Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s debut of a braided hair extension style on Tuesday caused quite a stir, stealing attention from the rest of the family as the brood took in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour in Vegas. Zahara, whose hairstyles have made headlines since she was tiny, delighted style-watchers with her long braids draped over a chic camel coat. This stream-lined look is a big departure for a girl better-known for gravity-defying styles like puffy ponytails.
While Zahara’s braided hairstyle debut is largely hailed as painfully cute, dark clouds of controversy have also gathered. Clutch magazine relates that the controversy over Zahara’s new ‘do pits those enraptured that Brangelina has finally tamed the girl’s curls with extensions against others who believe braids are inappropriate for someone so young.
TheGrio spoke to black hair care expert Dr. Monte O. Harris to address these concerns. As an African-American doctor with an interest in cultivating the connection between healthy black hair care and self-esteem, he sees Zahara’s braids in a positive light. Yet there are precautions that Pitt and Jolie must adhere to in order to keep their black child’s hair healthy.
Pleased that Zaraha is not wearing a weave or relaxer — something black parents often do to their small daughters — Harris commented that: “If she had a weave, or if she had a relaxer, I would be dong backflips about how bad that is.”
But Zahara’s braids? “I think she looks great,” the doctor commended. “But then there is the question of the use of extensions — you have to be careful with that. There is the question of how tight the braids are, particularly in the front along the hairline and the temple.”
It is a highly common mistake for clients to accept painful braids as a necessary evil of the style. But to the contrary: “The critical thing is that when she gets braids done,” Harris said about Zahara, “is that they should not be so tight that she feels discomfort. It shouldn’t be painful.”
Dr. Harris also said that braids with extensions are not necessarily the best approach. “It shouldn’t be just braids with extensions,” he elaborated. “There are other ways of doing her hair braided that don’t require synthetic hair.”
Another essential aspect of the healthy wearing of braids is switching hairstyles and not wearing braids too often. “She should have braids for a period of time, and then she should do something that has no traction — a style that celebrates her own natural curl pattern,” the doctor warned.
Pulling caused by braids with extensions and weaves worn for many years can cause traction alopecia — a condition that 59% of black women suffer from. Traction alopecia is caused by damage to the hair follicles from repeatedly wearing styles that tug on the shafts leading to permanent baldness.
In Dr. Harris’ estimation, Pitt and Jolie are doing the right things to protect Zahara from this danger. “She’s worn her hair natural, she’s explored some of her natural curl patterns apparently, and then had braids,” he detailed. By alternating styles and not repetitively using extensions, stress on Zahara’s follicles will be minimized.
In addition to protecting her scalp, exploring these natural hair options might help Zahara develop a positive black identity.
“For anyone, and in this case Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, you have to look at a person in terms of their beauty, their health,” Dr. Harris said, “and how these things align with their life purpose, and their identity.”
By giving Zahara a variety of styles that enhance a connection to her African heritage, her parents are helping her feel good about herself through her beauty choices, whether her hair is “wild” (according to naysayers), or groomed in a controlled manner with braids.
“Braids are a [black] cultural style that resonates from ancient times,” Dr. Harris said. Thus braids — with or without extensions — can help Zahara develop good feelings about being black in a world in which African-American girls often suffer from a lack of self-esteem caused by feeling excluded from the prevalent beauty standard.
In this way, choosing Afrocentric hairstyles addresses concerns many have about the ability of white parents to help their black adoptive children maintain a positive connection to their cultures of origin. Angelina and Brad just need to follow the doctor’s advice to make sure Zahara wears her braided hair extensions in a healthy way.
“We tend to look at things as if this is just a hairstyle, instead of a lifestyle,” Harris said of the hair care-positive identity connection. “We need to look at things in a holistic way.”