“You should do something about your hair”: The struggle of being desi & having curly hair
Before we go any further, let me show you what my 7am, natural hair looks like.
So yes I have exceptionally curly hair.
You may be thinking,
“Wow that’s lovely hair. She is so lucky! So why is she claiming that there is a struggle to having such hair?”
Being brown and having curly hair is like having a third eye in the middle of your forehead- something unnatural. While that may not be the case in 2019, it was certainly the case in the nineties which is when I grew up. If you want to read more about my upbringing and struggles with culture, click here.
I never saw another desi woman around me with curly hair. My mother’s hair was pin straight naturally and everyone else had regular blow dries (although I only found that out much later).
If you’re wondering where I got the curly hair from, it was from my father whose hair is wavy. Somehow I got the waves but they were on steroids. As you’ve seen above, my hair is not wavy- its 100% curly. The women on his side of the family would frequently make remarks about how I inherited their ‘bush’ hair. The implications of this was that this type of hair was seen as savage or primitive. Mostly they had their hair blow dried so it was never curly but never really straight either- typical nineties hair.
Once I overhead someone refer to my hair as junglee hair. In Hindi it means wild or untamed; not proper… and lets be clear- it isn’t a compliment. My hair was not seen as normal even by the very people who held the same genes as me!
The only other desi women I saw growing up were the ones in Bollywood films. Almost every actress had sleek, shiny pin straight hair. However the ones that had wavy, curly or even slightly disheveled hair were always the adulterers, the villians, the criminals or the blackmailers.
If a makeover scene would take place, the victim would always start off with curly hair and be transformed into royalty with her new shiny straight locks.
How we cared for curly hair in the 90s…
As a result of this, no one knew how to care for curly hair when I was growing up. Often my hair was brushed out by my mother and we both hoped with each brush stroke that a waterfall of sleek straight hair would reveal itself. It never did though and eventually I merely looked like I had a pile of hay on my head.
Do you know how painful it is to have dry curly hair brushed out? Up to this day, I don’t go near a brush because I will never forget that agony.
After my hair was brushed out, off it went into tight braids or what we called, ‘plaits’. Now I don’t blame my mother or anyone else for the way my hair was managed. Again, this was the nineties and we had no information on what to do with my odd hair type. So my mother treated my hair as she treated her own pin straight hair.
Bear in mind that we were just rolling out of the Apartheid period where your hair played a pivotal role in your societal treatment if you were a woman of colour. Soft straight hair was seen as superior and the curlier your hair, the lower your position in society was. While no one was still conducting the pencil test while I was growing up, those old stigmas were still there and people looked at curly hair with disdain.
When I got to grade 6, my mother could no longer take care of my unruly hair as well as my triplet siblings that had just been born. I was sent to the salon for a chop and well… curly hair doesn’t do well in any sort of short crop.
Going to school with the curls sitting on top of my head was a nightmare as kids asked me, “What was wrong with my hair?” and “Why did my hair do that?”
One child asked me, “Your hair is weird. Are your parents the same race as you?” And while that’s not a particular offensive question to ask, I knew that it wasn’t meant in a nice way.
The subtle shift…
In 1997, not only did I get 3 new siblings, South Africa got its first Indian Miss South Africa, Kerishnie Naiker… and she had the curliest hair I had ever seen! And boy she was beautiful and plus she wore her curls with pride.
It was a complete game changer for me seeing a woman like her having her beauty celebrated; her win went against the grain because not only did she have curly hair but she was also dark-skinned. Up until this point, I only only see fair skinned woman being complimented and called beautiful. And while I did hear people say snarky things about her hair and skin tone, I thought she was incredible and it shifted my perception of beauty. I started to care a whole lot less about my hair and how people responded to it.
By high school, I had grown my hair out and insisted against any sort of brushing or braiding. I wore my hair loose and let it curl. This wasn’t because I was happy or particularly proud of my hair- it still wasn’t socially acceptable to go around being brown with curls (at least not in the conservative community I grew up in) but rather, because there was nothing I could do about it. At the fancy private school I had to attend, in my class of 24 girls, everyone either had straight hair, straightened their hair or had their hair professionally straightened. While my parents may have been receptive if I had made that request, I didn’t think it was worth even making. My parents weren’t like the other parents who were wealthy and extravagant. They both worked full time and there was little money to spare. I didn’t want my hair to be another expensive burden.
So I kept my hair under a scarf during the week at school and I avoided going to salons because every time I would go to one, the stylists would suggest ‘How about you try this straightening treatment?”.
Later in my life, I would get up and walk straight out of a salon for suggesting that to me within the first ten minutes of my appointment. But 16 year old me didn’t have a clue about how feisty 26 year old me would become.
Then the not-so-subtle shift…
As the latter years of my schooling career approached two pivotal things happened. The first was when a boy asked me out on a date but only if I ‘fixed up my hair’. I realised that the boys within my conservative community for looking to date girls who all looked and acted the same way. Our actual personalities did not matter. Of course I turned that fool down and rejected his tawdry offer. But the whole incident led me to believe that I was acquired taste and needed to be more selective about my pairings with the male species- a belief that held me in good stead and still does to this day.
The second thing that happened was the explosion of Preity Zinta on the mainstream Bollywood movie scene. If you’re wondering what on earth a Preity Zinta is, let me explain.
Preity Zinta is gorgeous Bollywood actress who started off starring in a few small roles here and there in the late nineties. But in 2003, she made it big with a successful movie called Kal Ho Naa Ho. As she stood crying in the rain in an important scene, people started to notice that her hair was curly… as curly as mine in fact!
In her next big movie, Veer Zaara, her hair was perpetually curly and just like that… EVERYONE wanted to have curly hair.
Suddenly I was getting comments like, “You’re soooo lucky!!I wish I had curly hair like you!!” from the very same people who spent years recommending hair straighteners to me!!
Man the lengths people were going to so their hair could be curly now. From tongs, to rollers, suddenly every one had the same style that looked like this…
If you’ve ever seen someone with natural curls, you’ll know that it’s a pitiful imitation of what curly hair actually looks like. But I knew better than to make disparaging remarks about anyone’s hair and just felt relieved that people were being more accepting.
Once I sat in the salon and a woman came up to me and asked me how to get curls like mine. This was at the same salon that suggested I try chemical straighteners only a few years earlier.
Moving abroad allowed me to finally embrace and feel happy with my hair. For 2 years in South Korea, I was the envy of women as I walked down the street with my curls. Every Korean friend and colleague that I had wanted to have hair like mine. My students would gush over my hair and ask to touch it. Suddenly I realised how special and distinctive my hair finally was.
What a shock for me to then move to the Middle East and discover that nearly every Arab woman had some type of curly hair. There I lived, for so many years, on the other side of the world where everyone was fighting this kind of hair that was just so normal in this region. There is no struggle to find products or hair advice here and a big part of me bitterly wishes I had this kind of environment when I was growing up.
While desi women having curly hair is now an acceptable norm, adverts for hair products still promote “taming” our hair, and preventing the “unwanted frizz” in the “struggle against unruly hair” all seem to imply that to suit convention, curly hair must defy mother nature. I roll my eyes at this ridiculous advertising and continue to wear my hair in its natural state.
The advent of social media made me discover so many desi girls with curly hair across the spectrum that it made me feel foolish when I thought back to how isolated my curls made me feel while I was growing up. Its been many years in the making but I now appreciate the fact my hair type. I’ve accepted that my hair will never be pin straight no matter how hot a hair iron is and that the ends will always find a way to curl. I disposed of my hair iron (which I only used 4 times a year anyway) and switched to the occasional quick, voluminous blowdry when I need a change. This way, the ends still curl but it suits the look.
There are so many amazing desi women advocating for curly hair these days with an abundance of blogs and Youtube channels. I see young people with curly hair who are gorwing up now, taking advantage of this access to information and it thrills me.
Whether we realise it or not, as women, hair is an integral part of our identity. You go through a breakup, you get a haircut. It’s a psychological extension of your state of mind. You nurture it, and you feel good. How wonderful it must be to always taught to embrace your hair instead of trying to fight it; that is where a journey of self love begins. Preity Zinta and Kerishnie Naicker may have done many notable things in their careers but I will never forget what simply seeing them, did for my confidence. I hope that when curly haired children are growing up now, they never see their hair as weird and rather, just accept that they’re unique.
For curly desi advice and inspiration, try these amazing beauty bloggers:
Are you a curly haired desi too? Or maybe you are but don’t even know it due to years of heat styling and societal pressure! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!