I haven’t always been a curly girl. My hair started its life with a little wave and a whole lot of tangles. For much of my childhood, my mom kept it short because that was better than the daily battle over brushing it. I have a picture, taken when I was around ten, in which it is parted in the middle, hanging stick-straight on either side. Stick-straight and tangled, that is. Of course, in the late eighties, everyone had a rockin’ perm and bangs up to the ceiling, so I was not impressed with what God gave me. My mom tried to give me two home perms; I distinctly remember the smell with a surprising fondness, probably because it was wrapped up in my hopes and dreams for spiral curls. To my complete despair, neither perm took.
Fast forward to eighth grade. It was the year people quit pegging their jeans, and Alicia Silverstone flipped her straight, all-one-length hair over her shoulder and gasped, “As IF!” It should have been THE YEAR for my hair, but it was growing back from an ill-advised pixie, and it wasn’t cooperating. No matter what I tried, it frizzed and shot out at odd angles just above my ears. I tried using the curling iron to straighten it since straighteners weren’t even on my radar, but nothing worked. Nothing. There were tears, fights with my mom, and declarations of the end of the world. I think profanity was involved. One terrible morning, I didn’t even have time to dry my hot mess. I went to school with my bedraggled, wet hair, and one of my classmates exclaimed, “Oh, I had no idea your hair was curly.” Funny. Neither did I. But curly it was. Very curly. Just in time for curly to be “out.” If you remember being an eighth grader at all, you’ll understand the terrible cruelty of this discovery.
The next few months – and years – were a journey of discovery. My mom didn’t have curly hair, so she had no experience with the tangle growing on my head. In fact, she was baffled as to where I got the curls at all. (Can your hair really just get curly????) Several months after “the discovery”, my dad casually mentioned that his hair got curly when he was a teenager. He handled it by keeping it short, so short that my mom had no idea he even had curls. