For most of my life, my hair has been my greatest source of grief. Not to mention, arguments with my mother. “Comb your hair properly, it’s such a mess,” she’d say. Or “Cut your hair short,” she’d suggest every time I left it loose or if we had to attend a formal event.
In her teens, my mother had thick lustrous wavy hair. For her wedding day, she cut it short and started wearing it that way, like her mother. I hated having to continue that tradition. In its sheared state, my wavy hair was unruly. It couldn’t be tamed by generous helpings of coconut oil, which made it greasy and wiry. Brushing it only served to irritate it further.
My convent school in Goa, India, had strict diktats about hair: It had to be short and above the shoulders or long and plaited. I couldn’t plait my hair (too many loose strands would fly about), so it stayed chin-length, standing up like pokey spirals on my head, earning me the nickname ‘banyan tree’. (Later, in college when my hair was a little longer, my name became ‘noodles.’)
You’d think that in India, where many women have curly and wavy hair, there would be ample information about its care. Instead it was generally vilified — at home, by mothers and aunts who insisted on keeping it tied ‘in place’; in salons, where well-meaning hairdressers advised straightening treatments; in the media, which portrayed curly-haired women as vamps.
That’s because wild hair has always been equated with freedom, an unattractive word in a largely patriarchal society that attempts to silence independent thought, especially from women. In India, women are meant to be submissive. The entire focus of our lives should be dedicated to taking care of men under the guise of tradition. Our culture idolizes straight, luscious locks. In other words, hair that, like its owner, can be easily tamed. It’s the curly-haired girls for which you have to look out. After all, they’re the rebels, the morally corrupt, the uncultured.
I discovered the Curly Girl Method (or CG Method) via a friend who linked me to a Facebook group called “Indian Curl Pride”: a community for Indian curly girls (or curlies) who shared advice, tutorials, home remedies, products, and stories of their journeys taking care of curly hair. For days I combed through the many comments soliciting advice and clicked on links to helpful blogs.
Eventually I found the Curly Girl: The Handbook. Originally published in 2001 by hairstylist Lorrainne Massey, the book propagates a seemingly novel idea: a hair care regimen designed for naturally curly hair. I immediately ordered it online.
In a few pages, I learned a few life-changing tips: use specially treated no-sulphate shampoos and conditioners for curls; refresh curly hair by applying conditioner, gel, or cream evenly on hair so it doesn’t dry out; try different treatments for different curl types (type 1 is straight, type 2 is wavy, type 3 is curly, and type 4 is kinks and coils), and more.
For two years, I’ve intermittently followed its rules: I don’t brush my hair. I condition it well. I scrunch and finger-coil. I massage my scalp with oil. I protect my hair with a scarf or cap at night. I refresh every morning. After decades of neglect, my hair started to thrive under this care, moving from being a scraggly mess to having soft and defined curls.
More important than improving my hair, I found kindred spirits in the online Facebook group. Indian curly girls took Massey’s advice and adapted it to suit Indian hair and conditions. They spoke about dealing with humidity and different kinds of water, suggested DIY and budget-friendly options for those unable to afford costly imported products, and highlighted Indian innovators working with curly hair. All of us were women who had similar experiences with their hair and were now learning to embrace it.
We were “curly girls”: a term of endearment coined by Massey that represents the pressure that society puts on girls to have straight hair and to conform to global beauty standards. What Massey espouses is more than tips and tricks; she encourages acceptance and embracing your individuality. “Accepting yourself as you are and letting go of what society says you should be are first steps toward freeing yourself,” she writes. “Free your hair and the rest will follow.”
My own moment of freedom came after I unwittingly had my first curly girl-approved haircut seven years back. At the time, all I knew was that it was a good haircut unlike the many ones before it. In the hands of a hairdresser who understood my hair, she made me realize that I had beautiful curls and that all they needed was some care. The more pride I took in my hair, the more it boosted my confidence. My hair seemed to give me power and helped me understand that being different from the norm was a good thing. I learned to embrace my individuality.
Being a curly girl brings daily surprises. I wake up wondering how my hair will look as I unfurl it from the protective silk cap I wear at night. Some days, my hair cascades in gentle waves. Other days, it dances about my head, knotted and straggly.
On days when my hair is a mess, I can hear my mother calling me (and my hair) stubborn. My mother doesn’t understand the CG Method and all of the products that I use. She thinks it’s unnecessary. We don’t fight about my hair as much, but she still believes I am being stubborn. In hindsight, I’m grateful for my hair’s resistance to my attempts to tame it. It doesn’t follow convention, and neither do I.
Photo credit: Hannah Kim