A Breakdown of Protective Hairstyles Part 1: Culture and Context

Somewhere in the first few months after I started writing for Mad Growth, my Supervisor suggested I discuss the different types of protective hairstyles. I asked her what “protective hairstyles” were–because I’m always the last person to learn absolutely everything–and, despite the fact that she knew exactly what she meant, we had to turn to Google to find an actual definition. And, for those like me who’ve never heard the term either, here’s the best definition we could come up with:

Protective styles keep the ends of hair tucked away in order to discourage tugging, pulling, and other forms of manipulation. They are also meant, in some cases, to encourage hair growth. The main forms are: braids, wigs, micro links, and locs.

The problem with this definition that that it basically relies on you already knowing what protective styles are in order to understand it. Which, I understand, many, many, many people do already know… but I don’t. And I have not been able to stop thinking about this for weeks despite having quite a few more important things to think about.

So… we’re making this into a thing. Don’t blame me. Blame my boss.

P.S.: this will have a part two. Didn’t mean for it to happen but it got too long as one piece.

Before we start… why does this matter?

Quick answer? Well, it doesn’t, not really (except to obsessed little me). Or that’s what I thought, anyway. But, while doing research for this article, I started wondering why I don’t know a single thing about protective hairstyles, despite my very intense love of (and not at all unhealthy obsession with) beauty and style, plus multiple years where I worked as a hair/makeup artist.

Hours into my first protective hairstyles research rabbit hole–always a fun path to go down–I was able to figure out why. Every reliable source I could find were written for (and, presumably, by) by those of African descent. Then, I happened to come across a very racist article ranting about how lazy, impoverished black women use braids and wigs to defraud America’s government welfare system (which I don’t think is possible given how welfare actually works but go off I guess?) and it all made sense. Protective styles (for various reasons we’ll address next) are very much considered a “black thing.” That in itself isn’t the problem; the negative connotation and stigma that’s popped up around what is, ultimately, a hairstyle is the problem. I didn’t know about it because the extremely sheltered, rich, white community I grew up in wouldn’t let me learn about it. Cause it’s a “bad, black thing.”

But… why, though?

As much as I enjoy science, my first love will always be tied in with history and sociology. And now I have a way to combine all three interests! So, please welcome the new segment I like to call “But… Why, Though?” This is where I get to bore you with cultural/historical context on some random thing I researched that’s tangentially relatable enough to haircare and beauty that I can justify wasting days researching a topic in way too much depth for a hair/beauty advice blog article.

All right, back to the topic at hand: why are protective hairstyles considered a black-only (and, depending on the style, cis-woman-only) thing? Not even as a trend, but as an entire practice?

Let’s tackle the second question first. The easiest answer is that protective hairstyles aren’t a simple trend; they’ve stood the test of time in a way very, very few things can boast. Protective hairstyles of all kinds are based in ancient Africa. And by ancient, I mean ancient. As in we’ve-found-cave-art-of-it ancient. The oldest practice, braids, can be traced back as far as 3000 B.C.E. which makes it the first human-made hairstyle ever recorded. In all of human history.

Now, I’ll address the first question in two parts: why is it considered “black-only,” and why is it stigmatized within white cultures?

The protective hairstyle came in response to African people’s genetic disposition towards very thick hair, most likely as a mechanism to guard the rest of the body–especially the head and brain–from the sun and guard against sunstroke and other similar malities. Add how easily hair can be damaged in a hot African sun prior to the invention of “indoors,” and it all comes together.

Back in 3000 B.C.E., humans hadn’t yet invented agriculture, much less a hairbrush. In such an early era of human history, if your hair was knotted, caught on something, etc, the best case scenario would be a river and your fingers. So, it made sense that any trend that would help lessen this issue would catch on. First as a practical thing, and then, once more complex social groups like agricultural cities, nomads, and tribal life came around, the protective hairstyle was rolled into the idea of a beauty standard. And this practice, trend, whatever you’d like to call it, followed Africans around the world, right up to the present day.

It need not be said how much racism and discrimination from white peoples has affected the black population, especially in America, the country which I call home. Such an African-specific practice like protective styles was ripe for stigma within the eugenic propaganda, and easily labeled as another way the black population was inextricably, unequivocally, fundamentally different than those of European descent. So much so that it became a taboo among all-white populations, which, as exemplified by my own ignorance, persists to this day.

That’s it for the history lesson. Next time, I’ll go into detail about different protective styles, pro’s and con’s to each, and more. You know, the usual schtick we love here. But, before I did get to the fun part, I felt the need to address cultural context and insidious history because that is, unfortunately, part of the discussion. Even if it’s heavier than the usual tone over here, I felt that ignoring this aspect would be a form of erasure, and that’s not something I can get behind. Especially when the article itself came from my motivation to look into the practice, something spurred by the ignorance I can only blame on racism.

Come Through, Growth!

By:Melody Rose 
Source: A long email thread with my African Studies Professor