(BlackDoctor.org) — Frances Simmons is a professional hair braider who has been honing her craft since she was a kid living on the West Side, braiding hair on her front porch. She knows that her job not only requires nimble fingers, but knowledge about hair texture and tension, scalp health and even potential allergies to synthetic tresses.
For years, she has heard fellow hair braiders lament having to go to cosmetology school to legally ply their trade: Why did they need to learn about how chemicals interacted when their job was to create lovely corn rows and plaited hairstyles?
Why sit through 1,500 hours of training when the crux of what they needed to know they had learned while sitting at the knee of their mothers and grandmothers?
But that was the law.
“And if you (braided hair professionally and) didn’t have a cosmetology license, you were operating outside of the law,” Simmons said. “We just wanted to find a common-sense balance between getting the proper training and not having to spend so much time and money on what you didn’t need.”
So Simmons, as a member of the Illinois Association of Hair Braiders, helped lobby for a new law creating a special category of licenses for the state’s professional hair braiders.
The law took effect last month and will require a person entering the field to have 300 hours of classroom and practical experience to get a license from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The department is working to get schools and classes in place.
The law, which sets standards for proper techniques, sanitation and customer service, also has a grandfather provision that will allow experienced braiders to apply for a hair braider license and/or a hair braiding teacher license by Dec. 31, 2012.
Alie Kabba, the executive director of the Chicago-based United African Organization, which helped create the association, said the old law forced many braiders to close their shops and operate out of their living rooms.
“Many of the cosmetology schools didn’t have instructors (who specialized in hair braiding), so the hair braiders were paying (thousands of dollars) and getting really nothing in return,” he said. “Hair braiding is a whole different art.”
Of the more than 70,000 cosmetologists in Illinois, Kabba estimates that about a third are professional hair braiders.
He said the new law has roots in a controversy from a decade ago when some cosmetologists began complaining to the state’s regulatory body about braiders who were practicing without a license.
“The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation was enforcing the law and criminalizing the work of entrepreneurs,” Kabba said. “We saw this as a social justice issue.”
In January 2010, he asked state Rep. Will Burns, D-Chicago, to introduce a bill creating a separate license for braiders. The bill became law in July 2010. It’s only now taking effect because it took time to hammer out rules and a schedule for fees and fines.
The state regulatory body still must approve a hair braiding curriculum, which Kabba wants the hair braiders association to play a role in establishing.
Simmons said a standardized curriculum (along with continuing education) is necessary because practical experience is not enough. She said stylists need to learn things like exercises that will save them from carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain because they endure long hours of repetitive motion and standing.
And braiders must master the craft.
While hair braiding is an art, Simmons said it’s also a science, because many of the styles require braiders to weave in additional hair that can add tension to a client’s natural locks. Some hair braiders are even plaiting hair so tightly that clients have to pop Tylenol for the pain afterward.
As a result, she said, too many women are losing their hair.
“The lack of knowledge is killing our hair follicles,” Simmons said. “We need to know when to underbraid or overbraid; when to do a corn row, a French braid or a single braid so that we’re not overly stressing the hair.
“And we need to be able to tell a client when a style won’t work because it will be too damaging to her hair.”
Because hair is so tied to self-esteem, Simmons runs a nonprofit that takes her into Chicago public schools teaching teenage girls how to care for their hair and bodies, but also why it’s important to love their natural hair.
“Little girls are getting relaxers and heavy braids so early they don’t even get a chance to appreciate and love the real texture of their natural hair,” she said.
She also teaches her adult clients how to properly maintain their manes.
Daphne Daniel-Walker, of Chicago, who has been Simmons’ client for more than a decade, told me she had her share of horror stories before meeting Simmons.
“I’ve seen it all,” Daniel-Walker said. “I’ve been in shops that didn’t have warm water because they didn’t pay the bill. Or the floors weren’t mopped or swept. I’ve had to get up and walk out of shops.
“I’ve had braids that weren’t put in correctly and the next morning I’d wake up and one would be (left behind) on my pillow or I’d look down and find one on the floor.”
She said she hopes the state’s oversight will help regulate the business.
“When you’re paying somebody to do your hair, you expect and should demand much more than that,” she said.