This summer, I started hearing DMX’s 2000 song “What These B*tches Want” again. Not on the radio, but through a viral hashtag that became an entertaining lesson in how frequently black women switch up their hairstyles. The #dmxchallenge (the earliest known post belongs to Instagram user @wigginit) entails flashing a different look to match each woman’s name that’s checked in the rapper’s song—Brenda, LaTisha, Linda, Felicia, Dawn, etc. I was 10 years old when that song came out, but I remember it vividly and gamely made a video of my own. Nearly 40 looks are needed for the challenge, and pulling them together is not an easy feat. When I did so, I realized the majority of the looks I included were some of my favorite protective hairstyles from over the years: braids of all sizes, cornrows, or a mix of both.
Protective styles are all about achieving the perfect balance between flexing and giving your hair a break from the pulling, heat, sun exposure, and time (so. much. time.) that normally goes into doing your hair. The glory of a protective style is that it gives the wearer the ability to choose an outfit, put on makeup (if you want), and know that your hair is already done, because you chose to sit in a salon chair for at least four hours to get a style that would last three weeks, minimum. When you’re wearing a protective style, you’re out of the house in no time.
The work it takes to maintain your protective style, while still keeping your own hair healthy underneath, is crucial to the effectiveness of the style itself. What you learn about your hair, yourself, and even your own aesthetic is a journey of product testing and finding the right stylist within your budget.
I asked Marjon Carlos, Brooke DeVard Ozaydinli, and Crystal Anderson to join me in bringing the conversation from late-night dinner tables and apartment living rooms to the site.
We talked about everything from our protective styles of choice, who installs them, and how they keep them looking fresh—no matter how long they’ve been in.
Marjon Carlos is a freelance journalist who reports on fashion, beauty, politics, and culture.
Brooke DeVard Ozaydinli is on the partner marketing team at Instagram and also hosts the Naked Beauty Podcast.
Crystal Anderson is the Manager of Product here at Man Repeller.
Darian: Here’s my first question: Who currently has in a protective style right now? Because I do.
Brooke & Crystal: I do
Marjon: I just took mine out!
Darian: How long did it take to take them out?
Marjon: Not long at all because these were knotless, single braids. I had taken them down partly at the beginning of the week and let the hair do some Rapunzel shit.
Darian: Oh, I saw that. That was cute.
Marjon: It was cute, but my scalp wasn’t. So, I left Crystal’s place last night, where we had a ki. It took me 20 minutes to unravel.
Crystal: Marjon, did you take them out in the Uber?
Marjon: No, Crystal—I’m done with you!
Crystal: I felt that may be when you said “I’m home, my hair is out, I’m about to deep condition.” I thought, “How so quick?”
Marjon: Well, the single ones are easier because they’re not like micro braids, for example.
Brooke: 20 minutes is amazing. I have a question for the group: I’m trying to bring my lazy life to the next level and I’m considering going to someone to get my stuff taken out. Has anyone done that?
Darian: I have not done that. I think you should consider what I’ve done: I call my friends. I don’t care if you’re white, black, Puerto Rican, or Asian. If you’re my good friend, and local, you’re coming over to help me take my braids. I’m sorry.
Brooke: It’s like helping you move.
Darian: I’ll get some dinner. I’ll make sure my braids aren’t super dirty. Then we just have fun and watch TV and I don’t have to suffer alone.
Crystal: I believe your partner is contractually obligated to help you take out your hair. If they don’t, call your elected officials. Call 9-1-1.
Brooke: Imagining my husband trying to take out my crochet braids is frightening.
[Marjon can’t stop laughing]
Crystal: Trust, you have to grease my scalp, just as an ongoing necessity. And, you have to help me take my braids out. If you want me walking around looking like the Nubian princess that I am, you’re gonna have to help me take these out.
Darian: Crystal, what kind of style do you have right now? And who did it and how long did it take?
Crystal: I have in “shmedium” which is the technical term at the salon. Waist length. By Tasha Miles at The Chair. It took probably nine hours. Two people on my head. Only because they’re a little bit smaller and my hair isn’t long at all, but it’s so obnoxiously thick, so it takes forever. It takes so long to get my hair done and my ends are really blunt, so they have to do, like, the hidden invisible style, so that takes a little bit longer.
Darian: Brooke, what about you?
Brooke: I have waist-length faux locs, goddess locs. I actually can’t even sit for individuals anymore. I just can’t do it. It took four hours because I did crochet in the back and then in the front, where the parts are, those are individuals.
Marjon: What’s the crochet method? I’m curious.
Brooke: It’s life-changing. I switched over to crochet about two years ago. Basically, your hair is just cornrowed into a specific pattern and then the hair is crocheted on almost like a weave track. It can be braids, it can be locs. But then you can do individual in the front and in the back so you can wear your hair up.
