What You Always Wanted to Know about Box Braids

Cornelia Ehlebracht ’25

News Editor

One of my first memories is sitting in a little pink chair squeezing the life out of my teddy bear as the relaxer in my hair burned my scalp. A relaxer is a product commonly utilized by women of color with tightly curly hair to chemically alter the natural curls, resulting in a straighter texture. The Black hair care industry has always been incredibly lucrative, and during the 1900s, Madame CJ Walker, known for the press-and-curl styling process, made a lasting impact in the industry when she patented her Black hair care line and became the first self-made millionaire among American women. Around the same time, in 1909, Garrett Augustus Morgan made a groundbreaking discovery: hair relaxers specifically designed for Black hair.

During the cultural movement promoting natural hairstyles during the 1960s and 1970s, the afro hairstyle emerged as a powerful political symbol of Black pride, reflecting a resistance against societal pressure for assimilation, a visual manifestation of the African diaspora’s strength and resilience. While the natural hair movement championed the celebration of Black hair in its natural form, the decision to use relaxers or other chemical treatments is not inherently a rejection of one’s cultural identity. Individual choices regarding hair texture and styling are multifaceted and influenced by personal preference, convenience, societal standards and cultural identity.

Relaxing led me to years of damage as my hair was processed into dry, lifeless, thin strands and my scalp was burnt and scabbed. Yet despite the pain, I would suffer if it meant getting my hair as straight as possible. For my whole life and my mother’s whole life, as an Afro-Latina born and raised in Panama whose hair was relaxed by her family, all we had known was relaxing your hair was the only way to keep it manageable. Then, I found the natural hair community on YouTube. This was a community of girls who, just like me, had their hair processed from a young age and were ready to cease the use of any chemical straighteners and “go natural.” I realized, so was I. The summer after my freshman year of high school, I made the best decision of my hair’s life, I cut it all off. When I decided to embrace my natural hair and undergo the process of going completely natural, getting box braids became an essential part of my journey. With roots in South Africa, box braids have a rich history that stretches back to 3500 B.C. The version of this iconic hairstyle, as we know it today, can be connected to Ancient Egypt, where archaeological findings provide evidence of its existence dating back at least 3,000 years. Popularized by Janet Jackson in the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” box braids cemented their role within African-American style and beauty culture. Hair stylists who create box braids start by dividing the hair into separate box-shaped sections, braiding the hair while feeding in synthetic or human strands of hair piece by piece to create a lengthened braid.

Finding a hairstylist who specializes in braiding can be challenging, but social media makes it easier for potential clients to find skilled stylists and for hairstylists to promote their work. Braiding is a key industry that supports small, Black-owned businesses contributing to the economic growth and empowerment of the community. The cost of braids can vary significantly, usually ranging from around $150 to $300 or even higher for the added hair and styling, depending on the complexity and time required to complete the braiding process. While the cost may seem steep, it reflects the craftsmanship and time investment of the hairstylist, as box braids can take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours or more to complete depending on size and style. Box braids are often worn for about 6-8 weeks with smaller-sized braids being able to last maybe a few weeks longer, but you’re not completely off the hook. It is important to listen to your hair and properly care for it while it’s in braids, including regular washing, moisturizing and scalp care.

Spending several long hours at the salon or house of your hairstylist, provides an opportunity for women to connect, share stories and bond with one another. For many Black women, getting box braids is more than just a hairstyle. It’s a cultural tradition and a sense of community that brings women together. As the braiders skillfully weave each braid, the atmosphere is often filled with music, laughter and sometimes even movies playing in the background. Box braids not only offered a protective style that preserved the health of my hair, but they also allowed me to experiment with different lengths, styles and even colors without causing damage or hindering the growth process. For Black women, box braids are a protective hairstyle that reduces the risk of breakage and damage caused by styling, brushing and other daily activities, by protecting the end of the hair, which for Black people may be more prone to dryness and breakage if not properly cared for.

With box braids, Black women can wake up in the morning with a ready- to-go hairstyle that allows them more time to focus on hobbies, friends, school and work. With box braids, I no longer had to invest excessive time and effort into styling my hair every day and could feel confident without having to worry about my hair. As my hair grew out underneath the box braids, I witnessed the transformation firsthand. I was able to see and feel for the first time in as long as I could remember, how my hair grew out naturally and I loved it.

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