In my earliest memory of having my hair braided, I am maybe four or five, sitting in the living room in a tiny pink kiddie chair. I am getting ready for a Ukrainian dance performance, two very tight French braids being the necessary hairstyle for that sort of thing. My mom kneels behind me, getting organized, and although she hasn’t touched me yet her methodical movements send a shiver of uneasy anticipation up my neck. She picks up a spray bottle full of water and wets my hair, and then draws the tail of a comb slowly and carefully down the centre of my scalp, parting my hair in half. Her long fingernails separate first the teeniest, tiniest hairs at my temples. A chill runs down my spine as I feel the first tug of what I know will be a long, torturous series of hair pulls. I am terrified. My lip quivers. Braiding time inevitably becomes crying time.
I hated braids first because, being little and a wimp, they hurt my head. But dancing required that I endure the torture of French braids often enough that eventually I learned to keep my loathing to myself. Later still, I had to learn to braid my own hair, which was another kind of tragedy entirely because, when you’re 10, French braiding your own hair is hard. Your arms get tired and your braids get lumpy in funny places and nothing ever looks as smooth and neat as it did when your mom was doing it for you. Braids went from frightening to frustrating, and I didn’t much like either.
Even when braiding my own hair got easier, I didn’t ever do it unless dancing required it. The idea of wearing them for fun, because they looked nice, did not occur to me – I had no love for them at all.
Then, one evening about four years ago, I came across the 1949 version of Little Women on television. Throughout the movie, Meg (played by Janet Leigh), wears half of her hair in a thick braid wrapped around her head like a headband. The rest of her hair hangs in loose curls at her shoulders. To me it looked so elegant, and so unlike the tight-enough-to-give-you-a-facelift French braids I have always known and mostly hated. Braids could be pretty. The next day I fought with my hair until I had a Meg March hairstyle of my own.
I’ve loved braids ever since. Meg March, it turns out, was just the first in a long line of characters that wearing braids allowed me to pretend to be. Braiding my hair has become my own secret game of dress-up, allowing me to feel like someone else when I am otherwise bored with regular old me. I can be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I can be Heidi, or one of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet sisters, or any number of romantic and princess-like characters from centuries past. I’m not sure what it is about braids that make them feel so transformative. It might be that their first job in my life was as part of a performance, or that they seem to pull so strongly from history, appearing over and over again in different ways from century to century.
It’s true that in the past few years, braids of all styles have become very popular, and maybe even trendy – but I am okay with that. To me they seem timeless, and are so versatile that it is hard for me to find them boring. Maybe they are especially “in style” lately, but I don’t know if they’ve ever really been out – and either way, despite our troubled past, we have managed to become very good friends.