The Hidden Costs of Hair Braiding
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The Hidden Costs of Hair Braiding

Jun 03, 2024

It’s no secret that Black folks spend a lot of money on our hair. According to Mintel, the black hair care industry is worth more than $2.5 billion—a stat that doesn’t include hair accessories, wigs or electric styling products.

On a recent episode of NPR’s It’s Been a Minute, host Brittany Luse tackled the topic of hairstyling for people of color and the growing tension between stylists and their customers.

Social media has become one of the best places for stylists to showcase their work and the first place many customers search for the perfect person to hook up their hair. But as the culture changes, clients are complaining about the industry changing with it—including booking rules that charge extra for styling certain types of hair (think: a 4C surcharge) and an expectation to wash, detangle and straighten their hair before stepping into the salon.

But according to Jessica Poitras, legislative counsel for the Institute of Justice, hair braiders are subjected to unfair licensing requirements and penalties for braiding without one. Institute of Justice represents several hair braiders in the fight against unfair licensing laws.

“In New York, your first offense for working without a license could be up to $500,” she said. “And then as those rise, the highest amount they could charge you is $2500. Or you could be charged with a misdemeanor and face prison time up to six months.”

Poitras adds that stylists may not be asking customers to wash their own hair because they’re lazy. They could be trying to protect themselves against legal issues.

“There are braiders in some states who can braid hair, but they can’t wash hair,” she said. “It would be illegal, because shampooing falls within cosmetology.”

While some states do allow braiders to work without a license, Poitras points out that New York requires one. If they want to do things legally, a braider must have a certain number of training hours, pass exams and could end up paying tuition as high as $15,000. So people working in this underground economy have the choice of working illegally or going through a cosmetology program and passing the costs on to the consumer.

Poitras says hair braiding is a traditional hair care technique in Black culture where kills are often passed socially as opposed to formally. But as she points out, that doesn’t have to mean you’re not getting superior service.

“Unlicensed does not mean untrained,” she said. “We want our braiders to be trained. We just want you to get that education in a way that benefits you and your consumers.”

Tyré Rimple, a licensed braider based in Brooklyn, told Luse she decided to go to cosmetology school as she saw her client list grow.

“I kind of wanted to legitimize it for myself,” she said.

And although braiding was on her course syllabus, she says it wasn’t on the state board exams. She also found she knew more than her instructor.

“I ended up teaching the braiding and going a little further, because even the teacher there wasn’t that much of a braider,” she said.

Rimple says clients often don’t value their stylists because they don’t understand what goes into being good. “They don’t really see this as an art form that took a while to learn and master,” she said. “It puts wear and tear on our feet and our hands. We’re standing up for hours. My hands would swell and get stiff.”

She says clients also don’t consider the costs stylists incur when trying to do their job, including the amount of time, the products and tools they use, their overhead expenses and software they may use to make online appointment booking possible.

“I’m not charging the same prices I was four years ago because I’m better now. My work is neater,” she said. “It’s kind of like asking if you see eating as a luxury. I would say no. However, you can eat at McDonald’s or you can go to a steakhouse. You can go to someone who knows how to braid. But it might not be the same quality, and it may not last as long,” she said.