Wild and crazy: A curly hair journey to acceptance

Guest post by Erin KLG

In high school, a kid once asked me if my hair was a wig.
In high school, a kid once asked me if my hair was a wig.
When I was in 4th grade, there was a girl in my school named Jessica. Like many things about Jessica, her hair was perfect. Blonde, thick, and shiny, it fell down her back like a heavy curtain. A small flip of her head resulted in a golden wave of hair, a solar flare from the brightest sun. You had to shield your eyes. One day she pinned her hair back with unicorn barrettes, and I thought I might die from jealousy and desire.

My hair is, and always has been, curly. Unruly, wild curls. Frizzy, big curls. Messy. My hair didn’t grow down, like Jessica’s, my hair grew out.

Up until late high school, I had never had long hair. Nothing cascaded down my back except sweat in the summer. My hair wouldn’t hold a barrette and it had an aversion to combs. It wasn’t as beautiful as an afro or tight enough to control. It was just crazy.

At night, alone in my room, I would pull my nightgown back over my head and let it hang there, pretending the soft cotton against my shoulders was my own hair. I’ll just buy a dark nightgown, I would think, and go outside with it on my head. No one will know! These were the thoughts of a desperate idiot.

At some point, I realized that I had to stop being weird. The nightgown would come off and I would stare at my mushroom head, full of loathing.

At eight, I got a perm. The thinking was that the only thing that could control my curls was more curl. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not the type of reasoning that will get you into Mensa.

By the time I reached 9th grade, I wore my hair in a bun every day. I couldn’t risk anyone seeing it in its natural state.

I didn’t hate my hair in a vacuum; these thoughts were not mine alone. As the only person in my house with curly hair, I don’t think my parents knew exactly how to deal with it. My mother and father couldn’t comb my hair without causing me pain.

Nothing can be done, I heard. It is what it is. A head shake, a sideways grin, a pity glance. These told me that my hair was going to be my life’s burden. And that other people hated curly hair, too.

As I got older, curly hair became a conversation starter, though not always a pleasant one. People will tell you exactly what they think about your hair, unsolicited. They don’t like it; they know someone with curly hair who can’t keep it under control; or do you know about such-and-such product that could really help you? I have even been told that men do not prefer curly hair.

“Big Hair, Don’t Care” poster by StayCarm

Curly hair is intrinsically tied to ethnicity, and people are not shy about asking me if I’m Jewish, Hispanic, mixed. Nothing reminds you how deep racism goes in our country when curly hair, often a trait of people of color, is marked as undesirable. Black women, more than anyone, battle a constant barrage of opinions whether they straighten their hair or keep it natural. They’ve been told their hair is a “corporate don’t.”

Despite these cultural messages, somewhere around college and after, I stopped fighting my hair. I got tired of hating it. Correction: I didn’t have enough time to hate it. The act of leaving it alone became its — and my — liberation. I let it grow out all the way instead of cutting it back like an unruly hedge. As it grew longer, it became better and better. The curls, once springy and vibrant, became weighted down and formed sultry S’s. I went to stylists who understood curly hair and gave me tips for styling it and what products to use to keep the curls spry. Products that would actually enhance the curls, play up a characteristic I had once hated.

But it wasn’t just the appearance of it that had changed. I had changed, too. I started to see the value in having hair unlike other people. I liked that I didn’t have to do too much to it, not even blow dry it, to have a nice head of hair. I liked that the curls caught the light just so. I liked that I sometimes had romantic heroine hair.

More than anything, I liked that it became a part of my identity, how people came to know me. My hair is joyful and a little on the fringe. It’s multidimensional and twisty in its thinking. It looks like maybe it would be a good dancer. Curly hair is me.

It still has its unruly days. I keep bobby pins on hand for those occasions, and I forgive myself for the days I can do nothing with it. I imagine it’s what living with a teenager must be like: you love it in spite of itself.

There are still days I see a sleek bob and wish my hair could do that naturally. It can’t. But bobs can’t curl, either. Of course this isn’t a competition. I’m not looking to win anything. Jessica from elementary school had beautiful hair and probably still does.

The difference is that now I believe I do, too.

Comments on Wild and crazy: A curly hair journey to acceptance

  1. Wow, thank you for the positive response! So many of you have mentioned that you suffered the same with your hair — and I’m so sorry to hear that. Straight or curly or somewhere in between, I think it’s really about finding a stylist who understands your hair and who can make it the best it can be. And then loving it for what it can be at its best, and accepting it at its worst. It’s very freeing.

    For curly hair, here’s the routine that works for me. I use only sulfate-free and paraben-free shampoos and hair products. The Aveda Be Curly line is good. Post-shampoo, I wrap my curls in a microfiber towel for about 20 minutes, then finger twist some of the curls with product. Then I let it air dry. And that’s it. As others have mentioned, never comb or brush curly hair accept the night before (or even right before) you wash it. Curls are really fragile.