Crystal: So they come already braided?
Brooke: Yup, and she uses an actual crochet needle. The hair is looped through the cornrow.
Darian: Where are you getting the hair? How are you choosing it? How did you find a hair that you wanted to go with?
Brooke: I’ve been eyeing faux locs for a while and came across a company created by a black woman, Boho Locs by Lulu Pierre. I was seeing all these different faux locs and goddess locs and I just thought hers looked by far the best. I’ve also gotten loose wavy hair crochet from Sam’s Beauty Supply. The ocean wave style is a great go-to for me. And there’s a YouTuber, Lia Lavon, that I’m obsessed with. She does is mostly crochet style videos and I will watch all of these videos.
Marjon: That’s amazing.
Crystal: I love it too.
Darian: I want to talk about the actual term “protective hairstyle.” I think it’s such a boring term! And I don’t think it always represents how we use braids, cornrows, and faux locs to not only protect our own hair, but also as a creative outlet to switch up our looks. It’s often used in association with summer, but I wear braids all year round, depending on my mood and how busy my life gets. I’m curious about how you all use protective styles?
Brooke: For me, it’s a hair vacation.
Crystal: When I’m talking about protecting my hair I’m talking about protecting my sanity and my time. I don’t know where you all are on your hair journey, but my hair is all-natural now and a beast. I don’t have that wash and go, silky curly hair. So, for me, it’s summer, winter, and vacation. Any time I know I have a slate of events coming up for work I barely have time to wash my ass, I definitely don’t have time to wash my hair.
Marjon: Protective styles are a way to make sure my hair is always done. I can walk out the door and it goes with every look I have in my closet. It’s like if someone asks if they can take your picture, or if you can be in some type of campaign and you’re on set with someone who doesn’t know how to do black hair…
Crystal: Say that.
Marjon: …it’s kind of a life-changer in a lot of ways. You can just walk into a situation and shoot. I don’t want you fumbling with my hair, or fucking it up. I just took my braids down last night and I was like, “Why are y’all acting right?” I didn’t understand why my curls were acting right. I mean, they are tucked away for lengths of time. They were I guess… what is it when animals go away for the winter?
Darian, Brooke, Crystal: Hibernation!
Marjon: My curls were hibernating.
Brooke: About the photo shoots, I have all these events and stuff in September and I’m actually trying to wear my hair out because I’m also realizing it’s a representation thing for other black women to see that even in professional settings on panels or fashion week events, you can wear short natural hair and look chic. I’m trying to do it because I’ve been realizing that I love my natural hair, I’m just lazy. But I think I can push myself.
Crystal: I think whether you wear your hair natural or in protective style, it’s the exact same message. Some people think, especially white women, “Oh, it’s a little unkempt. Are these braids? How do you wash your hair?” So when you show up with a head full of beautiful-ass braid that likely a black woman did for you, there’s power in that.
Darian: Honestly, you’re sending a message whether you want to or not. So it’s interesting to shape that or to think deeply about how you’re doing that and what you feel like representing or going with for that month or that season.
Crystal: Black women don’t have the luxury of not being intentional with their hair. So however we show up, whether it’s a wash-and-go or a slick bad bun… that is a conscious decision that we make when we wake up or before we go to bed. People know that if I’m showing up a certain way—with my hair braided or up or down—that I came ready for war in whatever capacity.
Darian: What about maintenance and figuring out what kind of products you use to keep your scalp moisturized? What kind of scalp irritation have you dealt with and what have you learned from that? To me, protective styles aren’t just about the style itself but making sure that your scalp doesn’t become irritated. Marjon, you had mentioned having some irritation while taking out your braids.
Marjon: I use Devacurl No-Poo shampoo. We’ve got to get all. this. dirt. out. When I have my braids in, every night I’m putting tea tree oil on my scalp. Also, Brown Butter Beauty has this scalp oil that I’ve been using as well and I feel like that kind of helps. But I’m going to be honest: whenever I have something in my hair, it could be a weave or braids, I don’t ever really feel like my scalp is getting the cleanest it can get. I love not having to think about my hair, I love being able to get up and go, but I am conscious of my own hair health. Because I don’t feel like I’m getting it squeaky clean. It haunts me a little bit. *nervous laugh*
Brooke: I totally feel you on the scalp health. I make my own scalp mix. I do just water, geranium, patchouli, and tea tree oil.
Darian: I recently invested—I mean, it was an investment for me—in silk pillows. Because I toss and I turn, and I’m in the mood for different types of pillows. So I took myself to The Strategist and I figured out the best silk pillow in my budget. I feel like that has been helpful especially as someone who hates wrapping their hair. I’ve started creating my own spray, inspired by Brooke, due to not being satisfied with the different sprays I’ve tried.
