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There can be a lot of maintenance with curly hair. For me, I rarely go a day without three applications of hydrating creams or products, spend at least an hour detangling, and spend another hour styling my hair. The entire process totals one two-hour wash day a week and about 30 minutes of daily morning prep. Don’t get me wrong, I love my curls, but I’ve really taken advantage of shelter-in-place orders by giving my hair some TLC without the long-term commitments. I’ve allocated time for deep-conditioning treatments, scalp detoxifiers to rid my hair of product buildup, and protective styles to preserve and grow out my hair.
Braids are my protective style — a hairstyle that gives your natural hair a break from the daily wear and tear — of choice. I regularly enjoy twists, box braids, individuals, and cornrows. Not only do these styles require minimum maintenance, but they are also neat, and every time I wear them, I’m reminded of the rich African ancestry. To me, it’s a visible connection to the diaspora, one that I am proud to wear. However, I’m learning that with protective styles comes judgment.
A few weeks ago, an ex-boyfriend reached out and asked if I wanted to hang out soon. After briefly catching up via text, he shared a couple days he was free. Work-wise, his availability totally worked for me — it happened to be a week where my schedule wasn’t filled with hard deadlines and multiple Zoom calls. However, the dates were either on the day I was going to get box braids or sometime after having the braids. Although it had been a year since I’d seen him, I strongly remembered he loved my natural hair and couldn’t care less for braids.
“Them curls are popping” or “OK curls, I see you” were always the first things out of his mouth when we met up — and I’ll admit, it felt great to have a man vocally appreciate a natural feature. Still, I was also very aware that he never said this to me when I had braids or weaves in. In fact, a few of the Black men in my life and mutual circles have voiced negative feelings around protective styles. Some don’t prefer their girlfriends with braids, as their hands can’t easily glide over the tracks when playing in our hair. Others have said it looks “too white.”
As my fingertips hovered over my iPhone in search of a reply, I contemplated if I would succumb to his previous preferences by arranging a meetup before I got the braids in, or if I would let my braids hold space.
It was a real moment of realization: at some point, in all relationships — whether consciously or not — I become aware of preferences and tailor my decision toward them. My sister prefers teacups to be dried and put away directly after they are washed, instead of air-drying on the drying rack, in fear that they will gather more germs. So I adapted and put them away immediately after washing. A former editor of mine had mixed feelings on the Oxford comma, so I’d be extra cautious when editing my grammar when submitting to him. When Black men who I’ve been involved with loved when I wore my hair natural, I adapted again. I got really good at adapting to other people’s tastes and preferences.
The thing is, when you’re constantly hearing the same language (or lack thereof) from men about protective styles, it takes a toll and you slowly start to adjust to the majority’s preferences of beauty and power. Once I had this ah-ha moment and realized my slippery tendencies to make other people comfortable, I decided to honor my own preferences. In this case, I decided to meet up with my braids in.
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We planned on a morning hike. Since it was a physical activity, I was tempted to wear a hat and potentially get away without him seeing my hair at all. Of course, I decided to go against that and show up in my authentic truth: braids.
When I asked him if he liked my hair, he said, “It’s not that you’re not beautiful like this — you are — but it’s that your curls are so unique to any other Black woman I know, so why would you hide that? You used to be so secure.” Confused, I told him how the braids were in because they are low maintenance and a great way to grow out my hair. I explained that it had nothing to do with conforming and hiding; it was a lot less deep than he perceived.
What irritated me most is that he implied that with braids, I was now insecure. This guy and many other Black men I know see natural girls as secure, comfortable with themselves, free, and courageous to go against the societal pressures inflicted on us to conform to European beauty standards. Which I would agree with, but that doesn’t mean women who wear protective styles aren’t those things as well.
Too often, Black women’s hair affects the way they are perceived long before they even speak. Countless experiences in corporate America have taught me that. And I find it ironic that Black men who claim to love Black women do exactly that by shaming us out of protective styles and deeming us “insecure” when we wear them. Although he said he understood why I was wearing braids that day and apologized for his reasonings, it still didn’t sit well with me.
It’s exhausting to navigate the many opinions surrounding my hair. The majority of American corporations I’ve worked for would have loved my hair to be straight, whereas potential boyfriends want it as natural as can be. My hope is to live in a world where people don’t feel the need to share their opinions on Black hair. If you like it, great. If you don’t, that’s OK, too. I don’t need a man to validate me or my decisions. If I like it, that’s all that matters.
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