Before getting her hair braided in late June, model Salem Mitchell had a long, wavy weave. You might have caught her with it in her . As many may know, leave-outs, a small section of natural hair that is straightened to help blend the weave, are about as volatile on a hot day as a scoop of ice cream, and this summer has been day after day of scorchers that have even made me want to shave off all my hair.
"Every time I would sweat, my hair would [revert] back into a little Afro that would no longer match the weave," Mitchell tells Allure. "I was constantly re-straightening it so it would match. But you can’t stop sweating in the summer. You can’t stop moving. There’s no way to safely upkeep a weave in this type of weather."
As a model, Mitchell's hair is constantly being touched and styled with heat and products she doesn't typically use. She points out that braids give her a break not only from styling, but from constantly stressing about her hair looking perfect. "I’m always super self-conscious about my hair because people are always looking at me on the Internet and in real life too," she says. "I never want to look bad. Having braids removed some of the pressure that I have around my hair because they are already done every single morning. I don’t have to worry about someone seeing me and saying my hair looks bad or my edges look bad or my weave looks unblended."
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Turns out, more people on the Internet were paying attention to Mitchell than she knew. She came to this realization recently after posting pictures of herself on Instagram while she was at the beach. Because humidity hasn't worked well with her hair in the past, these were the first pictures she took at the beach in a while. "I was with my boyfriend at the time, and I was like you can take a picture of me on the beach and I don't have to worry about my hair being all over the place," she says. "I don't have to worry if it gets wet. Just little things like that really made my day — not worrying about the wind as much and not worrying about my hair sticking to my lip gloss." And Mitchell definitely didn't think about whether she'd get negative comments after Vogue reposted one of the images to its Instagram grid.
Amongst the praise for the gorgeous photo, someone wrote, "What with these ghetto people Vogue been showing lately is not vogue at all.” Yes, that really happened, in the Year of our Lord 2018.
In response, Mitchell felt compelled to discuss the situation on her Instagram Story and explain why comments like these are so problematic and upsetting. “The reason black women [and] people of color fight so hard for representation, diversity, and over cultural appropriation is because of this. Everything about what I look like is considered 'trendy' in the media and in fashion right now," she wrote before listing off her freckles, braids, and big lips. “But on a black woman, it’s 'ghetto' for NO reason, and we’re tired of it."
Mitchell would like to make the message loud and clear using her platform that braids are more than just a protective style. They're something "people use to benefit them in the long-term when they’re trying to reach their hair goals," she explains. "They allow us versatility and we get to let our hair grow much faster, so I don’t even understand how [the 'ghetto'] connotation came about. They’re just braids. It’s not that big of a deal. But when I wear [them], I don’t want to be considered ghetto, and I don’t want people to be turned off to me because I decided to have the style that you just saw on somebody else who you thought was innovative and creative."
Unfortunately, the rude commenter is not the only one who thinks this terrible way. Mitchell experienced this type of response to braids back in high school, showing just how deeply these negative attitudes towards hairstyles typically worn by black women actually run.
"I told a group of friends of mine I was thinking about getting braids because they would really help my hair grow," she recalls. "One of my friends told me, 'I don't think you should do that because I think black girls with braids look ghetto.'"
That sentiment stuck with her as years went on and she eventually signed to a modeling agency. "I was definitely scared of getting that reaction from somebody who doesn't know me because if somebody who is close to me can say something like that, there are probably hundreds of people thinking the same thing," Mitchell adds. She was even scared that clients would turn her down because of her braids.
Luckily, having braids hasn't drastically affected Mitchell's career so far. If anything, she says they just change up what hairstylists can do to her hair. Because it's a protective style that can't be curled or straightened, they have to work with what she has. "They can ask for it to be up or down or in a bun or they could probably add things into it," she notes. To prove it, she recently produced a photoshoot with one of her friends who is a photographer, Ira Chernova. The results can be seen throughout this interview.
"I wanted to show people what I look like with braids," she explains of the motivation for the shoot. When she had a weave, she says she couldn't put her hair up because the style would expose its tracks. Now, she can pull her hair away from her face and put it in an updo. "I don’t think people have seen me with my hair up in years," she adds.
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Hopefully, the photo shoot provides more representation and inspiration for others looking to rock a protective style for the summer, too. As Mitchell points out, braids — which have been worn throughout history and have huge cultural significance throughout the African diaspora — still aren't as normalized as, say, straight hair. "I think that’s the main, main thing I want to change," she says. "I don’t want people to see braids or see any type of protective style on a black woman and think, 'Oh, I can decide what type of person she is or I already know she’s going to be ghetto.' I think that’s really wrong."