    Finally, I didn’t want my post to downplay the significance of having ethnic hair in America, but there was also no way I could do it justice and still make it flow with the (admittedly, very personal) story. It’s also not my experience to tell. I think that talking about hair necessarily has to touch on this aspect, though. The personal is political with hair. We can all admit to each other that the “grass is greener,” and while that’s definitely true, leaving it at that does a disservice to the deeper implications of what it means to have ethnic hair in a culture dominated by straight European hair. There are a lot of great resources out there to learn more about this topic; one of my favorites is a blog called Racialicious.

    Thanks again for reading!

    • Thank you for writing this, and thinking about the ethical and political aspect of your curly hair experience. You did a great job (at least I think so!) of addressing your curly hair journey, without downplaying the thought process that perhaps drives public/societal views on curly/ethnic hair! As a brown girl that seriously has a debate on every 1st interview on if I should pull out a wig (because I’m hyper aware that there are a great number of people that find natural, ethnic hair “unprofessional,” and as much as I’d love to defy that, a girl gotta eat), I feel a portion of your pain:) As a curious aside, I DO wonder if things for would be easier for curly haired…less pigmented???…gals if they would just wander over to the nearest ethnic hair section of their store- and I wonder if this doesn’t happen from some sort of deeper issues (as in, what could a product for the “others” possibly do for me way, or in a those products aren’t for “me” way) or if it generally never crosses their minds (which would also mean, I assume, living in an area that’s not very diverse).

      • I LOVE the “Ethnic Hair Care” section! I grew up in a very small, very white midwestern town and was thrilled beyond all measure when I went away to college in a larger city and found those products. I mean, they were just THERE, SITTING ON THE GROCERY SHELF! Holy crap! 🙂 It’s like the best kept secret EVAR for curly headed white girls!

      • Thank you! And GREAT suggestion on using ethnic hair care products. For curly-haired people, these products can be a saving grace. They just tend to be tucked away on the drugstore shelf and not marketed like the Pantene shampoos of the world. : / And yeah, I think there’s probably some degree of “those products aren’t for me” thinking going on.

        I like to use the SheaMoisture line – http://www.sheamoisture.com. Great, natural products.

        I’m so, so sorry you have to sometimes cover up your natural hair for job interviews. Ridiculous, racist, horrible. We have such a long, long way to go.

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. I keep telling my husband that if something happens to me before I am able to teach our (unborn) daughter how to care for her hair, assuming she takes after me, that he absolutely MUST teach her himself. I refuse to let my child grow up with the same curly hair woes I did!

  3. I’m a poker straight hair type, holds no curl and I have to keep it bleached to get any kind of texture or volume. When I was younger I had ‘princess hair’ which unfortunately just doesn’t suit me.

    On the other end of the spectrum, my 2 y/o niece has beautiful curly hair. She is a gorgeous mixed race toddler and beyond only combing her hair wet, we have very little idea of what to do with it. It mattes very easily. Does anyone have any advice on how to help her hair tangle less, and keep it in good condition beyond baby shampoo?

    • My 15 month old daughter is mixed-race, and her hair is a perfect mix of my Irish waves and her father’s black fro (when he doesn’t shave it). Take this advice with a big grain of salt, because I’ve found that everyone’s curls are different.

      My daughter gets a bath every night before bed, because of her eczema, but we DO NOT WASH her hair every day. We only wash it once a week.

      On the days we wash it, we use Weleda Calendula Shampoo and Body Wash. We’ve also tried California Baby shampoo. After rinsing the shampoo, we use Organix Nourishing Coconut Milk Conditioner, or Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter Restorative Conditioner for Dry, Damaged Hair.

      Once the conditioner is in the hair, I comb out her curls, individually and VERY CAREFULLY, starting from the ends. I use a soft plastic baby comb that we got with a baby care kit. This gets any knots or tangles out. This takes a good 10 minutes. I then leave the conditioner to sit for 5 minutes before rinsing out.

      Once she’s out of the tub, I pat her hair dry with a towel, just enough so she’s not dripping all over the place. I then mix a little Jojoba Oil with Curls Unleashed Leave-in Conditioner in my palms, and work it into her curls. I do the same again in the morning.

      I really should have her sleep in a silk or satin cap, but she’s teeny tiny and I haven’t found any that fit. She’s also a very active sleeper so I can imagine it wouldn’t stay on for long.

      On most days, when we don’t wash her hair, I still wet it, condition it, and comb it.

      Honestly, it took a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked for us. I spent a lot of time watching youtube videos, and there’s a yahoo group I belong to called Adoptionhair & skin care – it was started by a bunch of white moms trying to figure out how to style their black children’s hair, and I’ve learned a lot about hair styling from the posts. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough for yarn braids!

  4. I mix half Aveda “Be Curly” gel with half Giovanni “More body hair thickener volumizing” gel. It’s perfection for my curls! Not too soft, not too sticky. The key for me is the mix.

    Also, I only wash it every 2 or 3 days. On days I don’t wash, I use a water bottle to scrunch the curls back to life before I leave the house.

    My husband (straight hair) LOVES the curls!

  5. I hated my wavy curls growing up, and it’s only in the last couple years (when I was in my 30s!) that I figured out how to manage them. The difficult thing is, curls are so unique, that what works for one curly head won’t work for another. Thank god for the internet! I’ve spent a lot of time in youtube and naturallycurly.com and finally figured out what worked for me.

