How Braids Helped Me Embrace The Beautiful Hair I Often Struggled To Love
Rediscovering my roots.
March 18, 2019 at 4:29 am
I arrived in Los Angeles by way of Puerto Rico and Hawaii in the ‘80s, when blond, feathered hair was the epitome of mainstream culture and beauty. As a biracial young girl of Mexican and African American descent, no matter how hard I tried to mold my curly hair into the current fashion, it just wouldn’t work. If I blew it out straight in the morning, it turned to a frizzy mess on the bus ride to school. Hair care products for Black and brown women were few and far between, and the ever-popular Aqua Net wasn’t enough to support my hair.
After trying numerous styles in middle and high school, like weaves, hot iron and everything else under the sun, it wasn’t until college that I started coming into my own and digging my hair. Folks started complimenting my curls and those positive affirmations helped me find comfort in learning to love the hair I had. I started to work with my curls instead of fighting against them and being someone I wasn’t. I experimented with different products and even created special hair care cocktails.
Over the years, I have fallen in love with several female bosses who have created hair care products. Listening to their motivations stemming from desires to create something for us, by us had me singing their praises and wanting to support their products. From brands like Carol’s Daughter, Mixed Chicks, Miss Jessie’s and Curly Chic, to other offerings on the ever-expanding hair care aisle, I love them all.
Like most of my curlfriends, we developed our own recipe for success with unique product cocktails: wash, leave-in conditioner, styling cream, diffuse, pick out, don’t touch, repeat. My personal goal is three days of curls before co-wash day.
As a woman of mixed heritage, I missed spending time with my African American side of the family and missed out on tradition and the sense of community that is shared around hair, so when I had an opportunity to meet celebrity hairstylist Jahmai at her Los Angeles salon, I jumped at it.
Jahmai’s celebrity client list includes Usher and Kelly Rowland, and campaigns with large companies like Nike, Converse and Nordstrom. Even though Jahmai is an in-demand hair expert, she, too, went through her own personal journey to ultimately loving her hair.
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“Once I got older, I wore my hair straight,” she told me. “I tried to achieve a lot of styles that my hair didn’t want to do. With everything I did, my hair was breaking off or I would have heat damage … Everything you could possibly think of has happened to my hair.”
When she saw her beauty through the eyes of others, she finally realized her hair was special on its own.
“People would look at me and say, ‘I love your hair!’ and I couldn’t understand why. ‘Because my hair can’t do that,’ they’d answer. She chuckled and shrugged. “Everyone wants the next person’s hair. No one wants their own hair but we have to work against that, and that’s part of why I love what I do.”
Jahmai was raised in a family of stylists and her mother owned a salon before she was born. A girl always came over to braid Jahmai’s hair when she was a kid.
“I would watch her and then try to emulate it on my dogs,“ she says. “Eventually, it clicked for me and I started doing everyone’s hair in high school. People came up to me and asked how much I charged. I fell in love with the style of cornrows.”
Cornrows date back thousands of years in North Africa. Societal customs were represented through different styles, such as to designate your clan or marital status. Braids were often adorned with beautiful accessories. With the advent of slavery, captors frequently shaved the heads of female slaves before they reached the Americas. Hair care during slavery became practical, and cornrows were the best way to keep the hair healthy with minimal fuss. After the Civil War, cornrows became a symbol of everything newly freed slaves wanted to escape, but by the Black Power movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, women began to reclaim the beauty of the style.
And, of course, Africans and African Americans aren’t the only ethnicity with a heritage of braiding. Native American tribes have varying historical customs. The men of the Blackfoot Nation tribe often wore three braids with a topknot or pompadour. Wisconsin Indian women wore one braid down their back, wound with ribbons. During the Mauryan period in India, most women either wore braids or shaved their heads. The sheer assortment of styles across the globe both speaks to their universality and their individuality.
“Everyone’s curl is their own DNA,” Jahmai says. “No two strands of hair are the same.” After realizing how beautiful that message was and receiving compliments about her own hair, she knew she wanted to share the love with others. “It gave me the courage to tell other people, ‘I love your hair. I love your curls. I love your braids!’”
As an advocate in the multicultural space and as a mom of multiracial children, I hear from many parents the challenges of styling their children’s hair. Hair that may be different than their own. Jahmai shared how she works with parents across diverse cultures and enjoys when parents come to her to ask the best ways to work with their children’s hair.
Hair, like children, don’t come with a manual, but not for long. Jahmai sees this as an opportunity to help parents create solutions that work for them. Whether braiding as a protective style or creating fun everyday looks, Jahmai is helping parents who, like me, want to learn more and help connect to our heritage. She loves helping parents through the process and watching the kids learn more about their hair and, ultimately, a piece of their history.
Jahmai says, “We need to constantly compliment [kids] on their hair and tell them how nice and unique each person’s hair is. It’s learning how to work with your own texture rather than trying to achieve a different texture.”
Resisting putting various harmful labels around hair, partaking in the revitalization of the natural hair movement and learning about your hair-story are all helpful on the path to loving yourself and all that make you, you!
Jahmai never stops learning and growing. In addition to starting her own product line, she looks forward to offering hair care education to a broad clientele. “I know there’s such a big need for more hair education, especially for those who have textures they don’t understand,” the hairstylist stated.
As for my own hair journey, I stopped fighting with it and found the power in my mixed roots. Sometimes it wants to be curly. Sometimes it wants to be difficult and needs a pep talk. But one of the cool things meeting braid expert Jahmai is how much I learned about my ancestral roots and cultural traditions. With each braid I felt more connected to the roots of my mane. With each twist, I felt a relationship and new-found appreciation for each strand. Weeks later when the cornrow is let out, I’m proud that the felling and confidence will remain.
For more information on Jahmai, follow her on IG @jahmonit.