Are protective hairstyles for Black women really protective? Here’s what experts say

Box braids. Cornrows. Bantu knots. Senegalese twists. Lace-front wigs. These are just some of the protective hairstyles Black women wear to take a “break” from daily maintenance or to simply switch up their look. But excessive pulling at the scalp and the repetitive nature of braiding and twisting strands without proper technique and care can lead to breakage, or even worse, hair loss.

The age-old belief that “pain is beauty” is deeply rooted in American culture, and it’s part of the reason why so many Black women are willing to sacrifice hours of suffering for the sake of looking good. But what about the damage it inflicts on their mental health?

Video Transcript

- No pain, no gain. Right?

- I'm thugging it out in the chair like-- [SIGHS]

- Holding onto the arm rest.

- Pop some pills.

- Did I say anything? No.

- Everything will be fine. No, it was not fine.

DERICK MONROE: For years, women have been told pretty hurts, from corsets to hairstyles. What good is it to have a beautiful style, but you're not comfortable? You could be a party with this amazing hairstyle. But the whole time all you can think about is how your head is hurting.

KARI WILLIAMS: We'll typically see a lot of hair loss around the hairline. And that is a result of a lot of the hairstyles that we wear as Black women. It can start and be temporary. But if that particular type of trauma is repeated over and over, it can cause and lead to permanent hair loss.

AFIYA MBILISHAKA: So hair loss can impact someone's mental health because it can impact self-esteem, low self-worth, sadness, and just fear that more will come out. And when we don't have hair, then there's potential for a disconnection with our environment and social world.

MELANIE FAUNTLEROY: So I'm thinking that's something that older women experienced, like 60 and older. But to be in your early 30s or even late 20s to be experiencing hair loss, I was feeling more frustrated than anything.

KARI WILLIAMS: I think that anyone, no matter what your ethnic background or race is, can identify that, when your hair is not looking good, you don't feel good. For Black women especially, throughout history, this particular aspect, our hair, has been under attack. Who we are as people are under attack that, when a Black woman is experiencing hair loss, there is a sense of loss of self.

AFIYA MBILISHAKA: I think that it really needs to be normalized because the research right now suggests that 47% of Black women experience hair loss at some point in their lifetime.

DERICK MONROE: It's been hard a lot of times. But if your hairstyle is that you're sort of born to do this, you're not just good at your craft, but you're also somewhat of a psychologist, you can tell that women are going through stuff emotionally. When they are losing their hair, they are, a lot of times, put themselves down a lot, I've noticed, like, oh, I'm not pretty or, oh, my hair looks a mess. And it's like, no.

As long as you take the time to nourish and figure out what your issues are and what your problems are, that's nothing that we can't overcome.

AFIYA MBILISHAKA: There are a few different steps that Black women can take to end hair loss. A major piece is self care. What's going on inside of our bodies can actually impact our hair and hair growth.

KARI WILLIAMS: To the Black women who are suffering from hair loss, I would encourage you to not lose hope and to seek help immediately.

MELANIE FAUNTLEROY: After watching the documentary, I'm realizing that it's a matter of being comfortable with just who you are and just being confident in that.

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