My CHI hair straightener emitted hot steam towards my bathroom ceiling as I ironed my curly hair. It resulted in a shiny, pin-straight, black, waterfall-like cascade on my shoulders, tumbling down all the way to my elbows. It was a strong complement to my tight, hippy, black and white leopard print dress.
I was getting ready for a major work event. We were having a huge group of industry head honchos coming to check an exhibit, and as one of the front-facing members of staff, I had to put my face, hair and body on. I sported a style so generic I didn’t recognize myself. Trying to look like everyone else always feels like such a futile task.
I am clearly not white. Yes, my mixed heritage gave me light skin, but my dark hair, intense, expressive eyes and warm, yellow-undertone skin were a dead giveaway to my BIPOC identity.
Riding the Straight Hair Train
I used to live in an ethnocentric city which dictated my grooming choices; I did so much cardio exercises that I got rid of whatever curves I could. I did many light reps for tone as opposed to a low amount of heavy sets, denying my natural, feminine bulk. My butt shrunk. I literally broke my hair so I could look like every svelte yoga mat-slinging girl that walked around the west coast city of Vancouver. It was shocking to me how generic a diverse city had gotten in the thirteen years I lived there. Or maybe it was always that way, and I simply absorbed it all by osmosis.
I won’t place all blame on said city; expensive, high-technology hair straighteners became the rage in my early twenties when perms had died down and bouncy hairstyles that blow dryers popularized felt a little too done-up for an everyday look. Plus, most of the world’s women had a serious frizz problem.
Hair straighteners–specifically the ceramic kind–were a game changer. They created less damage to the hair follicle than the metal-based products that were almost single-handedly responsible for making most women want to chop off their hair, don a baseball cap and call it a day. When I was in the burlesque community, I knew many performers who wore wigs to perform. “Fuck hair,” one of the showgirls I knew once remarked after a two-hour battle with her unyielding tresses.
I rode the straight-hair train for many years until one day, during a steamy night in the hot city of Austin, a lover turned toward me, saw one of my black curls nestled on a clean, cotton pillow case, and traced my curly lock, following its spiral.
“You should wear your hair curly more often,” he remarked.
I always thought my curly hair was fun, but I never considered it beautiful. It was more of a nuisance that bothered me, like an annoying colleague at work. Finding products for curly hair, learning how to manage it and understanding its’ erratic tendencies were too much work compared to just buying a $150 hair-straightener that made getting ready easier. But I considered his comment, which to me was more constructive than complimentary. Maybe going curly for a little while wasn’t such a bad idea.
Learning more about my curly hair was like getting to know someone new. She had a weird personality that changed depending on the weather, how long I’d gone without washing her, and going to the trenches that are drug stores and Sephora to purchase different products.
The Trials and Errors of Curly Hair
I engaged in the long painful process of trial and error. One serum was too heavy. Or did I put too much? One was too light. Or was I not putting enough? Is my hair highly porous? If so, what did I need to do to make it less porous? Was it genetic? Is that something I can even change? I didn’t want products to go through one part of the shaft and out the other. If you have curly hair, when you put products can easily decide what it’ll look like when it dries. For the record, the best time for me to put the product is when it’s still soaking wet in the shower after conditioner.
For the next few years I battled her. She had a temperament I loved to hate and my dynamic with her changed like a mother did with a teenager. At first, I was happy that I didn’t have to wash her every other day (or every day depending on my activities). It was interesting to see the shape she was taking.
But then frizz started to slowly take over my head. Silicone products didn’t work and I didn’t want to straighten her, because it would undo weeks of progress I made to minimize frizz damage. I also noted that parabens were bad for her, and sulfates stripped at whatever little moisture she had left.
Curly white girl hair and curly black girl hair were different and I didn’t really fit into either category, so I had to try almost every product on the market whose focus groups didn’t seem to have someone like me as testers. This was one of the instances in my life where I felt like an Other–an Other that no one quite knew what to do with, a miscellaneous section that became an afterthought hodgepodge in the corner of any beauty store.
Weaving It All Together
Like any form of growth, things did get better after the crappy parts. To start, I moved to a more diverse city where many curly-haired women proudly let it all down. Straight hair was an option, not an unspoken expectation. Suddenly, my spiral personality–who I battled with like people getting to know each other in an arranged marriage–started reaping the benefits. I visited a hair salon that specialized in curly hair. A stylist took one look at my hair and knew exactly what products to recommend.
I found a product line–created by a fabulous Middle-Eastern woman–who simplified the entire process. Gone were the endless potions of gels, pomades and sprays that would eat up a huge chunk of my budget every time I visited the drug store. Now all I had to use was a shampoo, conditioner and styler that only required a dime-sized amount to attain the look I wanted–with way less time. I do use other products sometimes to give my look extra pizzazz, but an adequate everyday curly look had been achieved.
I still use a hair straightener, but only when I want to. The old, CHI-handling me, the me from a few years ago who wouldn’t have even dreamed of going on an overnight trip without her straight tress controller, was gone. What replaced her was a natural, curl-loving gal who no longer carried the burden of external expectations that literally broke her natural tendencies. Here’s to hair diversity.