The upkeep that goes into caring for a wig and your own hair seems to go against the notion that they're easier to deal with.
"I feel like everybody is over wigs," Twitter user @LifeofAls wrote on October 14. "I'm seeing more girls opt for braids & ponytails now." That tweet sparked a discussion in the form of 611 quote tweets and several replies underneath.
There is an international obsession with lace-front wigs. They're shiny, they're flowy, and with the right amount of finesse, they can look as if the hair is growing from your own scalp. Lace-front wigs are particularly popular in the United States with Black women, who make up the largest customer base for wigs in general.
Black people have turned wig-blending into a bonafide art. The techniques that have developed over bathroom sinks and in salons are nothing short of genius.
While there are plenty of other popular, less expensive options on the market, lace-fronts remain the gold standard in the wig world — even though they are expensive AF.
Besides the looks they can deliver, wigs have been touted as a good option for folks with tightly coiled hair who want to take a break from styling. Indeed, that's something you hear a lot from people who've worked wigs into their hair arsenal: ‘I need a break’ from the careful detangling, twisting, deep conditioning, and general upkeep a lot of Black women have to do with their natural hair.
And yes, a properly installed wig can be a respite to styling natural hair. With a little foundation, some tweezers to pluck the hairline, a little bleach on the knots, scissors, a wig cap, edge control, an edge brush, and wig glue, you, too can — oh, eff it, can we just finally admit that lace-fronts are a production?
Full disclosure: I don't wear wigs regularly myself. I don't see styling my natural hair as much of a time drain or burden (outside of wash day, I rarely spend more than 20 minutes on it) and I really enjoy the way my natural texture looks. But the biggest reason I don't wear wigs? They're hard to put on.
The work of wearing wigs
I recognise that other people wear wigs for many reasons — using heat to create a similar look can be damaging, natural hair texture is still frowned upon in some workplaces, you just want to have blue hair for one day — and the lace-front loyalists were present and accounted for in the replies to @LifeofAls.
But there was also a significant, perhaps overwhelming, number of people agreeing with her. One of the main reasons cited for their wig fatigue? The maintenance.
"Two things about wigs: 1) they only look good when they are laid & slayed to the GODS & 2), they're extremely high maintenance," one person replied.
"That's only for influencers fr." Another person noted that as the popularity of wigs has grown, so have the quality standards — which have implications on how easy they are to apply and maintain.
"First human hair became the standard, then closures, then frontals, then melting to imitate scalp, etc.," they explain. "It takes a lot more effort to have a socially presentable wig and not everyone can keep up."
When I asked a few friends and colleagues how long it takes them to style their wigs, the average answer was between 30 minutes to an hour — both with and without help from a stylist. For some, it takes even longer. Granted, this was a very limited and unscientific poll, but that's no insignificant amount of time.
Some of the folks I asked even said it took them just as long as it does for them to do their natural hair. (Yes, I realise that there are wigs that are easier to put on — a wig with a bang is a good example — and yes I do know that there are people who are able to lay a wig in less time. To them, I offer my sincere congratulations.)
The ever-increasing cost of lace-fronts
Another big gripe folks have with lace-front wigs? The cost. "Personally I'm over spending stupid amounts of money on hair, it's just different priorities now," one person said.
"I love wigs but [b*tch], they're expensive, high maintenance, and on top of that, contribute to an exploitive and unnecessary industry," another person offered, referencing the shady ways in which wig hair is often collected.
Disruptions in the supply chain caused by the pandemic have made it increasingly difficult for some people to get their hands on wigs — and made them more expensive than ever.
"a square foot of sturdy lace can now top $120 a square foot, up about 20%," The New York Times reported in September of last year. Wig suppliers are still battling price surges for components like lace and raw hair, which affect the price of the wig once it hits shelves.
There is also the issue of what wigs can actually do to your hair if you're not dutiful about proper maintenance. Take, for example, wig glue, which many people use to make sure their unit is secure. Using glue so close to your hairline "can lead to breakage, and may cause allergic contact dermatitis (rash)," notes Boston and Canton, Massachusetts-based board-certified dermatologist Uchenna Okereke, M.D., FAAD.
The wig risk
Part of proper wig maintenance also includes taking care of your hair underneath, which some folks neglect because, well, it's under the wig — out of sight, out of mind.
"While the use of a wig allows you to have a break from daily manipulation, it does not remove the need to wash your hair regularly," Dr. Okereke continues. She suggests shampooing your natural hair at a minimum every two weeks.
