Culture & Entertainment

Why Do People Think Wearing Protective Styles Means Black Women Hate Their Hair?

Black women’s natural hair is constantly a topic of conversation. Whether it’s in the workplace, on the red carpet, or in everyday life, how Black women choose to style their hair will always be a topic. This constant bombardment of opinions, both inside and outside of the Black community, about the way Black women’s hair is presented to the rest of the world can be a lot to manage and process at times.

Though we sang along with India.Arie, as she serenaded us with her classic “I Am Not My Hair,” Black women’s hair is indeed a statement of who they choose to be when they show up in the world each day. Valencia Carillo of Perfect Hair says, “We like to say we aren't our hair, but we also are. It changes how we feel and how we view ourselves.”

There are many reasons Black women choose protective styles such as braids, twists, and wigs as their go-to styles for everyday life.

“I wear protective styles because it's not only convenient to manage, but I love it," shares Bobbie Riley, celebrity hair and makeup artist. As a Black woman who is constantly on various sets throughout Los Angeles, I’m always aware of my hair and the lack of knowledge some have about it. I want to feel confident when doing shoots, but know there’s always a chance that the HMU on set won’t be prepared to style me accordingly. This is why I choose protective styles so frequently when shooting. However, when I’m not booked, I enjoy having my natural hair free.

Today, more Black women are embracing their natural hair and protective styles while pushing boundaries they wouldn’t have been able to less than a decade ago. Abena Afrane, a licensed celebrity cosmetologist, says, “There's a noticeable shift, even among news anchors, who now confidently wear hairstyles like braids on TV.” Yet, even with this shift, a new conversation is emerging about Black women and protective styles.

Though we see many Black women wearing their natural hair publicly, there is also a new lingering question, “Is Black women’s ‘reliance’ on protective styles simply another way we’ve found to hide a piece of ourselves in order to be deemed more presentable?”


The truth of it all lies somewhere much deeper than that.

The History of Hair Discrimination

To fully understand where the stigma and desire to assimilate comes from, we have to venture to the origin of hair discrimination in America. Black women’s hair has been used as a weapon against them since the inception of this country. The coils of our hair are one of the most prominent features that distinguishes Black people from other races, and because of this, it’s been used to make us feel inferior.

One example of this would be the origins of the term “nappy.” It’s believed that the origin of the term comes from the word nap, which described the frizzled thread that came apart from a piece of fabric. The term “nappy” was used to describe African slaves’ hair to demean and dehumanize them.

Likewise, because of the intricate braiding styles and designs our ancestors brought to America from the continent, Black women were often forced to hide their hair. This was used as a tool to shame Black women, create a racial hierarchy, and hide our culture.

An example of this was the Tignon Laws of 1786. When the Spanish took control of Louisiana, there was a population of free Black people living in the state. To display a cultural hierarchy, the governor mandated that free Black women wear tignon, head scarves historically worn by slaves, as a means to display their inferiority to white women.


Cabinet Card of Sarah Ann Blunt Crozley wearing a tignon in the 1800s.

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Though they complied, they began to use them not only as a fashion statement, making them out of colorful and expensive fabrics and adding feathers and jewels to them, but also as a means of rebellion against their colonial ruling powers.

As time went on, Black women began to attempt to assimilate into white culture by straightening their hair. The famous Madame C.J. Walker made her fortune helping Black women manage and permanently straighten their hair. Though Walker’s business thrived and enabled other Black women to build wealth, today, many Black women are moving away from relaxers and consistently straightening their hair.

Black women are now embracing their natural hair with each passing year, but this emergence of unapologetic Blackness is often met with pushback.

Where Do Protective Styles Come From?

Protective styles are not a new phenomenon within the Black community or our African ancestry. The texture of most Black women’s hair easily gets tangled and knotted and can succumb to breakage if not well cared for properly. This reality has led centuries of Black women to find ways to protect and maintain their crowns. There are Stone Age paintings dating back to 3000 BC of North African women wearing braids in their hair.

What we call cornrows – named by enslaved Africans in the American South because they looked like rows of corn – are also known as irun didi by Yoruba people. The intricate nature of this style was not only practical but easier to maintain for an extended amount of time.

Similarly, Fulani braids – named after the Fulani people of West Africa – were used as a symbol of a woman’s marital status, career, or socio-economic class in pre-slave trade Africa. Likewise, Bantu knots – named after the Bantu group of the Zulu people – were used as a heatless curling technique for Black women centuries before it gained popularity in mainstream America.


Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

As chronicled in Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, the everchanging and cyclical relationship Black people have with their hair is often a reflection of their desire for freedom or connection to their ancestral roots. Growing up in the 90s, braids, twists, ponytails, wigs, etc. were commonplace in my and my mother’s friend groups.

Black women looking for ways to manage and care for their hair isn’t a new concept, but protective styles transition into the mainstream arena has created new conversations centered around whether Black women are using it as a mechanism to hide their natural hair.

Instead of acknowledging that Black women are becoming more comfortable with embracing themselves and their heritage, their choice of hairstyle is yet another sector where individuals have been allowed to over-police and analyze them.

Hair Discrimination Today

Global Head of DEI for Ferguson Partners Dionna Johnson Sallis admits she has experienced and witnessed hair discrimination towards Black women multiple times during her 13-year tenure in corporate America. She says, “wearing straight wigs or getting sew-ins that mirror the Eurocentric form of beauty can be a form of fitting in.” Sallis continues, “But I think many of us lean toward the more Afrocentric forms of a protective styling such as braids, twists, faux locs, and things that are more textured.”

I agree with Sallis and often use protective styles that still fully display my “Blackness,” because my goal is never to make any believe I’m ashamed of my culture or ancestry. However, there was a time when wearing my natural hair to work, whether it be in front of or behind the camera, was seen as unkempt or unprofessional.

I was told to make sure my hair was “neat” when I came into the office or was a prominent topic of discussion whenever I wore my fro out.

Luckily, I have always had older Black women around to remind my white coworkers not to touch my hair or make a big deal out of a new style I had. Nonetheless, these constant microaggressions can weigh on a person while begging the question: “Should I just cover my natural hair so they’ll shut up already?”

Sallis believes experiences like the ones I describe are less prominent today; “Because of the CROWN Act, it is made it more difficult to be discriminated against because there is a very blatant law in place to prevent this discrimination and microaggressions compared to 10 or 15 years ago.”

Strides like these have come as a result of Black women mobilizing to pursue true equity for themselves and future generations. Afrane adds, “I've observed a significant change where we're boldly advocating for equality and inclusivity in professional spaces. It's inspiring to witness us standing up and speaking out for ourselves.”

Black Women’s Rights to Their Individuality 

Depending on what your daily life looks like, protective styles can be an easy way to manage and maintain your natural hair in a healthy manner. Carillo has been doing my protective styles for years, and we often talk about our busy lives managing businesses, being mothers, and still wanting to feel like ourselves. Like many Black women, we use our hair as a form of expression and style. Carillo says, “At the end of it all, I think most Black women choose what we want and what makes us feel good.” Afrane agrees, “It feels like we're collectively embracing hairstyles that bring us joy and align with our lifestyles.”

Though there will always be podcast conversations on whether or not natural hair is appropriate for formal events and people trying to create a divide between Black women who mainly wear weave and wigs versus the ones who wear their afro regularly, the one consensus I found among the women I interviewed is there is some level of awareness, whether positive or negative, Black women experience in relationship to their hair and how others perceive them.


Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

Riley shared a recent experience on set with one of her clients where the brand wanted a fiber fill to give her client a more “hair-like look.” Riley and her client both agreed it wasn’t the direction they wanted to go and continued with their original aesthetic for the shoot. “I loved her facial structure and her hair how it was, and I wanted her to feel just as beautiful embracing it,” Riley says.

Carillo adds, “Insecurities are real, and while we love to do what we need to for us, I'd be lying to say some women don't consider what others think.”

As we all know, existing in the intersectionality of Black womanhood comes with a slew of challenges, disparities, and dangers. However, just as the women of Louisiana in 1786 used their tignons as a form of expression, creativity, and rebellion, Black women today embrace our crowns the same way. One of the greatest joys many of us experience as Black women are switching up our hairstyles to match our mood, occasion, or season.

We find liberation in changing our styles to express who we are in the current moment we’re existing in. Though there are some who may use protective styles as a means to assimilate into Eurocentric culture, far more of us change our hairstyles to match our vibe. Afrane says, “The joy lies in the freedom to explore various looks, and it feels like we're collectively embracing hairstyles that bring us joy.”

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Featured image by RoGina Montgomery/Getty Images




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