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Everything You Need to Know About Rocking Box Braids

Box braids are back, if they ever really left. Here's everything you need to know about rocking this uber-cool, low-maintenance style this winter.
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While we can't exactly call box braids a 'trend' (women have, after all, been rocking them since ancient Egyptian times), the hairstyle is definitely having a moment. Want proof? Look no further than those influential Sisters Knowles--

The Old School

The super-long, rope-thick style of braids and twists we're seeing right now is a direct throwback to the '90s--when stars like Janet Jackson, Brandy, and Stacey Dash (probably better known to the masses as Dionne in Clueless) made them their signature look. To this day the style is oftentimes casually referred to as the 'Poetic Justice,' after the movie in which Janet Jackson made the hairstyle iconic.

This time around, not a whole lot has changed: Women are still wearing their braids in pretty much the same way, piled high atop the heads (wrapped with a bandanna for an ultra '90s vibe) or down their backs with a sleek middle part. One major difference for modern day? The welcomed absence of those slicked down edges or "baby hair" in the front. Sorry, Miss Jackson... that's just a little too nasty for our liking.

The New School

Since Solange Knowles started wearing her hair natural in '09, she's alternated between rocking her bountiful afro loose and locking it into butt-length box braids. Older sis Beyonce followed suit this summer, swapping her weave for braids in the signature blonde we've basically come to accept as her natural color. While black hair fibre is by far the most common color choice for box braids, Beyonce's lighter alternative is a refreshing reminder that synthetic hair offers endless color options--all of which are free from the damaging effects of using chemicals.

Another cool set of sisters easily spotted by their knee-length box braids--often decorated with shells, beads, and bits of wire braided in--is Lizzy and Darlene Okpo, designers behind the William Okpo clothing label.

Tips from the Pros

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When well looked after, box braids last for at least six weeks--stylists warn against keeping them for much longer than that. Anu Prestonia, owner of NYC's Khamit Kinks hair salon (which specializes in natural hair styling), notes that, beyond looking untidy, braids left in too long can stretch and damage fragile new hair.

Freelance hair-braider Susy Oludele agrees, citing hygienic reasons as well. Washing box braids can feel like an all-day activity. They absorb a ton of water, are insanely heavy when wet, and take several hours to dry. While washing every two weeks is ideal, sometimes you just don't have the time--or it's way too cold out to walk around with wet hair. Thankfully, Prestonia shared a nifty little trick: Dampen a wash cloth with warm water and witch hazel astringent. Then part the hair, wiping your scalp down in sections. Et voila: You are once again a mean, clean braided machine.

"Attaching any sort of hair, including weaves and box braids, also poses the risk of long-term traction alopecia--the thinning or damage of the hairline," warns Prestonia. At best, it's reversible. At worst... well, we've all seen those pictures of weave enthusiast Naomi Campbell. It ain't pretty. Oludele says, "Hair braiders attach braids too tightly, I always plant the front row a little looser and thicker, where the hair is more fragile and visible." Prestonia advises her clients to avoid a damaged hairline by returning to the salon after a month to undo and rebraid the front few rows. Another tip? Don't wear your hair tied up everyday to avoid pulling on your hairline constantly.

One more thing: Both stylists warn against using anything other than naturally derived oils to keep your own hair moisturized while it's braided. Most important to avoid are mineral oils--key ingredients in most popular black hair moisturizers. Instead, go for natural oils like shea butter, coconut oil and almond oil, which work wonders massaged into the head twice weekly. Oludele and Prestonia strongly suggest a natural leave-in conditioner for non-greasy moisture.

Just Whip It

These days, it's difficult to have a conversation about black hair without tumbling into the pitfalls of a natural-vs.-straightened or weaves-vs.-braids debate. The way black women choose to wear their hair is highly politicized. But truthfully, that choice is informed by a vast number of different priorities. For many of us, it's about convenience. For others, it's cosmetic--and for others still, it might be part of a more important statement. Prestonia, for instance, frames the line of natural hair products that she produces as an extension of her "naturalista" beliefs; "Our grooming and other habits should feel organic and be environmentally sustainable."

And my take? It can't be said any better than by reluctant icon of the natural hair movement, Solange Knowles: "The way we wear our hair is a personal choice, there's no right or wrong way; one way doesn't make us more intelligent or more superficial and everyone makes that choice for very different reasons."

To that sentiment I add a favorite Willow Smith adage of mine: "Just whip it." And until you've tried whipping a head full of box braids... you have no idea how fabulous it can feel.