Going longer than that between washes can cause all that dirt and oil to accumulate, and may make it harder for your own hair to keep growing underneath. "You may [also] precipitate scalp acne by allowing too much buildup on the scalp," Dr. Okereke says.
You also need to care for the unit itself. "You can have a wig last over 10 years with the proper maintenance," says hairstylist and wigologist Daniel Koye. "I still have wigs that I have made and used 14 years ago."
But that, of course, means you have to treat your wig delicately. "When you want to wash your wigs, you can throw it in a tub, [wash], condition, and call it a day." It sounds easy! But then that means you have several heads of hair to wash. As for me and my house, we will just deal with the one.
Another risk? The all-too-familiar spectre of traction alopecia. Amy McMichael, M.D., a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based board-certified dermatologist, explains the risks of developing the condition in this way.
"One thing that can occur is that the edges of the hairline can rub on the inside of the wig, and this can cause traction alopecia," she says, echoing Okereke's warning about wig glue. Perspiration from your scalp may also exacerbate issues like dandruff, says Dr. McMichael. "Glue from lace-front wigs can pull the hair and cause traction alopecia as well." Not only that, but wigs can also contribute to hair breakage if you wear them without a wig cap.
So, why are we bothering with all this effort?
Between the time it takes to properly lay a lace-front wig, the rising cost, and the damage that may occur if you're lax with upkeep (and sometimes, even if you're not) — yeah, it's no wonder, at least to me, that folks are feeling as if they're better off simply attaching a ponytail or getting braids.
(Though, I would be remiss if I didn't add that snatching your ponytail or braids too tightly can also cause some of the issues that both Dr. McMichael and Dr. Okereke mention above.)
Braids are just way easier to take care of. All you've really got to do is have them installed, spray on product at your leisure to keep the hair moisturised or stimulate your scalp, and hit the parts with some shampoo every once in a while.
Unless you're creating a Nikki Nelms-esque hair sculpture, it really doesn't take long to style braids. As for ponytails — all that takes is pulling your own hair back and attaching a piece to it: easy-peasy.
Dr. McMichael has noticed a trend towards braids and ponytails too. "I think there has been a desire to move to braided and weave styles rather than wigs, but some women still favor wigs." Her statement, I think, pretty much sums it up.
This is not to say that there aren't good reasons for wearing wigs, or that they're not convenient in certain situations. If you want to get a certain look that would be too damaging to achieve on your natural hair, well, yeah — lay down that lace-front! Wigs also make perfect sense for performers who constantly have to change up their hairstyles and athletes who sweat a lot but still want to keep their hairstyles relatively intact.
Black women should be able to do whatever they want with their hair, without judgment, just as other women do. Black women are often unfairly criticized or penalised for their hair, whether they wear it natural, relax it, or wear wigs. But while there are benefits to wearing wigs, I do wonder: If the effort that goes into maintaining them is so involved, isn't it better to just style your own natural hair?
I get that folks love wigs for the variety of hairstyles and colours they offer. And again, they are a great option if you're someone who needs (or wants to) change your hairstyle, particularly if the style you're hoping for has the potential to cause severe damage to your actual hair. But if the excuse is that they're "easier" to maintain than natural hair, baby, I'm just not seeing it.
There is still this idea within the Black community that our hair is ‘difficult’ to deal with. And yes, that notion is a product of white supremacy, but it is a feeling that many Black people have internalised and continue to perpetuate. There is also the pervasive feeling that our hair needs to be ‘presentable’ and ‘done’ at all times. These pressures never seem to apply so strongly to women of other races.
If you really do think Afro-textured hair is ‘difficult’ — I know, detangling is a b*tch — but you're putting so much effort in styling wigs that allegedly are not difficult because of their silky texture… I have to scratch my head a bit. If you're going to do all that wig work on a regular basis, and the point is to give yourself a "styling break," why not just get more intimate with your natural hair? Why not embrace it in its full versatility?
Most of the slayed lace-fronts we see are in silky, straight, or slightly wavy textures, which aren't naturally common amongst most Black women, particularly monoracial Black women. It would be one thing if the wigs we were wearing were mostly kinky or tightly-coiled, but for the most part, that's not the case. Many Black women like the look of straighter hair. Indeed, many prefer it to their kinks, and I wish y'all would just admit it.
That said, with all the fuss attached to wearing wigs so frequently, I think it's time for us to retire the "I'm taking a break from styling" excuse and really examine what is at the root of all this.
The first step is to admit that wigs aren't the walk in the park some folks may have you believe they are. They take time, care, and maintenance — just like our natural hair. It's just a question of how you are choosing to spend your time, and examining why.
This article was originally published on Allure.