A look at what might be driving our acceptance of pain in Black hairstyling based on a 2020 National Survey conducted by Un-ruly.
Special thanks to Tina Opie, Jennie Burger and Nigel Caldon for their help in the analysis of the data.
We recently released a short film called Pretty Shouldn’t Hurt that challenges hairstyling practices that have led to hair loss among Black women. A lot led up to the development of the film, especially a lot of research. In trying to understand how many of us might have thinning edges or hair loss because of improper styling and care, I found that there weren’t any studies that assessed how prevalent it is among Black women in the US. So, I and the Un-ruly team decided to conduct our own national survey to get an indication of how many Black women in the US show signs of thinning or hair loss around their hairlines. Through the survey, we got an answer to that question—and much more.
We promoted the survey through a Facebook ad targeting Black women ages 18 and older in the United States. We received 602 responses; the following results are based on the 511* responses from women who outrightly identified as “Black or African American” and “Female.”
The majority of respondents fell between the age range of 18-44, so these results may not represent the behaviors and attitudes of those older than 44.
*After we cleaned the responses for duplicates and speedsters, and filtered responses down to those who outrightly identified as “Black or African American” and “Female,” our sample got down to 511.
82% of us are wearing protective styles
Based on the responses, about 82% of us are wearing protective styles and most of us are adding hair to those styles, which is important to note as adding hair can increase the amount of weight and thus tension on one’s hair.
50% of us are wearing protective styles 8 times or more during the year, however about 31% of us are wearing protective styles for 13 weeks or more–so one or more styles a month. And the majority of us are wearing our styles for 6 weeks or less, which is great seeing as our experts recommend leaving a protective style in for 8 weeks or less.
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81% of us take a break from protective styles during the year, and when we do, most of us are leaving our hair out for about 4 weeks or less. Dr. Crystal Aguh, one of the experts that consulted with us on this project, recommends that as a general rule of thumb we should leave our hair out for the amount of time that we had the protective style in, for example 4 weeks in braids, 4 weeks out. These responses indicate that although most of us aren’t leaving our hairstyles in for too long, we might not be leaving our own hair out for long enough.
When it comes to why we’re wearing protective styles, convenience, saving time and keeping our hair healthy are among the most popular reasons. But could that convenience be coming at a cost?
39% of us have signs of hair loss or thinning
Almost 40%* of respondents indicated that they have signs of hair loss or thinning.
Meanwhile, a much higher percentage—72% of respondents—said they knew at least one person with signs of hair loss or thinning.
*Our estimation of hair loss and thinning isn’t far off from a 2005 L’Oreal Study that included women of African descent in western and southern Africa. It also aligns with anecdotal estimates from the hair stylists we spoke to in creating our film as well as Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Crystal Aguh who also contributed to our project. We didn’t ask respondents if they had traction alopecia, as a proper diagnosis should come from a licensed professional and women tend to seek professional help only when hair loss is severe. That said, however, 2% of respondents said they had been diagnosed with traction alopecia by a board certified dermatologist.
Understanding how prevalent thinning is among Black women was step one in our exploration; we also wanted to understand what might be causing it.
Studies have shown that hairstyles that place too much tension on the scalp can lead to a form of hair loss called traction alopecia.Traction alopecia, per The Skin of Color Society (a professional dermatologic organization that was very helpful during our exploration) is “a form of hair loss in which mechanical damage to the hair follicle is caused by repeated tension or pulling.”
Since we already knew that styles like braids, weaves, crochets and wigs can result in traction alopecia if done too tightly, we focused our attention on the underlying practices and ideas that may be contributing to us accepting pain as part of our beauty process.
Pain is expected with braiding
The saying “beauty is pain” is one many women know intimately. For Black women pain is almost synonymous with braiding.* 67% of respondents expect some level of discomfort after getting a protective style.
*Most of the protective styles we wear are either a form of braids (i.e. cornrows, box braids) or require braids as a base (wigs, weaves, crochets). Note: wearing ponytails and buns can also put an excessive amount of tension on your scalp.
81% of respondents who wear protective styles say they’ve actually felt some level of discomfort. Only 19% said they felt no discomfort at all.
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Oftentimes the discomfort we feel after getting our hair done is temporary and fades after a few hours. So to assess the degree of pain, we asked how many women have had to take a pain reliever after getting their hair done.
About 50% of those who indicated that they had felt discomfort said they had taken a pain reliever afterwards. That means 40% of respondents who get protective styles take a pain reliever after the style is done.
When are we feeling that pain?
Most of us are feeling pain while our hair is getting done. About a third of us aren’t in pain during the installation process, only after.
