As I write this, I’m currently fighting the ‘Sunday scaries’. You know the feeling, when mid-afternoon approaches marking the end of a fun-filled or restful weekend ahead of the grind that Monday brings.
Although the feeling has heightened in adulthood with the responsibilities of a big girl job, the ‘scaries’ set in as a child for me because Sunday often marked dreaded wash and braid day.
I hated having my hair braided as a child. Well, no it was a nuanced feeling that I can only really understand now but all in all I hated it, yes.
The feeling of the Afro pik attachment on my mum’s ancient Wahl hairdyer tugging through my hair to stretch out my coils for styling. The heat that filled the room along with the acrobatics I had to do to aid with the detangling made me sleepy so, as I sat on a cushion between my mum’s legs, I would rest my head on her knee for a minute or so at a time before she tapped me to get to the next section.
My mum cannot cornrow (a sore subject for a Jamaican mother) so my big sister would take over for the braiding portion and I would move to sit in between her legs bracing myself for further pulling and jerking. Tiring work for all involved.
My sister Debbie is 12 years older than me, so as I sat legs crossed styling my Barbie, Cindy and Shelly dolls or colouring in my fashion designs, Debbie would be multi-tasking.
The house phone gripped between her ear and shoulder she’d gossip with her college friends or make plans for the week ahead. Concentrating on both these things meant that she couldn’t entertain the concerns I expressed for my tender young scalp as I flinched and ‘OWW’ed my way through.
When she was finished my hair was pulled so tightly that I had the neatest braids and cornrows, but any facial expression was off limit for the next 24 hours at least. She slathered on layer after layer of Blue Magic on my raw scalp, so much that if I was near even a hint of a flame, I would surely be set alight Nicole Richie style.
So yes, I hated braiding Sundays but I kind of loved them too. I loved just being looked after and I revelled in how fresh my hair would look. Immediately after my style was completed, I would spend minutes staring in the mirror tracing the loops and weaves of the braids with my fingers trying to understand how they were made. I didn’t understand anything about my hair as a child really; and I didn’t understand it’s texture, all fluffy and shrinkable.
Once aged 6 or 7 I got bored at school during a cutting and sticking session, so I cut off one of my braids at the crown of my head and unravelled it to get a closer look– it took years to grow back to the same length. I didn’t understand why it took so long to do so.
Braiding Sundays or even just washday Sundays meant I never needed to understand my hair, the responsibility fell to my mum and sister, and I literally never had to touch my style throughout the week, other than to put on my headscarf or a pair of tights to hold my braids in place. Then, aged 12 my mum took me to have my hair chemically straightened.
That was that. No more cornrows or braids, no more Sunday sessions, my hair was now my responsibility. The styles that were previously in weekly rotation like braids, twists, cornrows adorned with little cuffs and big bobbles that looked like hard candies, were all out the window.
The changing of my hair aligned with pre-pubescent ‘kiddy Keeks’ unfurling into a young adult. And I was… happy? Yes, happy because it was 2004 and absolutely no famous, beautiful Black women that were in my cultural sphere had braids, so if I was to emulate this successfully trajectory for myself, straight hair was naturally the answer.
Mel B only wore her curls straight now, Beyonce’s Writing’s on the Wall braided look was swapped for her Crazy in Love weave, heck even the braids queen, Brandy was in her Full Moon raven wig era.
All around me moving from braids and cornrows to straight hair was emblematic of maturing. Like all my R’n’B role models, sisters, and mum, I was a part of the sleek and straight crew. For the next 11 years, the only braiding done to my hair were the tracks that my hairdresser would sew my extensions into.
I’d graduated from the grasp of my mum and sister to visiting an actual hairdresser every 3 months to slap the ‘creamy crack’ on my puffy roots and sew in my 22-inch weave. By the time I was 23 in 2015 I was acting editor of Blackhair a U.K bi-monthly magazine created for woman of colour.
As a part of my role, I kept abreast all the latest trends in hair and beauty and so had noted the rising number of videos on YouTube focusing on styling and caring for natural Afro hair. I sat and trawled through the videos watching as women, mainly in the U.S.A, showed from start to finish how they DIYed their type 3 and 4 coils in everything from braids to braid outs.
