The art of hair braiding extends back thousands of years in West Africa. Traditionally, a person’s hairstyle might reflect anything from their tribal membership to their social rank to their marital status. And because hairstyles were of such social significance and could take hours to achieve, the act of creating them was also woven with meaning. In some African societies, only family members could braid one another’s hair; in others, a person wishing to befriend someone would offer to braid that person’s hair. In still others, a community or family hairdresser would braid everyone’s hair, often becoming the most trusted member of that society. 1
Thus, just as one’s hairstyle reflected one’s community, braiding itself helped build and sustain communities. Even now, hair grooming and styling is, for many Africans, an important social ritual.
In the United States, slavery disrupted the transmission and practice of braiding traditions. 2
Not only did most slaves have their hair forcibly shaved when they were captured, but the conditions of slavery made elaborate hairdressing impractical, if not impossible. In addition, slaves found themselves in a society that prized smooth Caucasian-type hair over tightly coiled Afro-textured hair. They were expected to adopt a “neat” appearance, which often meant keeping their natural hair cropped or covered. Even after emancipation, African-Americans who fought their natural hair texture to conform to the dominant beauty standard often found it easier to obtain work and rise in society. They used caustic chemicals and heat to straighten their tightly coiled hair into submission, often at great cost to the health of their hair and scalp. In the 1960s, many African-Americans sought different ways to care for their natural hair texture. In African traditions, they found a wealth of techniques for grooming and styling Afro-textured hair naturally—no chemicals or heat required—leading to renewed interest in braids as well as other styles such as dreadlocks, cornrows and afros. 3
Demand for these styles has only grown since, a trend that has not been overlooked by government regulators.
Today, thousands of professional hair braiders practice the artistic and individualized craft of twisting, braiding, weaving and locking natural hair. Often learned in childhood and honed over years of practice, braiding is time tested and all natural. In fact, it is typically categorized as “natural hair care” because it involves no cutting, dyeing, application of heat or use of caustic chemicals. Yet, in most states, braiders must obtain a government permission slip—in the shape of a license requiring as many as 2,100 hours of training—before they can earn a living doing something that many have been doing all their lives.
Fatou Diouf’s story is illustrative. Fatou, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, cannot recall a time before she knew how to braid hair. In her native Senegal, girls learn to braid hair at age two or three, when they get their first dolls. They learn by watching mothers, aunts and sisters braid one another’s hair and helping when needed. As they get older, they braid the hair of friends, sisters and nieces. “It’s an everyday thing,” Fatou says of braiding in Senegal. When she came to America in the late 1990s to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Fatou immediately started braiding hair to help pay for her studies. She found her passion and calling for braiding in the joyful faces of her customers after she had transformed their hair. “To put a smile on somebody’s face, it’s beautiful,” she says. That passion can keep Fatou braiding a single client’s hair anywhere from two to 16 hours, sometimes until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.
But despite Fatou’s happy customers and lifetime of experience, Tennessee considered her braiding activity illegal. Consequently, two years after moving to the United States, Fatou was forced to stop her university studies and enroll in cosmetology school to get a license and “to be legal.” She had to spend 300 hours in training and take a written exam. Because Fatou already knew how to braid, those 300 hours were mostly a waste of her time. Nevertheless, attending cosmetology school set her back $4,000—an amount that does not take into account the cost of her time and income forgone. In addition, Fatou—already a professional—was occasionally enlisted to provide braiding services to clients of the school’s salon. The school charged for these services, but Fatou was not entitled to any payment.
Fatou’s story is not unique. Melony Armstrong, of Tupelo, Mississippi, picked up braiding a little later in life, but she took to it with no less enthusiasm. She threw herself into hours of workshops, classes and practice, soon becoming a master braider. But Melony wanted to do more than just braid; she wanted to teach braiding and business skills to other African-American women. However, under Mississippi law at the time, Melony would have needed to become a licensed cosmetologist, then to become a licensed cosmetology instructor, and finally to obtain a cosmetology school license. This would have entailed a combined total of 3,200 curriculum hours—on top of the 300 she had already completed in order to open her own salon—none of which had anything to do with braiding. 4
Melony and Fatou are only two examples of braiders caught up in licensing rules. And braiding is only one of many occupations to which government restricts entry through licensing—one of the fastest growing barriers to entry for workers in the United States. Today, about one in four workers needs a license to work. 5
In the 1950s, that figure stood at only one in 20 (see Figure 1). 6
To get a license, workers may be required to complete hours of education or training, pay fees, pass exams, or meet other qualifications such as reaching a minimum age, becoming bonded or passing a background check. 7
Such requirements are particularly burdensome for lower-income and less-educated individuals, minorities, immigrants and others trying to gain a foothold on the economic ladder. 8
More often than not, these occupational licenses are lobbied for by industry insiders, 9
who typically stand to gain from them. Many existing practitioners and their associations, for instance, welcome the chance to block new entrants as less competition leads to more demand for their services, allowing them to charge higher prices. 10
Moreover, existing practitioners are often grandfathered in—that is, allowed to continue practicing without completing the new requirements. 11
Other insiders, like occupational schools and their own associations, also benefit from licensing as it allows them to force would-be practitioners to participate in their programs, often at great expense. 12
Cosmetology licensing regimes such as the one Melony got tangled up with emerged in just this way. When short bobs came into fashion in the 1920s, more women began seeing hairdressers. But only barbers were licensed to cut hair at that time, and they sought to protect their privilege by sweeping hairdressers into their domain. 13
Hairdressers and their associations organized and, in the 1930s, they obtained a separate cosmetology licensing regime that allowed them to cut, color and style hair, as well as provide some other cosmetic services. 14
Much like barbers before them, hairdressers were motivated by the desire to shut out new competition since the increase in demand for their services was supposedly “attracting many unskilled practitioners.” 15
Once a licensing scheme is in place, occupational insiders may try to expand the boundaries of their empire to gobble up even more activities, including ones only tangentially related to their own. Because the state boards set up to oversee licensed occupations typically comprise members of the occupation, licensing can give current practitioners the power to push such boundaries, thereby absorbing—or fencing out—competition. This can be thought of as “license creep,” and it has fenced out operators of teeth-whitening kiosks accused of practicing dentistry without a license and eyebrow threaders grouped with cosmetologists. 16
Like threading—another ancient and all-natural craft—braiding has been a target for cosmetology license creep. Today, cosmetology insiders use their government-enforced cartel to require hair braiders in many states to obtain a full cosmetology license—even though cosmetology was not developed with braiders or Afro-textured hair in mind and traditionally cosmetology programs have rarely taught braiding. 17
In other states, instead of the requirements for a full cosmetology license, braiders must complete a curriculum specific to braiding in order to obtain a “specialty license.” Most often, these licenses are administered by the state cosmetology board.
Proponents of licensing attempt to justify it by arguing that licensing is necessary to protect public health and safety from unskilled or untrained practitioners. 18
However, there is little evidence that occupational licensing, in general, successfully protects the health and safety of consumers or licensees. 19
Additionally, the wide variation in licensing regimes for braiders nationwide—ranging from no licensing to specialty braiding licenses that require anywhere from zero to 600 training hours to cosmetology licenses requiring thousands of training hours—appears irrational. There is no logical reason why some states demand hundreds or thousands of training hours for braiders while others require none at all.
To assess whether hair braiding poses health and safety risks that might justify licensing, this study reviews complaints against braiders submitted to cosmetology licensing boards in nine states and the District of Columbia, all jurisdictions with specialty braiding licenses or mandatory registration. It finds that true health and safety concerns are extremely rare—so rare that a taxpayer is over 2.5 times more likely to be audited by the IRS as a licensed or registered braider is to have any complaint filed against them, let alone a complaint in which health or safety issues are implicated. It is even less likely—nearly 100 times less likely—to have a complaint come from a consumer. Braiding, in short, is safe. This study also finds, in line with previous research on occupational licensing, that higher barriers to entry may constrain opportunity, as most states that require more hours of training have fewer braiders in proportion to their black immigrant and African-American populations. These findings add to mounting evidence that the costs of burdensome occupational licenses may outweigh purported benefits.