Up until recently, I chemically straightened my hair, conforming to an unrealistic, single-minded idea of beauty. But last week, emerging from the Elevationz hair salon in Hazelwood after six hours having my short, curly locks transformed into a long, luscious black-to-purple ombre braids, I felt beautiful, confident, and self-assured. Braids have empowered Black women for centuries, and Margo Leigh — a wig, braid, and weave specialist as well as a coordinator for the upcoming Western Pennsylvania Hair and Fashion Expo — helped me channel that feeling.
While, today, braids are seen as a fun way to switch up a look, the hairstyle has a long, rich, cultural history. In Africa, braids were used to show kinship, age, religion, and the like. Then, when African people were taken to America as slaves, they wore their hair in braids to stay connected to their roots, giving them a feeling of independence. This worked because the style stayed “neat and tidy,” a requirement for working on plantations.
Once slavery was abolished, Black women began to straighten their hair to fit into society’s standard of beauty, meaning White America’s standard.
In the 1970s and '80s, there was a resurgence of natural Black hairstyles — afros, cornrows, long, styled braids. And in recent years, braided hairstyles have become so popular that famous White women like Christina Aguilera, Kylie Jenner, and Kim Kardashian have worn them. And because of that, appropriation has become the new topic of discussion when braided hairstyles are brought up, taking away from the exquisiteness and deep history of the hairstyle. (Note: This only scratches the surface of POC and natural/braided hairstyles. For example, many Black women have been turned away from jobs; kids in school have been threatened with expulsion for wearing braided or natural hairstyles.)
This weekend, however, the Western Pennsylvania Hair and Fashion Expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center provides an opportunity to focus on the beauty and technique of braids and natural hairstyles. Featuring educators, motivational speakers, and fashion icons from across the country, there will be classes on braiding, marketing for stylists, and weave techniques, as well as a braiding competition, a braid fashion show, and a six-person natural hair panel discussion with Syleena Johnson, co-host of TV One's Sister Circle. It will be a gathering to celebrate the uniqueness and artsy side of braiding while sharing tips and tricks on styling and upkeep.
When Leigh did my hair, it was the first time I ever had my hair braided professionally. I was nervous, but at Elevationz — also a tattoo parlor, store, and events space — each room is private. I enjoyed the comfort of having my hair done without others coming and going, the sound of hair dryers blasting in the background. I’ve never felt so content with myself or more connected to my roots, seeing the art in hair.