Taking Back My Curly South Asian Hair

The first time I experienced the magical thing called a hair straightener, I must have been barely 10 or 11 years old. A family friend had straightened it for me after I expressed how much I hated my frizzy hair. I begged my mother to buy me my own hair straightener, who eventually obliged.

It didn’t always use to be this way: me hating my hair and feeling embarrassed by it. Growing up, I use to have relatively straight and glossy hair. I could brush out my hair after the shower and it dried to a manageable state. This all changed when I hit puberty.

Puberty Strikes

Around the time I entered middle school, my historically shiny and straight hair became a dry, fluffy, oversized mess. Embarrassingly enough, I would try to remedy this by refusing to wash my hair for extended periods of time. The longer I left it unwashed, the less frizzy (amongst other things) it became. I was absolutely desperate for my hair to resemble the sleek, glossy hair I once had and that the rest of the girls in middle school so carelessly sported.

Let’s pause here to note that I grew up in a tiny town in middle-of-nowhere Michigan. The rest of the girls in middle school were white and mostly of Nordic descent. Their hair was typically a fraction the thickness of mine, fell straight down their backs, was a blinding white-blonde color, and with their concept of “frizz” being a few flyaways.

In contrast, I was very brown and of South Asian descent. This meant that middle school me had jet black hair that seemed to consistently look dull, frizzy, and dried in a cloud around my head. No matter how many oil masks my mother massaged into my hair or the many brands of shampoo I went through, nothing helped. Every strand of hair seemed to have a mind of its own. I hated my ugly hair with a vengeance and was determined to do whatever it took to fix it.

Enter my teenage savior: the hair straightener.

High school circa 2010, sporting my everyday straightened hair

Once my mother bought me my first hair straightener, I used it almost every day. If my hair wasn’t meticulously straightened, then chances were it was wrapped into a messy bun as to prevent anyone from seeing my ugly hair. As I grew older, the upkeep only became more taxing and costlier - and not in a monetary way.

In high school, I participated on multiple sports team that practiced daily. Meaning my sweaty hair would be need to be washed every day. I spent each evening after practice washing and drying my hair. Every morning, I woke up a half hour earlier than necessary, so I could once again fry my hair into its straight, glossy state.

Straightening my hair was like brushing my teeth, It was just something I didn’t leave the house without doing

My participation in extracurriculars didn’t help the cause either. Traveling for conventions or weekend trips meant waking up an hour before the other girls so I wouldn’t hog the bathroom. I performed my daily routine: wash, dry, and straighten my hair to perfection, before anyone could see what my hair really looked like. The compliments and remarks of how thick and silky my hair was only further validated my need to constantly straighten it.

I’m the Stupid One

About a year ago, as I was aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, I stumbled upon an article talking about South Asian women's hair. More specifically, the article’s title called out how most South Asian women don’t even know they have curly hair. They just assumed they had ugly, frizzy hair.

I laughed at how stupid that article was and kept scrolling. I thought to myself, “How can you have curly hair and not know it? Those women probably just don’t take care of their hair properly.”

Suddenly a painful realization hit me that took my breath away. I frantically scrolled back up and clicked on the article.

The article talked to how in many other cultures, when young girls grow up with hair that is different than the Eurocentric norm in America, their mothers often teach them specialized hair care or bring them to a salon which can help do so. It went on to discuss how it is estimated that a significant portion of South Asian women have curly hair. But due to the culture’s lack of appropriate hair-related education, many South Asian women do not realize this. Subsequently they go on to care for their curly hair as you would straight hair. When the result is frizziness due to incorrect products or care, these women resign themselves to thinking they have ugly hair.

I stared at the article on my phone with a sinking feeling as I realized that I was one of those women.

I didn’t have ugly hair.

I had straightened my hair almost every day for 13 years. I had internalized my ugly, broken hair and never stopped to consider an alternate reality. My focus was on constantly fixing it. I began to question if this whole time I’d been trying to fix something that was never broken to start with.

I began to question if this whole time I’d been trying to fix something that was never broken to start with

I realized that I had never actually been taught to take care of my hair’s specific needs, the way so many other cultures often do. I like to believe I’m a fairly intelligent individual, but it honestly had never occurred to me that I might have naturally curly hair. To make matters worse, the media only adds to this unawareness by consistently portraying brown women with sleek blowouts or pin-straight hair. Growing up, there was no significant evidence to suggest nor did anyone ever teach us that it is possible for South Asian women to have curly hair. It seemed as though the only reasonable option was having a Bollywood-esque blowout that needed to cascade like a waterfall across your shoulders.

I was never given the option to consider that maybe I had beautiful hair. It just constantly looked like shit because I was taking care of it all wrong.

As I sat there on my bed, having read this article multiple times, I became overwhelming angry and jealous at the same time. I was irrationally angry at my mother and her mother and her’s. I was jealous of these other cultures the article talked about. But most of all, I was painfully sad as I thought back on thirteen years of self-hate towards my hair.

