Should a braider have to show you a state license, or is braiding a cultural tradition that the government has no business regulating? NiaOnline tells you what you need to know about this topical issue
Hair braiding is a chemical-free hairstyle alternative that's increasingly popular with African-American women. A 2005 NiaOnline survey of Black women's hair-care habits suggests that more than two million of us may be opting for braids: Eight percent of survey respondents wear their hair braided, and another 8 percent wear their hair in twists or dreadlocks. But braids are more than another hairstyling option for us. The practice of hair braiding is also a major step on the ladder of entrepreneurship for countless women of color.
Yet even though we have been braiding hair in our homes for thousands of years, some states require hair braiders to have a cosmetology license. Others leave it up to the state cosmetology board, and still others require more-specific types of licenses. So the question remains, is it our God-given right to perform this centuries-old tradition passed down from our foremothers, or do unlicensed braiders put consumers at risk?
Valerie Bayham--a staff attorney for the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which describes itself as a "libertarian public-interest law firm"--says, "There is no justification [for taking] cosmetology courses. Most braiders learn how to braid when they're [children]. By the time they go to cosmetology school, they already know how to braid." The institute recently issued a study on braiding regulations across the country.
Becoming a licensed cosmetologist takes time (up to nine months) and money ($4,000 to $15,000). Moreover, you are required to take courses in areas such as chemical relaxing and permanent waves, which are unrelated to hair braiding. Bayham maintains that all licensing does is force braiders to go underground, where they can't expand their businesses or offer opportunities to other minority or immigrant women. For these reasons, among others, the Institute for Justice advocates abolishing licensing requirements nationwide.
Not all experts, however, agree.
Licensing May Be Necessary . . .
Diane Bailey, owner of Tendrils Hair Spa in Brooklyn, New York, and author of Natural Hair Care and Braiding (Milady; $56.95), is one such expert who believes that licensing of hair braiding is essential. "It's more than the art of braiding; it's about the science of hair care," says Bailey. "It's about sanitation, scalp disorders and diseases, cross contamination [the spreading of bacteria from one person to the next by the use of unsterilized tools], and a certain level of workmanship, proficiency, and customer service."
Bailey's argument is that if you are going to touch another person's body, then you should know something about the human body and hair growth. "We are at an epidemic with alopecia areata and traction alopecia, [which is] due to the tension and pulling of hair from braids," says Bailey about African-American women. "One of the reasons is improper application of synthetic hair. How are [unlicensed] braiders going to learn the proper technique?"
Bailey maintains that licensing can actually help braiders use their skills to get to the next level of entrepreneurship. In fact, it was a license that enabled one of Bailey's hair braiders to receive a green card and remain in the United States; she eventually opened her own hair salon. "Licensing not only gives hair braiders guidelines of proficiency to learn the fundamental craft points and biology of the body, but it also empowers and legitimizes," Bailey says.
. . . But What Type of License?
Currently, 10 states exempt braiders from cosmetology requirements. Instead, braiders must follow basic commonsense health guidelines, like placing combs in antiseptic solution and washing hands before combing hair. But is this enough to protect consumers? If manicurists, facialists, and massage therapists must be licensed, shouldn't hair braiders be, too?
Perhaps, but there are other considerations. Cosmetology training doesn't even cover the application of synthetic hair (or many other issues pertaining to African-American hair) that so concerns Bailey. This is just one reason she favors a mandatory natural-hair-care license for hair braiders instead of the broader cosmetology license that nine states require.
Such licensing, she argues, protects both consumers and braiders. "Two hundred years ago, a doctor didn't have to be licensed. Licensing keeps people in and keeps people out," explains Bailey, who was instrumental in developing a licensing curriculum for natural-hair care in New York, one of nine states (plus the District of Columbia) that require a specific braiding license. "If a client sues you or if they challenge you [because of] something you've done, how are you legitimized?"
Do you think that hair braiders should be licensed? Have you ever had a disastrous braiding experience? Share your comments below....
--Tonia Shakespeare is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer