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‘Does anybody know how to box braid?’: Identifying resources for Afro hair care at a PWI

How are you supposed to get your hair braided in Princeton when most local shops haven’t seen the hair type chart or even heard of the word “porosity”? Looking for Beyoncé-inspired “Lemonade” braids? Good luck getting them done here. 

I spoke with four girls, including first-years Imani Mulrain and Camille Reeves and sophomores Makailyn Jones and Maya Houser. While they have amazingly found ways to upkeep their hair while on campus, all of them say they wait until breaks or until they go home to get long-lasting protective styles done. Trying to do it throughout the school year is just a real inconvenience, largely due to hair shops in the Princeton area not knowing how to properly style Black hair.

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“If the Black Girl Princeton group chat does have any recommendations, they’re always in Trenton, not Princeton. Not a White town,” Jones points out. “You have to commute there when you’re already so busy.”

Luckily, there are a few self-made stylists on campus who can help fill in the gaps right here on campus. They include McKalah Hudlin ’20, whom Mulrain referred me to after she gave Mulrain two French braids with weave. Mulrain also knows of Victoria Agwam ’23, who can install box braids, but other than those two, Mulrain is not really confident about whom she can turn to on campus.

Sophomores Houser and Gabriella Carter are taking the efforts of individual stylists one step further by founding Our Health Matters, a student support group that addresses the intersections between Black womanhood and health. Seeing how the University lacks a space to discuss issues surrounding Black beauty and self-image, the club aims to address how confidence for Black women stems a lot from our sense of wellbeing and how we present ourselves in a society that embraces Eurocentric beauty standards. Our Health Matters aims to use hair as an entry point for discussion.

“The goal of this club,” Houser says, “is to have a dialogue about all of the different types of hair, different brands of hair care, how to style hair, and how it affects identity.”

Houser hopes that the club will soon hold hairstyling workshops where Black girls can learn how to braid, cornrow, and get their hair matched with the right products. The club’s first event was held on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in the Carl A. Fields Center, and it most recently hosted a self-care get-together with holiday cards and hot cocoa on Dec. 11, 2019. Setting aside a time and place to focus on Black beauty, Houser hopes that such events will lead to conversations about representation in the workplace and efforts to destigmatize Afro hair. She also wants to help connect Black students with realistic and local hairstyling options. 

“I think women braiders in the area are expensive, and there aren’t very many,” Houser says. “[Our Health Matters] can connect students to resources, like having barbers from Hamilton and the Princeton Black Men’s Association come on campus, sharing listings on the Black Beauty Index, and having a catalog of makeup artists and hairdressers from Trenton to Harlem!” 

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As a frosh, my arrival at Princeton had me clueless about how to deal with Black hair in a predominantly white institution (PWI). I had never heard of the Black barber shop in Dod Basement or the Black Beauty Index — a list of stylists, YouTubers, and makeup brands for women of color. It was only after speaking to Jones that I learned about a natural hair showcase that took place at the Carl A. Fields Center just last year. Her descriptions of twist out tutorials, workshops, and a product-making station made me wish that something like that, or at least a compact version of it, was available on a more consistent basis. Or, at the very least, that first-years knew about the limited resources we do have and that are still developing. With that said, you should definitely come to Curl-chella this Saturday at noon! 

Speaking with all four of the young women profiled for this piece, the importance of hair on a Black woman’s perception of herself and her self-esteem shone through. Mulrain and Jones both mentioned how important hair is for a Black girl to feel beautiful, while Houser specifically noted that there really was no official space on campus for her to receive help with hair, which was stressful, as her hair is an important part of her identity. The impact that the lack of options was having on her self-image was a key motivator for her to launch Our Health Matters. 

Heck, the importance I have felt my own hair play in defining my identity is what prompted me to write this piece in the first place. Black students cannot afford to come here and forget such an integral aspect of their identity for the sake of schoolwork. Black students cannot spend hundreds of dollars on multiple brands of products and train tickets to and from overpriced hair stylists. So we need to come together to create the resources and support networks that are so desperately lacking, allowing us to feel as confident as possible in our own braids and curls. I mean, I definitely want to feel comfortable asking someone in my residential college to braid my hair as opposed to possibly going somewhere shady in New Jersey. Just saying.

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