At Any Cost

I sat there thinking back to when my mother purchased me my first hair straightener. I remembered how I woke up early each day to carefully straighten out the slightest of kinks from my hair. I paid no heed as I smelled my hair frying or watched excessive amounts of hair unnecessarily litter the floor around me. I had my eyes on the ultimate prize: a head of glossy straight hair.

I remembered my lowest hair-related moment: senior year of college. My doctor had adjusted the dosage for a medication I was on due to an autoimmune condition, which caused many of my hair follicles to “reset” simultaneous as she described. Over the course of a month, I lost more than half my hair.

For 20 years I’d had a thick, fluffy head of hair that took me two hands to scoop up and wrangle into a ponytail. Suddenly I was left with a meek head of hair that easily fit in one hand and pathetically drooped if I tied it up.

I thought back to how I had sadly chopped off over ten inches of my hair to salvage whatever thickness I could. I absolutely hated it: chin-length, thin, and stringy. But still, I didn’t stop straightening and damaging my hair. Even as my scalp peeked through meager strands, I diligently stood in front of my mirror everyday burning each strand to a crisp until it fell straight next to my face.

Eyes on the prize.

I never questioned or stopped to think about any alternative solution. Straightening my hair was like brushing my teeth. It was just something I did and didn’t leave the house without doing so. Simple as that.

Something deeply changed the day I sat there reading that article.

Taking Back My Hair

I reread the article several more times before jumping in the shower to wet my hair. I examined the aftermath carefully in the mirror, then spent hours poring through articles trying to understand what kind of hair I actually had and how to take care of it.

Feeling overwhelmed, I said fuck it and went off to the store to purchase a plethora of hair products that I had no idea what to do with. The only thing I knew was that I was all in. I was going to figure out what my hair actually looked like, not what I’d been told for so long it should look like.

My regularly used DevaCurl products to care for my color-treated, curly hair

I showed up to work the next week with a head of (very over-gelled) curly hair. Everyone who said “good morning” to me that day paused as they confirmed that it was actually me. I wanted to shrink away and hide each time someone pointed out my curly hair that day, remarking that it looked so different.

At this point, it would have been easier to pick back up the hair straightener. But I was determined to stick with it and figure out how to take care of my curly hair.

One year later and I now work for a different company. Recently, I had straightened my hair for fun and wore it to work that way. Once again I had a similar experience where everyone paused a moment extra as they said “good morning” to me, exclaiming how different I look with straight hair. That it didn’t look bad, just different. Only this time, instead of overwhelming embarrassment, I felt proud that it was my straight hair which felt foreign to my peers and not my natural curls.

Curly Happiness

It has been over a year since I said goodbye to my straightener and embraced learning how to take care of my naturally curly hair, something I had been at odds with for so long. In the time since, my hair isn’t the only damaged thing that has healed.

I use to think that I needed straight hair to feel confident, to be thought of as beautiful, and to fit in with my peers. But now my hair is no longer a mask I constantly wear. Instead, with curls framing my face, it’s as though my bubbly personality takes shape through my bouncy hair. I no longer worry about getting caught in the rain or having to wake up excessively early each morning. I have learned to use the right products and hair treatments to define each curl. My hair has become incredibly thick, similar to how it use to be as a child. And without all the heat-induced breakage, damn does it grow! I now cut off 6–8 inches every six months just to keep it manageable and rarely find a split end anymore.

But most importantly, I am no longer embarrassed and feel like I have ugly hair.

Instead, I let it proudly cascade down my back: voluminous, long, and curly.

Finding Community

I spent many months perfecting the products and care my hair needs. Throughout this process I would constantly promise myself that, if I ever have a daughter with hair like mine, I would teach her that it is possible for South Asian women to have curly hair. I would remind her that it is beautiful and deserves to be worn the way it grows from her head (albeit it may need a fair amount of product).

However, I stumbled upon something much more immediate.

In the past year, simply wearing my hair curly has been a shock to women in my life. Many didn’t even realize that my hair wasn’t naturally straight. After thirteen years of seeing me with straight hair, I don’t blame them. Through this shock, I unintentionally empowered a variety of women to stop straightening their hair all the time and embrace their natural curls.

It's been over a year since I put the straightener away and my hair isn't the only damageD Thing that has healed since

No one talks about curly-haired South Asian women, probably because most of the world doesn't realize they exist. It doesn’t help that in South Asian countries, thick and straight hair is the beauty standard. Any other type of hair is considered ‘jungli baal’ (wild and untamed hair), which can explain the general lack of curly hair knowledge. This only adds to the belief that South Asian women should not and cannot have curly hair. This is a narrative that needs to change.

One day, I do still hope to encourage curly-haired little girls to embrace their locks. But in the meantime, I'll continue to empower other women to do so and continue being a living example that yes, South Asian women can have beautiful, curly hair. And maybe I can help set someone else on their own journey to take back their hair.

Does this all mean that I never pick up my straightener occasionally? Absolutely not. But now when I straighten my hair, it’s because I want to mix things up. But never again because I so desperately feel the need to fix something about myself that was never broken to begin with.