My hair and I have a complicated relationship.
Growing up, I never gave my hair the self-care it needed. I would tie it up into a ponytail, get relaxers on a daily basis, and refuse to use any product other than shampoo and conditioner (which also contained high levels of sulfate — a huge no-no for curls). Point blank, my hair was damaged and thick, and I didn't take the time to learn how to maintain my natural type 3C hair.
The only time I experimented with my hair and gave it an ounce of care that it needed was when I had braids. Sometimes I would leave the house in my usual ponytail and return home with anything from cornrows to dutch braids. I never got a massive haircut or color, so this was how I felt bold.
Braids were a way for me to connect with others and feel confident. Then I started high school, and I started to push away from the familiar styles I grew up with to fit in. I stopped wearing the style for fear of being put into a box with only people that looked like me, while also believing I wasn't "Latina enough" or "black enough" to embrace it in the first place.
I spent years during and after college trying to figure out my identity, which included embracing the features I once stripped away. I threw out all my hot tools, stopped getting relaxers, and finally put the ponytail to rest. I decided to give my curly, coil-y hair the love it deserved.
Still, braids were always in the back of my mind. This Summer, I looked around at the different styles, colors, and textures of braids and it gave me a wave of nostalgia. I started keeping a collection of inspiration from Instagram in hopes that I would find the courage to get my hair braided again.
However, I was anxious and nervous. Although I'm a woman of color, I feared I would misrepresent or squeeze my way into a community uninvited. The thought of wearing braids again, especially a newer style, made me feel like a fraud. Braids have been around as far back as 3500 B.C. from Africa as a sign of social status, unity, and simple pure art; yet time again, women of color, specifically black women, are scrutinized and judged for wearing braids or other natural looks.
So, I asked a trusted friend for her honest opinion. She put all my worries to rest, saying I shouldn't feel judged, and even volunteered to give me crochet braids — a protective style that uses extensions (which can be hair, yarn, or thread) and loops it into your actual hair with a crochet needle. It's also the perfect way to maintain my dense, curly hair in the hot Summer months.
While the braiding process itself was familiar to me, nothing prepared me for the finished look. I made my way into the bathroom and couldn't believe what I saw in my reflection. It was me, yet I felt like a totally different person. Physically, my hair was longer, but mentally, it was a little deeper than that. I felt the same way my younger self girl felt when I got my hair braided by her friends. I felt beautiful, confident, and unapologetically me.
However, the big test was leaving the confines of my friend's house and stepping into the real world. Once I headed to the train, I felt all eyes were on me. Maybe I was paranoid, but I felt like I was holding a big neon sign over my head that said, "Look at what I did!" Finally, I took a deep breath and lifted my head up high — because dammit, I felt good!
I spent the next three weeks with my braids and all the fears I had went away. I received countless positive remarks and compliments. My appreciation also grew for women of color who continue to be leaders of the natural hair movement and celebrate their braids in every shape and form. These women ignore society's perception of what it means to have "good hair" and continue to highlight their culture — our culture. My crochet braids didn't just provide me with a new look, but they also gave me the permission to be the person I've always been.