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  • Writer's pictureNina Washington

8 Lessons I Learned from Installing My Own Box Braids

I love living in Split, Croatia. The beach is a 15-minute walk from my doorstep. If I’m seeking weekend adventure, a day trip to one of the many islands is an easy solution, and the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables is hard to beat. However, when it comes to being a black woman, Split isn’t the most diverse place on the planet. In fact, prior to the tourist season, I’d only encountered 4 other black women since arriving here in March. That means when it came to black hair care, I was left to my own devices.

I did well for a while. The beauty of a short-tapered cut is that as it grows, it maintains its shape. It eventually transforms into a TWA (i.e., teeny weeny afro). Yet, when your hair is coarse and dense like mine and the Adriatic Sea beckons you to go for a swim at least twice a week, “wash day” (as my natural sisters know all too well) can become quite the chore. Shampooing, deep conditioning, detangling and two-strand twisting had become a 3-4-hour feat. And you know what?!?! Ain’t nobody got time for that!

My solution: Box Braids! The black girl’s tried and true solution to summer vacations, swim lessons, and protective styling. There was only one problem. I had no one to install said braids.

Wait. That’s not entirely true.

A beautiful Kenyan lady I befriended agreed to braid my hair. Unfortunately, she flaked on me less than 24 hours before our scheduled appointment. The old me would have likely been devastated and sorely disappointed. Yet, there is something about traveling for a year and then being thrown headfirst into a pandemic that tempers you. It makes you think outside the box. It makes you problem solve and figure out the next step when the primary plan goes awry.

So, I decided to braid my own hair and it was one of the more challenging things I’ve done in a LONG time! What does challenging look like? A little something like this:

· 3 hours shampooing, deep conditioning, blow drying, parting, and plaiting my hair

· 5 hours the first night figuring out the beginner’s grip to install box braids

· 2-3 hours each subsequent night x 4 nights installing 5-6 braids

· 2 hours on day 7 re-doing the front because it looked like a bird’s nest

I will be the first to tell you, braiding your own hair is not for the faint of heart! It was a learning process indeed! In fact, here are 8 things I learned from installing box braids for the first time:

1. YouTube University is real!

In the week between my appointment being cancelled and my deciding to braid my hair myself, I spent countless hours watching tutorials on YouTube. To my delight (and relief!), I found an enormous online community that sympathized with the plight of a black woman, stuck between a rock and a hard place, who just needed to learn how to braid her hair.

2. Professional braiders deserve every dollar they charge!

If I were to calculate the hours I spent prepping and braiding my hair (It was 22. Try to keep up!), it would be 4 times the amount of time I’ve spent getting my hair professionally braided. I didn’t really have an option this time around, but let it be known that I will never again quibble about the amount someone charges to braid my hair. That time and effort is worth every penny!

3. Make the parts small!

I know. I know. It seems counterintuitive. Larger parts = larger braids = shorter amount of time required to install such braids, right? WRONG! Oh, so horribly wrong! It turns out, your natural hair is easier to grip and control when the parts are smaller. Those edges also lend to being “snatched” much tighter when the parts are smaller. Trust me on this one.

4. Hair type makes a huge difference.

It is by no means the gospel, but most naturalistas and curly girls classify their hair type by the Andre Walker classification system. I fall under the 4B category which helped me to narrow down which YouTube videos to watch. The method for a type 3A would likely not work as well on my 4B hair. You should also consider your hair density (i.e., the number of strands per square inch of scalp – I have high density for the record). While the diameter of my individual hair strands is actually quite thin, the high density of my hair meant it took forever to braid all of it!

5. Allow for at least one breakdown!

By Day 4, I was just over the whole thing! I contemplated taking down the braids that were already done and I questioned the thought process that led me to think a 5 day braiding adventure was a good idea. I’m not sure what centered or calmed me down that night but I was somehow able to pull it together and finish the task by Day 5.

6. Gel, gel, and more gel!

I’ve been natural for almost a decade and my years of being a product junkie are far behind me. So much so, I had no products when I made the decision to install my own braids. It turned out, however, there was really no other way to get my edges to at least appear presentable than to use gel. A week after I finished installing my box braids, I redid the front – only this time I was armed with the European version of “Let’s Jam”! It made all the difference! I’ll say it again for the people in the back, “Gel, gel and more gel!”

7. For as many trolls as there are on the internet, there is also a supportive community.

I was hesitant to post my hair braiding journey on my Instagram Stories. It was my first time attempting such a feat and to be honest, my technique still needed work. I was terrified that the internet trolls would come for me and crucify my efforts. Instead, my attempt to install my own braids was met with immense encouragement from my online community. My inbox was flooded with virtual claps, hearts, and smiley faces. A few people also found it comical that I was able to laugh at myself. It taught me that there are truly people on social media who in the words of Tyra Banks, are “Rooting for you!”

8. It’s all about imperfect action.

For the past two years, I’ve heard countless inspirational speakers, life coaches, consultants, and mentors speak on the utility and importance of “imperfect action”. For many, myself included, the fear of perfection keeps us from taking that next step; from trying that new adventure or learning that new skill or craft. We fear it has to be “just right” and we have to have it all figured out. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true learning comes from doing. It comes from taking that first step. It comes from letting go of the need to be perfect.

I installed box braids for the first time in my life and it was the most imperfect of actions. The braids themselves were far from perfect and I ended up having to re-do a few. Yet the lessons I learned from the process were perfect in every way.

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