I’ve shared a lot about the Facebook-esque ‘It’s Complicated’ relationship with my hair but it’s only recently that I’ve started thinking about the significance of a particular style, my beloved braids. When I was younger, I just saw braided extensions as my quick-fix solution to having longer locks. All I needed to do was sit in a random relative’s living room for 8 hours and presto, I could now be more Moesha and whip my hair back and forth.
My early encounters didn’t always end well however. My Mum wasn’t happy with the pick and drop style I donned in Year 7 (one fell out during form time) and I got a little bored after the 63rd Cleopatra reference. Soon after, I switched to the relaxers that would define my hair for the next 13 years. On the surface I projected happiness, but I was stuck in a cycle of thinking my hair would grow past my shoulders if I just waited a few more months and seeing extensions as a cop-out. If we’re sticking to the Facebook analogies, my relaxed hair and I were in a committed, albeit frustrated relationship.
I only started to consider braids again after I started seeing different variations on Instagram. The platform displayed black women looking confident and beautiful, leading me to get a little bit screenshot happy. I started to like them on a superficial level, but it’s only now I can appreciate the history and skill that goes into each style. These different do’s are a way to connect to my rich Afro Caribbean heritage and express myself without saying a word.
Since I’ve had a few triumphs and mistakes with my various different looks, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve realised on my braiding journey. No one wants to be weighed down to one side like a certain leaning tower.
Definition: Think Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. These are individual plaits boosted by synthetic hair extensions, with that partings look like small boxes. This style can be traced to the chin-length bobs worn by women of the Nile valley 3000 years ago and is similar to the Eeembuvi braids of Namibia. The addition of cowrie shells, jewels and beads meant that a woman was rich, revered or ready to mate.
How long do they take? 4+ hours or one season of Master of None. It all depends on the thickness and length (I usually get them to my waist).
How long do they last? 4-8 weeks
Why I like them: Ahhh box braids! I have a special relationship with these as they were the first style I tried after my relaxed years. I love their thickness, versatility and long-lasting properties. Think high buns, high ponytails and twisted crowns. Anything goes.
The best thing is that they blend with most afro hair types, just be sure to buy synthetic hair that matches your own texture. I tend to use Impressions or Expressions and the frizz only starts to get really noticeable after 3-4 weeks. If you like to wear your hair in a particular parting, then be sure to mention this too.
What went wrong: So the first time I tried these, I wanted to keep things as cheap as possible. I trekked to a random girl’s living room in Zone 3, hadn’t brought enough hair and started to have doubts after a few hours when I finally popped to the loo. I could see that they were a lot shorter than I’d wanted and all kinds of heavy. Although she’d stuck to my Instagram inspo religiously, she hadn’t taken into account that my head wouldn’t be used to this tension.
They lesson here is to ask your hairdresser for advice beforehand. Tell her what your head is used to and ask her if she can adjust the style to make it lighter if needs be (plus double check how much hair you will need). I was obsessed with a full look but now after a few stints, I’ve realised that this can be achieved with a modest amount of braids. It’s always better to err on the side of caution as you don’t want too much pressure on the scalp. I also find this style tricky to exercise in, so I only get them if I know I’m going to be away for a while and skiving the gym.
Definition: They originate from Senegal (obvs) and are similar to box braids except synthetic extensions are two-strand twisted into the hair.
How long do they take? 6+ hours. Probably best not to plan to do something afterwards (I learned this the hard way).
How long do they last? 4-8 weeks
Why I like them: Hello volume! I have fond memories of the hairstyle I had back in 2014 and the thing I liked the most was the definition. These twists seem even more carefree and can be styled in so many ways.
What went wrong: The thing about these twists is that they’re easier to unravel. I remember one falling out as I got it caught going through airport security (don’t ask) and you can end up in a tangled mess if you’re not careful.
Also regrowth is a lot more obvious if you have 4c hair like me. I realised that my barnet doesn’t stay in its blowdried state for long and any frizz is pretty noticeable (I think I had to get a few redone after a few weeks).