I’d learn about the hair type system through work, but I didn’t even know the type that sprung out of my scalp, and it felt all kinds of wrong. I wanted to know my hair, how it changed when wet and how the coils grew and shrunk.
I also wanted to know what my adult face looked like without straight hair. So, I stopped relaxing my hair. At first, I did it to see how long I could go before ultimately caving, but then I decided to ‘transition’– the process of growing out the chemically-altered hair instead of cutting it off (a big chop).
I have nothing but respect for anyone else that has managed two dualling textures when moving from relaxed to natural. Styling coils and thin lengths simultaneously is the hair equivalent of rubbing your tummy and patting your head– extremely confusing. As much as I tried to follow YouTube videos on caring for transitioning hair it felt like I’d bought a piece of IKEA furniture, threw away the instructions and was hopelessly following a fellow DIYer guess their way to a stellar Billy bookshelf.
Ready to head back to the creamy crack, I was at Debbie’s house one weekend moaning about my hair nightmare when she offered to plait it for me. Nothing small or intricate just two big cornrows that’ll stop me fussing with my hair for at least a week. It hadn’t even occurred to me as an option, but it was my gateway back into braiding.
It was a decade later, but I was back sitting on the cushion flinching as she pulled my braids together. When it came time to remove them 2 weeks later, my stomach lurched at the thought of having to manage my transitioning hair again, so I created a Pinterest board of all the braids and twists I wanted to try.
Image after image of beautiful Black women filled my screen but it took a few more months to muster up the courage to get my first box braid install.
Braids in most forms are so quintessentially Black that, looking back, I think the thought of wearing them intimidated me at first.
To stand out was something that I never really wanted to do and as much as I was seeing braided styles online, IRL in the U.K they were yet to be as prominent. So, while transitioning I continued to straighten my hair, clinging onto the texture that I knew how to style, and the Eurocentric beauty look that I felt the most comfortable with.
My mindset hadn’t fully come to terms with the fact my hair was different now and a wealth of styling options beyond straightening were available to me again, so why not embrace them?
My braid lady rocked up to my house on a weekday afternoon– I took the day off work to mentally prepare, wash and blow dry my hair. 7 hours, three packs of synthetic hair and 9 episodes of Real Housewives of Atlanta later we were done.
My neck mustered strength that I was unaware it had, thanks to its ability to hold up the weight of my new style and carry me through the sleepless night that followed, due to the dampness of the braids and the tightness of my hair line.
But the next day, as I got ready, I ran my hand down the braids, flicking them from left to right. I felt great… I was feelin’ myself. I couldn’t believe I had deprived myself of this sensation for so long.
Braids, twists, and plaits are known as protective styles as you don’t have to keep manipulating your hair while you wear them, allowing your hair to grow healthily with no heat, combing or brushing. However, I believe that they protect you mentally as well.
As Black women tackling shifting beauty ideals, wearing a protective style like braids means you don’t have to worry about the rain ruining your silk press, or if your twist out is still wet when you come to style it.
Good hair is so intrinsically linked with how you feel, it’s almost impossible to have a great day if you’re having a bad hair day.
Plus, it’s our thing. Unlike so many things in the world, braids and cornrows are truly rooted in the female Black experience. As Award-winning Hairdresser Charlotte Mensah puts it, “Braids [twists] and threading have a deeper meaning than just aesthetic.”
They don’t just look nice; they also represent your cultural identity. Which is why when other ethnic groups wear them without paying homage or attempt to repackage a Black style as a new trend, it shaves it of its significance.
Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to walk through London without seeing woman with braided styles; professional Black women, whether corporate or creative wearing their hair in a way I failed to see in my teens. With more representation I hope it spawns a generation of little Black girls that don’t see the end of their childhood as the end of their braid phrase.
Reconnecting with my braids helped me grow a full head of natural Afro hair post-relaxer, and while I don’t get my mum or sister to wash and style it for me anymore, I feel a renewed sense of connection to Sunday washdays.
Looking after my mound of fluffy coils is my responsibility. So, while nowadays I keep braids locked up for holidays and harsh winter months, I’ll always have the style to thank for giving me a texture reset.
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