The segment of women who only felt pain after the style is done raises a few questions. If they don’t feel anything while getting their hair styled, how can they alert their stylist of any issues? Or are these women just used to a certain level of tension and aren’t noticing while their hair is being done? Because having part of your hair braided will feel less tense than having a whole head of braids, should we also be more aware of the cumulative tension of braids?
Are we speaking up?
86% of women who felt any discomfort can tell if their hair is being braided too tight. But 38% of women who have felt discomfort while getting a protective style intervene.
Furthermore, our survey showed that the age of those who intervene when they feel discomfort skews older: it’s possible that the older we get, the more empowered we feel to speak up for ourselves.
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Why aren’t some of us speaking up?
As Dr. Crystal Aguh says in our short film, “Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.” So if pain is an indication, in this case, of too much tension, and if excessive repeated tension can lead to hair loss, why are so many of us not speaking up? Here are some of the reasons why people don’t say anything.
- “I signed up for it”
- “It’s part of the process”
- “Pain is beauty. At least that’s what my mom has said.”
- “I’m not sure why? I’m tender headed and so I guess as not to be a burden”
- “Didn’t want to upset stylist”
- “I’m tender headed it’s never that person’s fault.”
I’m tender headed it’s never that person’s fault.
The term “tender headed” is silencing
Although the most popular reason for not speaking up is expecting that pain is a part of the process, past experience has shown me that the term “tender headed” can carry a lot of weight in Black hair styling.
Some Black women are tolerating pain because they consider themselves tender headed and perhaps think that their pain isn’t valid. At the same time, some stylists are ignoring clients, and dismissing them as tender headed.
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Are we being listened to?
Of those who have taken a pain reliever after getting their hair done, 67% have been dismissed as tender headed.
In sharing more about that experience, some respondents said:
- “I was told it needed to be tight for the style to hold.”
- “I don’t really say anything to stylists because my mom always called me tender headed growing up. Now I stay quiet.”
- “I’ve also been told by stylists, if I don’t do it this tight, the style will either come out or it won’t last.”
- “It made me feel like what I was feeling was not important and necessary”..
I’ve been told ever since I started going to the salon (2nd grade, I’m 21 now) that I’m tender headed and this led me to learning how to do my own hair. My sensitivity was treated as an inconvenience to the stylist and if I’m paying for a service, I’m not an inconvenience. So I’ve been doing my own hair for the past 4.5 years.
💡 A small tip for those who really do consider themselves more sensitive than others: experiment with braiding your hair yourself, even if it’s just a few braids. Can you braid your hair without feeling any pain? Note how you’re positioning your hands and how lightly you’re holding your hair. If you can braid your own hair without pain, then a stylist can too with your direction.
Expectations and misconceptions
On top of our acceptance or a stylist’s dismissal of our pain, there are also a couple prevalent ideas about braiding that’s behind some of us accepting pain as part of the styling process.
36% of respondents agreed with that “braids last longer if they’re tighter” and 39% agreed that “braids are more secure if they’re tight.” While those who agree with those sentiments do not make up the majority, they still make up a large portion of responses, which is unfortunate because braids in fact do not have to be tight in order to last long or to be secure.
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Additionally, 84% of us agree that braids look better if they are neat and about 40% of us prefer our edges be slicked down. However, the process of slicking our hair down (especially for those of us with kinkier textures) to achieve that neat look, if done in excess, can be damaging.
I really loved this part of Pretty Shouldn’t Hurt, spending time with the data, because it feels like it’s holding a mirror up to us as a community. The above results probably aren’t surprising because I’d guessed that deep down, as women that are getting our hair done in these beautiful but sometimes painful styles, we all probably already knew some of the practices and ideas behind our acceptance of pain. But it is nice to see it quantified.
What’s especially nice about this is it gives us something concrete to act on. Traction alopecia and being in pain while getting your hair done is 100% avoidable. We can avoid the pain, thinning edges and hair loss by simply:
- Rejecting the idea that pain comes with the territory.
- By feeling comfortable and empowered enough to speak with our stylists if we’re in pain.
- By considering all pain as valid and retiring the term tender headed 😯.
- And by embracing a little frizz.
A lot of these notions have been passed down over generations, which is why they’re prevalent and deeply believed as truth. But we have it in our power to change that. If you haven’t done so yet, you can watch our film, Pretty Shouldn’t Hurt here and find more resources that we’ve created. If you’d like to help us eliminate pain from the Black hairstyling experience, you can do so by spreading the word. You can share these survey results and the overall initiative using the pictures, graphics and videos we’ve created here.
We’re truly hoping that in a few years when we conduct this survey again, we’ll see a huge change in these results and that the next generation of Black women will grow up wearing beautiful pain free protective styles.