It just depends on how much this bothers you and whether it’s better to spend your money on a slightly different look. Next time I’d probably use Marley hair similar to my own texture or a crochet method.
Feed In Braids (All Back)
Definition: Now we’re in cornrow (or canerows as they say in Jamaica) territory. The technique means that three-strand braids are weaved close to the scalp with extensions. They differ to french braids, as sections are crossed under instead of over, allowing the plait to really stand out. If you type this into Pinterest, then you’ll probably see a mixture of Ghana and Goddess braid patterns, combining different thicknesses and directions.
These kinds of braids were first seen in sculptures and hieroglyphs from 500BC. There are patterns for fertility, marriage and slaves used them to create maps so that they could plan their escape.
How long do they take? 1-3 hours depending on the thickness and amount of braids. You could make plans afterwards and actually be able to see them through.
How long do they last? 2 weeks
Why I like them: I first tried these out last year for my Singapore trip and they’re a great solution for holidays. They take less time to install and are a little cheaper, so it’s a great way to ease yourself in. Styling them takes no time at all, as you have the option of a ponytail, low bun or just wearing them down. They’re also a lot lighter for the gym.
What went wrong: There’s no massive negatives to this style. The only thing is that you’re limited in options, which only dawned on me after a few days. Depending on your hair texture and preference for slick edges, things can look a little less polished on day 5. You also shouldn’t wash them, as they’re in for such a short time.
Feed In Braids (Ponytail)
Definition: This is a slight variation to ‘all back’ as the style is designed upwards. The cornrows travel upwards all around the head and finish as a braid to create the ponytail.
How long do they take: 2-3 hours
How long do they last: 2-3 weeks
Why I like them: I like big buns and I cannot lie. This is my favourite style to do when I want my hair off my face, it’s light, fun and a little bit sculptural depending on the patterns. Anything to add a little bit extra to my 5’6 height.
What went wrong: The only thing is that you can’t really wear these down (hello Sideshow Bob) and you have to be careful about putting too much tension on the scalp. It’s not a bad hairstyle to be stuck with for a couple of weeks though.
Definition: This regal style is a mixture of cornrows at the front and single plaits at the back of the head. There’s usually a cornrow going down the middle, one on each side travelling forwards and the rest can be swept to one side or follow the centre part. The Fulani people hail from West Africa and are one of the largest nomadic groups in the world.
How long do they take: 3-4 hours
How long do they last: 3-4 weeks
Why I like them: The combination of cornrows and single plaits is more versatile than you might think. You can wear them all down, in a bun, in a ponytail or half up half down. They’re light and look great with gold beads added in randomly. If you’re insecure about your forehead, then the intricate cornrows frame the face nicely and there’s so many different variations.
What went wrong: I think we have a winner! Next time I’d probably simplify things and not have the extra cornrows traveling forwards. They didn’t affect my glasses too much but were a little tender during the early days. If you add gold beads, then be prepared to leave a trail of them in the gym. You also can’t wash them.
As you may have guessed, I’m probably a little too cack-handed to attempt most of these myself. Most of the time I will Whataspp Emily from Box Braids Boutique, as she’s super fast, knowledgeable and mobile. Her prices can include hair (saving you from a last minute dash to Paks) and she’s listened to many a meltdown.
Emily works on all hair types including non-afro hair, so she can advise on the best styles that will suit your texture and avoid cultural appropriation. In my opinion if you’re from a different culture, the key is to understand the historical significance, support black stylists and work towards dismantling any negative perceptions of afro hair. Braids aren’t just a trend that can be ditched like disco pants.
In terms of maintenance, I use a braid spray every day, oil in the roots and wash only the braided styles every two weeks with diluted shampoo (more details here). I try not to get them braided too tight at my hairline and it’s important to communicate this beforehand.
I’d love to know about your experiences with braids! I really wanted to document the bond I have with this particular style and share what I’ve learned along the way. If I can stop anyone else messing up their hair the day before a flight (I’m talking accidental dreadlocks), then I’m happy.