Braiding Freely: Fighting Legal Barriers to Professional Braiding


Many of us in Natural communities are no strangers to having our curls, kinks and coils unduly policed. In an interview with The Atlantic, Aicheria Bell shared that braiders like herself who are just trying to earn an honest living in the US are hit with that policing two-fold.

Under the claim of seeking to protect public health and safety, US government regulators at all levels have introduced laws in many states that require hair braiders to obtain a license. For example, in order to make a living off braiding in Iowa, Bell previously would have had to have a high school diploma (or its equivalent) and have a cosmetology license.

The problem? Cosmetology licenses in Iowa take 2,100 hours and $22,000 to obtain. And, up until recently, braiding professionally without a license could cost you up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison. So if you live in a state that's a natural hair salon desert - now you know part of the reason why. 

Professional Braiding Licensing Requirements in the US

Similar licensing laws and training requirements apply to about 25% of the general US workforce, and in many cases that oversight exists for good reasons (would you want your doctor or lawyer practicing without some sort of training and certification?). But in the case of braiding – it just doesn’t make sense.

Braiding is relatively harm-free. It doesn’t inherently involve dyes or chemicals, making it safer for both braiders and customers than many salon services. Technically, braiding doesn’t even require using heat on your hair (please spare yourself contact with people who insist you need a relaxer or that you hot press the life out of your hair first). 

Beyond that, like many other braiders in cosmetology schools, Bell observed that mainstream curriculums are molded around Eurocentric beautification, and therefore do not offer preparation for a career in braiding.

“I was getting frustrated with the curriculum. The reason I started cosmetology school was to learn how to take care of my hair, and I quickly noticed that it felt like I had to learn how to do white hair… We did a hair show and I did this really intricate hairstyle with braids. I remember the judge said that they really didn’t know braiding, so they couldn’t know all the work that I had put into it”.
– Aicheria Bell

In other words – many braiders have found that licensing requirements waste their time and money. That’s why the Institute for Justice (IJ) launched a nationwide Braiding Initiative in 2014, and banded together with professional braiders like Bell to fight “onerous and anti-competitive hair braiding regulations”. The IJ has compiled research which shows that the laws around hair braiding “create artificial and unnecessary barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking to take their first step on the economic ladder”.

Backed by legal claims to the right to earn an honest living (under the 14th Amendment and various state constitutions), the IJ has helped braiders in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Utah and Washington sue the state and strike down unnecessary licensing requirements.

Their cases provide legal precedent for more braiders to seek similar justice. That’s a huge reason why it’s important that braiders know the legalities surrounding braiding in their states and which resources are available to them. And Natural communities, especially those of us who rely on braided protective styles to save our tresses (and arms) from over-manipulation and daily styling, should stand up for braiders’ rights to work freely whenever we can. When you take a step back – you can really see how this fight ties into larger efforts to bring Natural culture into the public sphere and to just be ourselves. 

“Braiding is a way of life for us. Hair speaks a language; you can look at certain braids and tell different nationalities or ethnicities from the braid style”. 
– Aicheria Bell 

We should be free to (re)learn how to take care of our hair healthily and safely, exercise self-expression, proudly wear our own cultures - and to turn that craft into flourishing businesses. 

Tiejendo Ezperanza 11 - Colombia - Woman Gets Hair Braided
A woman gets her hair braided at Colombia's 11th Afro-hairdressers contest,
'Teijendo Esperanzas' (Knitting Hope), which celebrates the country's abolition of slavery in 1851. Photo Credit: Reuters 


Read Aicheria Bell’s full interview here, and find out more about the Braiding Freedom project here.

If you’re a braider and would like more information on taking action, contact J. Justin Wilson, Director of Communications at the Institute for Justice via post (901 N. Glebe Rd #900, Arlington, VA 22203-1854), email ( or phone (703-682-9320, ext: 206).

Cover Photo: 'Fingerwave Saint, Braids' (2016) by hair braider and artist, Shani Crowe

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