and put a fresh spin on the classic style, making it her own. By experimenting with shorter lengths, thickness, styles (i.e. pigtails), and colorful hair clips and scrunchies, Brandy made braids appealing to young Black girls everywhere.
Since the reemergence of box braids, many Black celebrities have paid homage to the iconic ‘90s hair trend, including Gabrielle Union, Zoe Kravitz, and Tia Mowry. Even Janet and Brandy took their iconic looks out for an updated spin and reminded us all why we fell in love with the look in the first place.
“Box braids are one of the best [braided] styles you can have because [you can] be creative with it. You’re not just stuck wearing one style,” says Takisha Sturdivant-Drew, celebrity hairstylist and owner of TSD hair extensions. “Braids are definitely in right now and everyone wants to wear them. [They] give some women a certain edge and [they] can be sexy, too.”
Not surprisingly, box braids and other braided hairstyles originated from Africa, dating as far back as 3500 B.C.
“The box braids [we saw in] the ‘90s and [even today] aren’t that different from the Eembuvi braids of Namibia or the chin-length bob braids of the women of the Nile Valley over 3,000 years ago,” explains Emon Fowler, a Chicago-based cosmetologist and cosmetology instructor, who specializes in curly hair, braids, locs and twists.
Our ancestors, Fowler says, weaved the hair into a fiber skull cap made from extremely durable materials, such as wool, felt and even human hair unlike the wig caps you find in most beauty supply stores today.
“Cowrie shells, jewels, beads and other meaningful items charmed box braids of earlier women eluding to their readiness to mate, emulation of wealth, high priesthood and various other classifications,” Fowler says. “Box braids were expensive in terms of time, material and installation. It could have been assumed that a woman who could afford to sit for many hours adorning her crown was indeed a woman of fortune.”
Prefer to call them dookie or Casamas braids? What about “Poetic Justice” braids? It’s all good. While there seems to be a dozen different names for box braids, there are even more ways to rock them. Giant top knots, fishtail braids, French rolls—you can be as creative as you want to be when styling your braids, but installing them requires both precision and patience. As many of us recall from watching our older sisters, aunts and cousins get box braids back in the day, the process can take anywhere from four to eight hours depending on how long and thick you want your braids to be.
“You part off a small section of the hair, then take the filler hair [and] wrap it around the client’s hair. Then, start to braid in three sections from the root down to the ends of the hair,” Sturdivant-Drew says. “To secure the braids at the ends, you can dip the hair in hot water or depending on the texture, you can leave it free. For example, if it’s curly or wavy hair, the ends can be left free, but if it’s straight, some stylists burn the tips.”
According to got2b and Smooth ‘N Shine celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims, box braids can be executed with synthetic or human hair, but he points out that the type of hair used largely depends on the client’s natural texture. “The human hair option for braiding is a little more advanced,” he says. “Synthetic hair fibers may be too harsh for softer hair textures.”
“It’s all about what look [you’re] going for,” Sturdivant-Drew adds.
The best thing about box braids is there’s no right or wrong way to style them. Thinking about rocking them soon? Do yourself justice, pun intended, and be sure to properly care for and maintain your real strands throughout the duration of your braids.
Always start with clean, conditioned hair and trim your dead ends before installing any protective style. To keep your braids looking fresh, shampoo and condition them every two weeks and moisturize your scalp daily with a lightweight oil, or use dry shampoo on those days when you’re too busy. Sleep with a silk or satin scarf, and never wear your braids longer than four to six weeks at a time.
Fowler warns, “Box braids do not require high tension, and the hair along the perimeter should always be treated with gentility. Maintaining the integrity of the hair and condition of the scalp should not be comprised for tighter looks or saving time.”
It goes without saying, but always consult with a professional hair-braiding salon when getting extensions of any sort. Unless you have some level of professional training, do not attempt to install and uninstall box braids yourself.
So, what is it about box braids that resonates with Black women? Low maintenance and versatility aside, there’s something about rocking a hairstyle that stems directly from our heritage that makes us feel empowered and like a queen. In a society where Black women still feel pressure to conform to someone else’s idea of what we should look like, we can take pride in wearing a hairstyle we’ve worn for centuries, a hairstyle we invented.
Simply put, it’s beauty on our own terms.
Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has been published in several national publications, including EBONY.com, Jetmag.com, Essence.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, and Sesi Magazine. Visit her site or follow her @PrincessGabbara.