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Illustration of a black pick comb, a black edge brush, and a black hair dryer against a bright-blue background Illustration by Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $294 I ever spent: Getting my hair braided

I yearned for long hair, but desire alone couldn’t undo years of perm damage and hair loss.

“Have you ever grown your hair out?” Michael, my boyfriend, hummed while combing through the curls that crowned my head.

Usually, this question came from the mouths of intrusive acquaintances or opinionated aunties, leading me to shut down or dodge the discussion entirely. But the careful hands of my lover successfully disarmed me.

In the bathroom mirror, I watched his fingers carefully untangle my ends and make way to my roots. The tenderness mimicked a slow peck: poised, unhurried, precise. It was the sort of grace I thought I gave my hair but at that moment realized I didn’t, and maybe never had.

My morning routine offered compassion to my T-zone and its dry patches, offered time to my lash lines and their wont for bold cat eyes. But as for my hair, I was often impatient, tactless, lacking the due care for its needs.

“Yes. Well, I’ve tried,” I responded. “Honestly, I just don’t really understand my hair.”

“You have a lot of hair,” Michael said, still combing. “You just need to be gentle.”

Truth is, I hadn’t just tried — I yearned for long hair. I dreamt of an Angela Davis fro, a Diana Ross fro, a Nina Simone fro. I wanted my kinks to bounce and bounce, to shamelessly block people’s view, to bear witness to the beauty of Blackness. However, desire can’t undo years of perm damage and hair loss.

I had memorized all the golden rules, the nappy hair commands:

thou shalt moisturize regularly
thou shalt deep condition
thou shalt wear a silk scarf to bed
thou shalt cling to protective styling

Yet all my shea-buttered attempts to properly care for my 4C curls seemed to do nothing. And after a nightmarish experience that began with a stylist’s heavy hands and ended with a bald spot in the middle of my head, I completely gave up on trusting the growth process. Each time it grew to an awkward length — a.k.a. the length that begged for more attention than a quick combing and some sloppy oiling of the scalp — I ran to the nearest barbershop and surrendered my confused TWA (teeny-weeny afro) to the decisiveness of a hair clipper.

Though I yearned for a big, brilliant fro, it was less disappointing to maintain a routine of getting a buzzcut every so often. With a shaved head, no one asked uncomfortable questions or made unwarranted comments. Best of all, I didn’t have to confront the appearance insecurities that time-warped my mind back to tweendom.

Still, despite the shame I harbored for failing to grow out my hair, a teeny-weeny-sized desire to keep trying persisted.

“I’ve thought about getting my hair braided, but I’m a little scared,” I said, as Michael worked through the tender baby hairs. I was still staring in the mirror, but now I was looking at myself.

After a few days, I journeyed down the rabbit hole that is the natural hair YouTube universe. I usually made this voyage before making a major decision, like choosing a deep conditioner, breaking up with coconut oil, or ditching chemical treatments for good. Now, though, nine years after first discovering this part of the internet, all the advice for healthy curls was still the same. Like chants, these digital sisters reiterated all the nappy commands, and they echoed in my head over and over again:

thou shalt moisturize regularly
thou shalt deep condition
thou shalt wear a silk scarf to bed
thou shalt cling to protective styling

Eventually, I said a reluctant amen to that last nappy command and Googled braiding salons in Harlem. The abundance of shops in my area overwhelmed me a bit. I was so accustomed to the Texas suburbs and the lack of options, but here, there was practically a salon on every other block. I chose a shop with 4.5 stars, Covid-19 safety guidelines, and zero reports of lost edges as the winner.

The salon’s website listed 19 different braid and twist styles. My favorites ranged in price from $200 for spring twists to $300 for hip-length box braids. In the past, I would’ve tapped out at this point and opted for my mom’s friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, who might charge closer to $100 or $150, tops.

But lower rates, though more alluring, would most likely result (at best) in a random stranger tugging and pulling and texture-shaming my hair for six to eight long, long hours; at worst, in another bald-spot disaster. Although my budget was admittedly tight, spending a few hundred dollars on a reputable stylist felt justifiable. Especially since, if done right, these styles can often last for up to eight weeks.

After going back and forth between box braids and passion twists, I settled for the classic braid ’do, which was priced at $250 for a length that reached mid-back.

Deciding on box braids evoked a sense of reconnection to girlhood. When I was a teen, my mom encouraged me to pick this style, and I always happily agreed. If she had the time and energy, she might even make the plaits herself. I’d sit between her knees and embrace the extended closeness — the soft power of her hands adorning my head, the Nollywood film loudly playing in the background, the tiny breaks we’d take to eat plantains or chin chin, the buoyancy of her thick Nigerian accent when she affirmed me.

“You’re going to look so pretty!”

“Wow, you’re looking good, oh!”

As I booked the appointment, I crossed my fingers that I might feel a sort of cosmic reunion with the safety I’d experienced while settled in my mom’s lap.

On the day of the appointment, the Harlem sky swayed like cerulean cloth, and the sun’s shine radiated mildly. Outside the brownstone salon, a brown man was selling watermelon and mango, which I accepted as a good sign.

As I walked in, the watching felt intensified by everyone’s masks. All I could see was round eyes, almond eyes, small eyes, big eyes, all eyes on me until three or four seconds passed, and then the room returned to its light chatter. Soon enough a friendly voice greeted me, and all of sudden I became aware of the scent melody in the air, the cocoa, the tea tree oil, the lavender, and I was breathing deeply again. As Corinne Bailey Rae played, a glowing woman introduced herself as Sonnie.

My companions often tease me for being sentimental, which is 100 percent true. I try (and usually fail) to avoid that part of my nature, but a few things here made it impossible:

  1. Sonnie touched my hair and did not groan about the kinkiness.
  2. Sonnie touched my hair and asked if I was tender-headed.
  3. Sonnie touched my hair and told me to speak up if she was tugging or pulling or yanking.
  4. Sonnie touched my hair and told me to never let my friends or boyfriend, or anyone for that matter, tug or pull or yank.
  5. Sonnie touched my hair and started singing along with Corinne.

And I swear I’m not being dramatic when I say this appointment redeemed me, when I say that for the first time it didn’t feel like my hair was a burden. Sonnie made each braid as if she was cradling a baby or teaching someone how to be held. Every so often, she’d ask how I was doing, sometimes two or three times in a row. As she braided, she told me about her cats, her iguanas, her dogs. Sonnie told me she was too extroverted for quarantine, which made me wonder if she was trying to say that she was lonely. There was no chin chin or Nigerian accents, but the soft power that my mom possessed was in Sonnie’s hands too. Maybe every Black femme has it.

After a four-ish hours of scalp-kissing castor oil, the extensions finally and fully enveloped my head. For two packs of hair, the styling fee, the service charge, and tax, the total cost was $294.73. I swiped my card, feeling satisfied and cared for.

Later, I FaceTimed my mom to show her.

“Looks beautiful,” she said. “But how much did it cost?”

Hesitantly, I told her. She screamed. I rolled my eyes and frowned. I wanted to tell her about the cocoa smell, the brownstone mango, about Sonnie and her soft power. But before I could, my mom giggled.

“Well, you’re looking good, oh!”

Loré Yessuff writes poems and essays about the intersection of intimacy and identity. Her work has appeared in the New York Times’s Modern Love column, Man Repeller, Voicemail Poems, and more.


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