So… hair style price. I feel like we always have these conversations one-on-one. Who feels comfortable talking about hair cost? Moving to L.A., and getting my hair done here? Whoa, does it vary. In New York, I could get “shmedium” box braids for like $200, including tip and synthetic hair. I told my stylist, Sonia, she needed to increase her prices because I wanted to see her get paid more for her talent and labor. In L.A., it took work to find a place that did braids how I like them… and I spent $400 dollars. For me, that’s really expensive, but at the same time I always have all these questions around how much should braids cost. There is such a huge amount of labor and process for one person who’s putting her hands and her body on the line. I think about that a lot.
Crystal: My braids cost $300 to$350 bucks, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for the convenience of knowing the person doing my hair is taking care of my actual hair and also providing me with premium hair products. So I don’t have to go to the beauty supply and buy my own hair unless I wanted a specific color because I know she has it. My whole life is, I pay for convenience and that’s something that I’m willing to do. For me, knowing that I can go to Tasha, show her a picture of what I want, and know it’s going to be done right the first time is beyond worth it.
Marjon: I give a lot of money to haircare. I just give it away. From braids to weave. I’m going to invest in a wig in the fall. I’m also an Aries, so I get a lot of strength from my hair. And I could feel the difference from when my hair is done versus when it’s not. The real potency of my body is different. I feel it. I feel the way that I move through the world.
Brooke: I’m with you on that. I’ve gone to is Illeisha Lussiano, @thehairartiste on Instagram. When I get my hair done by her it’s way more expensive, but I don’t mind that because it’s this collaborative process. She has an aesthetic and an editorial eye. She blends the hair to make sure it matches my highlights. She’s looking at my braids on a level that, honestly, I hadn’t ever experienced before so I don’t mind paying more for that level either.
Darian: Brooke, I’ve listened to your podcast with Illeisha and just the way that she talks about hair… I began to understand how it’s a creative outlet for her as an artist.
Darian: Okay, is there someone who ya’ll feel like you pull hair inspiration from? Mine is really basic. We talk about her wigs, and we talk about her color, but we rarely talk about her braids: Beyoncé. Whether it was the “Grown Woman” video where she has on the Tommy Hilfiger top, with the Janet Jackson “Poetic Justice” braids or the classic shot in “Formation” when she’s hanging out the car or she’s just on vacation, I always end up showing my stylist a photo of her braids while I’m in the chair.
Marjon: I love her braids. I agree with you. I got Fulani braids for the first time because she had them during her Kendrick Lamar performance at the BET Awards. I will say that Beyonce’s braids are incredible, but I also think that the level of precision makes me wonder if it’s a wig because I just feel like, are you really sitting for that long getting your hair braided?
Darian: Oh my goodness. I’m reeling. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed this.
Marjon: I’m sorry! There are times I know they’re not, but I’m just thinking about the “Formation” braids. That was a wig because she’s going in and out of hair looks. And this is not to say anything less of her braids. I’m just saying I think that’s what it is. But I remember another time she was wearing a Houston Rockets jersey and chunky blonde braids. She’s never looked better, never looked cooler.
Crystal: For me, for that very reason—because you see these styles, then you bring a photo to the stylist and they say, “No. That’s a wig.” I just literally search the hashtag #knotlessbraids or #braids on Instagram and I find these regular black girls just like me who got their hair done and who are poppin’ and magical. That’s where I get my inspo from.
Darian: Okay, here’s personal confession and my question: What is the longest you have kept in a style that you know you needed to take out? Mine was three months. I got the front and the back retouched, but still, I kept them in way too long. I was washing my hair every 10 days, but I was in such a weird struggle phase of my life where my braids were really the one thing I didn’t have to worry about.
Brooke: For me, six to eight weeks. It’s just because I get bored and I want to change it. I don’t think my hair’s ever been the same for three months. Even if I have the same braids and I’ll cut it into a bob, start doing other crazy stuff and then I’m like this looks really bad. And I change it.
Crystal: That’s why you were able to body the DMX challenge.
Darian: I was like wow, Brooke really, really has the looks. I was putting mine together with witchcraft, but I got it done.
Marjon: I thought the challenge was iconic. It just represents how easily black women can change our hair and that’s the beauty of braids, right? The beauty of any type of extension, really.
Darian: I think that’s why the challenge is so amazing, because it puts such a positive, inspirational spotlight on black women and how often we change our hair. And because we’re creating the videos ourselves and choosing the photos, we’re crafting how we want to present our confidence.
Marjon: I feel like people have misunderstandings of our hair that’s rooted in a deeper undermining of our beauty. It’s another part of our beauty, and that won’t be taken away from us.
Graphics by Dasha Faires.