Coco Chanel said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” Taking this universal truth a step further, I’d venture to say the same goes for a woman who revamps her look, even without reaching for the nearest pair of shears. Whether we like it or not, our unique physical attributes become key parts of our identity. Think Cindy Crawford’s iconic beauty mark, Grace Jones’s signature flat-top fade, or my naturally big, curly hair. When we decide to ditch those traits (even temporarily), we have the power to take on a whole new energy and gain an extra push to leave behind people, places, or belief systems that no longer serve us.
So many aspects of my life have changed over the past year, so I was looking for more than a new vibe. From shifts in my career to losing my father suddenly to falling out of friendships, I felt so different from the person I was 12 months prior. Beyond the aesthetic, I needed emotional and spiritual renewal, a stylistic revamp that would propel me forward into the great (and somewhat scary) unknown.
I’ve been toying with the idea of trying out braids for years. While browsing Instagram, I’d stop mid-scroll and swoon over the inimitably cool Zoë Kravitz, imagining what it would be like to give her bohemian style a whirl. Still, the thought of departing from my signature mane was intimidating. Would I even be me without it?
Not having to deal with my curls for weeks or even months sounded heavenly. I’m used to planning my schedule around wash day, a ritual any natural-haired girl knows well. When it comes to my thick, unruly texture, wash day is an undertaking. Don’t get me wrong—I would never shame my rambunctious curl pattern, but it has a mind of its own.
Once I commit to stepping under the shower head, I generally use a deep conditioning mask, throw a shower cap, and apply heat with a blow dryer for optimal hydration—followed by leave-in products and a diffusing session. Wash day goes from 0 to 100 real quick, often blocking off several hours in the day, but always delivers pure rejuvenation by the end of the lengthy process.
Daydreaming about the convenience of putting my routine on hold, I imagined all of the ways I could fill my extra hours. How many more beauty conspiracy theories of the Twitterverse could I fall into with all this time? Plus, there’s often a special kind of magic following the debut of a new look. You’re met with a newfound nerve and boldness, and if there’s any time that’s ideal for a glow-up, it’s summer. New season, new me.
“My clients look to me to help them feel sophisticated, strong, authentic, and powerful whilst maintaining a lifestyle that meets their needs,” celebrity hairstylist Vernon Francois told me. He’s the mastermind behind next-level braid looks worn by everyone from Lupita Nyong'o to Amandla Stenberg, and has his own product range perfect for pre- and post-braid hair care. “The key word I would use here is ‘accessible.’”
A slew of questions soon followed. How thick did I want them? How long? Should I try micro braids like Zoë, or opt for classic box braids à la Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice? And would the style “work” with my face? Luckily, Instagram is chock-full of inspiration, with troves of girls making a case for the popular protective style.
Embarking on a deep dive on Yelp, I sifted through top braiding salons in New York City, reading tons of reviews along the way. After running into the stunning Gabrielle Richardson rocking boho braids out at an event, I landed on Maguette African Braiding Salon in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
In terms of prep, you want to make sure your strands are hydrated ahead of your appointment since they won’t be getting a deep dose of moisture for a while. Cleanse and mask if you can, then let your hair air-dry. I brushed mine out beforehand to spare the stylist any tangles, resulting in a look Diana Ross could surely get behind. After applying leave-in conditioner, I parted it into sections and styled it in a subpar twist-out to stretch my strands.
Word on the street is Maguette is packed on weekends, but due to an alarm fiasco I arrived half an hour late at 9:30 a.m. and all six of the chairs were already filled. I sat back and admired the customers’ hair textures spanning from kinky and coily to loose ringlets, reveling at how quick the stylists were with their hands. As they meticulously braided with such swiftness, it was clear they were experts. There were three generations of the Synegalian owner’s family there, and they wore colorful garb that made American attire seem utterly boring.
“Just know you might not love it at first. Give yourself a few days to get used to it,” my friend warned over text. I knew she was right, and I wasn’t expecting to be obsessed right away, but I was excited for a change. I treasure my curls, but they have a way of taking over—literally and figuratively. I was eager for a liberating, sleek moment to show out and serve face. Like a typical millennial, the first thing on my mind was posting my new look on Instagram. As validation in the form of double taps and fire emoji rolled in, I still took a few days to get used to the girl in the mirror.
Everything was going swell, but the following week I pulled my hair back for a workout and noticed irritation on my scalp. It was itchy, dry, and flaking, and I realized I hadn’t tended to it the way I should have. (Be sure to apply Jamaican castor oil to the scalp to avoid tension and inflammation!) There are many products on the market to nourish protective styles, but since I was in a pinch, I grabbed some peppermint oil from my bedside table and applied it with my fingers.
My roommates noticed the smell right away, but it was refreshing, and the cooling sensation helped soothe the tenderness. You want to protect the style during sleep, too, so arm yourself with a silk bonnet/scarf for bedtime. “At night, I always say to cover your hair with a silk cap or scarf to minimize any pulling or friction on your strands; this will also help to keep precious moisture where it’s needed,” says Francois.
Since then, I’ve been refreshing with rose water, but now, two weeks later, I’m due for a real cleanse. Don’t be afraid to submerge your strands and cleanse with a non-sulfate clarifying shampoo, and keep diluted apple cider vinegar or witch-hazel spray and a scalp tonic on-hand for when you have to skip the shower. Also, good dry oil is key for maintaining shine if braids become lackluster.
“Alternate between a regular sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner for your hair type, and an indulgent co-wash. Your hair may be dry, so you’ll want to keep it nourished and hydrated. In between shampooing/co-washing, you can massage (ideally cool) water in downward strokes through your strands in the shower,” Francois advises.
Aside from the slight learning curve, the convenience has been life-changing, and the new look has delivered the confidence boost I was looking for. Ruts in life are never fun, but they’re inevitable, and I can honestly recommend braids to anyone feeling painfully stuck or unexpectedly thrown off-course. It’s amazing what a good hair flip can do for the spirit — along with a great therapist.
Strangely enough, I feel like I recognize myself again, and it truly seems like the start of a new phase for me. I’m already plotting what my next hair move will be, but it’s still comforting to know my trusty curls will be right there waiting for me when I’m ready.