“How I learned to accept and love my braids”

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Basma Khalifa
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Growing up in Northern Ireland, Basma Khalifa struggled to accept her braids. Here, she opens up about her journey to loving her hair.

Boyzone. Backstreet Boys. B*Witched. Braids. This was the tail-end of the glorious Nineties and the last time I had braids. When my mum finally ended the weekly trauma of me sitting on a pillow between her legs while she attempted to pull a comb through my dishevelled hair. 

The screeching and crying that proceeded was likened to hyenas. She would then have me keep these weird, slightly itchy, dangly things hanging from my head for weeks at a time. 

In a small town in Northern Ireland, where I was the only black girl in a 50-mile radius, my peers just couldn’t fathom “what was wrong with my hair.” I would then spend subsequent lunch times enduring a game of “pull the braid and run” with the boys in my class. Since then, I professed “never again” and kissed goodbye to braids, a protective hairstyle set to save me hundreds of pounds.

My braid experience wasn’t only about the painful combing and the itchy scalp, it also stopped me from fitting in. All my Irish friends had long blonde silky hair and a tiny frame which all the boys seemed to like. And I longed to be anything but how I looked. 

As I grew older, my survival instinct kicked in (cliques can be brutal) and I found myself turning to my beloved straighteners. Years went by where I would burn my hair to a crisp. I would blow dry, straighten, tong, iron and do just about anything else to keep my hair strands as straight as a ruler.

But the problem with doing so is no matter how hard I would try, it would never have that “run your fingers through your hair” feel that my friends had - and that I desperately wanted.

Fast-forward 20 years and women of colour are now in trend; for their courage and their appearance. It’s a progressive time that’s affected every woman of colour differently. For some, it’s about fighting for equal rights and pay. For others, it’s celebrating their figures. For me, amongst other things, it’s about embracing my hair.

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After 10 years of using my GHDs so much I might as well have slept with them under my pillow, one day I woke up and made a U-turn. I’d finished over six years of working at fashion magazines and decided to go freelance.

Fashion in the 00s, much like the 90s, was cool and rich but all about being seen and not heard. The visibility that social media gives us now did not exist. While working in fashion, I always felt like my nappy hair held me back from looking “chic”. Running around at shows, between shoots, and in the rain for coffee runs isn’t sustainable for afro hair as any moisture would send it spiralling. Literally.

As I set out in my first week as a freelancer, I decided to relinquish the fear and forego my hair straightener. Suddenly, I had curls. However, curls, just like straight hair, need managing and products to lock in the moisture. So, I have spent the last three years researching and asking around to understand my type of curl, my cut and the type of products it needs.

But, as the years passed, I also began to understand the black woman I am through my un-straightened hair. I began searching YouTube for videos that showed how black women wore wigs, weaves and locs, why it was important to have a silk pillow, and why sulphates are the devil. It was a world that my Caucasian Irish upbringing had shaded me from and, ashamedly, a world I didn’t want to see.

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Now, at the end of my twenties, I felt that it’s time to finally go back to where it all began. Braids. Braids that make my arm hairs stand on end and which make my heart skip a beat. The same questions began to run through my head, “will I be made fun of?”, “will I look attractive?”, and “will I be judged?”

During a time when black women are celebrating their authentic selves, it dawned on me that going back to my braids would help me do the same thing. To embrace who I was. To be proud of my hair type and know that being different could actually help me to fit in.

I sat in Radiant Salon, South London, with my braider, Daniella, who made me feel like having braids was a walk in the park. She filled me with confidence that I would actually suit them (though, I still didn’t believe her). Instead, I went into a rant to her about being nervous, scared and anxious. 

Calm in exterior, but trembling inside, Daniella finished and I stood up. I looked in the mirror and felt very 90s Janet Jackson. And I like Janet, so surely, I will like this. I left the salon and felt paranoid that people were staring at my hair. When in actual fact, no one really cared. I’d been making up scenarios in my head and the reality was the complete opposite. The compliments that have poured in are a contrast to when I last had braids and as much as I look for a negative, I can’t seem to find one.

That evening, as I was getting ready go to bed, I looked in the mirror and said to myself “come on Basma, you’ve got this.” And a few days on, as I learnt braid maintenance and how to style it, I can honestly say I think I look pretty good.

I just wish I could go back and tell my 10-year-old self that she looked pretty good, too.

Images: Basma Khalifa