    I use Tresemme Keratin Smooth shampoo and conditioner. I comb out my hair while the conditioner is in it, rinse, and then wrap it in a towel. I don’t rub or pat the hair, I just wear the towel for 10-15 minutes. Then I take the towel off, flip my hair upside down and spray it with Frizz-Ease Curl-Defining Spray Gel, and then spray it with coconut oil.

    That’s it. I don’t scrunch, I don’t finger-comb, I don’t use a diffuser, I basically don’t do any of the things that work for other people. I just let it air dry and it’s good to go.

    Unfortunately, I have to wash it every day – if I don’t, the curls completely fuzz up, and no amount of water or product will bring them back.

  6. It’s funny because I was the girl with long blonde hair, always wishing my hair was brown and curly. I’m sure that had something to do with my mom’s hair being brown and curly. Part of me wished I could be just like her. Another part of me just thought that long straight hair was plain and boring. I’ve come to accept my hair as it is. I dyed it for a long time, but I think it looks better on me as it was meant to be. Also, I’m too lazy to keep up with my roots. Blonde roots on dark hair look weird.

  7. My hair is curly. And frizzy. And also has weird straight strands. My mom spent years trying to tame my hair with every weird home and store bought treatment you could think of. My hairstylist has to warn the shampoo person to use a little extra because they only end up washing the outer layer because it’s so thick.
    I shed hair like I’m trying to make a wig for someone. I will find literal hair tumbleweeds in my house, even though I sweep daily. I brush before I shower for five minutes because if I don’t I have to unclog the drain.
    Took me 18 years to just call a truce with my hair and let her grow wild and free, but I don’t regret it!

  8. My hair started to curl when I was 10 or 11 and hasn’t been straight since. I spent years trying to fight it, straightening it with blow dryers and flat irons. It wasn’t until my late 20’s and working in a very demanding job that I realized I couldn’t spend a ridiculous amount of time on my hair each day and needed to embrace the curls. And the odd time I would wear my hair naturally curly I would get compliments on it! It took awhile to find the right combination of products, but now I love my curls. They’re so much easier to deal with than spending 40 minutes straightening every morning and then praying it won’t rain or be too humid.

  9. Wow! I really believe I could have wrote this article myself 🙂 I have extremely curly hair!!!!! I also grew up in my household with the only curly head of hair. My mother used to sponge roll my hair every night to keep my curls in more control. The result was me being called Shirley Temple or Nellie from Little House on the Prairie. Plus, it was uncomfortable to sleep in those darn things!!! Middle school years were my worst!! Caught in trying to grow up and keep up with popular hairstyles. This was impossible with my curly headed self!!!! I had not been introduced to gel, mousse, or a diffuser yet!! Probably by the very end of high school I started becoming more confident and accepting of my curls. I started experimenting more on my own to learn what worked. It used to take me forever to fix my hair and threw many of brushes!!! Now, I still have those days that I just know I’m having a curly haired mess day but I don’t let it get me down!!! That’s what a ponytail is for!!!! I always worried that guys would be turned off by my curly headed mess but one of the first questions my hubby asked about me when he was introduced for the first time was- Wow. Is her hair always that curly? She’ beautiful. :)))

  10. Huh… cultural difference… the only reason I ever hated my hair as a child was that randoms strangers would always touch it, completely unsolicited. I still can’t stand people touching my hair. But I’d only ever ge told how beautiful it was.

    In my early teens it started going a bit fuzzy, and despite coming from a long line of european curlies my mother still had no idea what to do with it, but still the only people to comment on it was the resident bitch and school and my evil step-mother.

    Once I got a job and could buy decent shampoo, I pretty much got a handle on it and have loved it ever since.

    For those still struggeling I reccomend http://www.naturallycurly.com for advice and tips on identifying your hair-type and how to handle it, appropriate products and even stylist reviews if you’re in the states 🙂

  11. As I read this, it reminded me of my sister and myself growing up. We too put long blankets on our heads to pretend we had beautiful long hair, as we also grew up with short, curly hair. Not until right before high school we both grew it out and did the same thing- wearing it back all the time as we had no other way of managing it. It is nice to see that we were not the only ones that dealt with our hair in the same manner. We both love our curly hair now and style it in a way that makes us happy. Now my daughter is beginning to show signs of curls and I can’t wait to help her embrace those curls!

  12. THIS IS WHAT I NEED IN MY LIFE! You know how there’s all this body drama now? Curvy is beautiful and all that? I’ve taken a similar approach to hair recently. Straight is the hair equivalent of skinny. Media/society touts it as this awesome thing everyone should have and if you don’t have it something is wrong and you aren’t as beautiful as someone who does. I’ve had curly/wavy/frizzy hair my whole life. I spent so much of my life either straightening it or wearing it rolled, wrapped, tucked and out of sight. I’m on a mission to change how the world thinks about curly hair though. Curly is beautiful too. So thank you for this article. THANK YOU FOR CURLY HAIR! 🙂

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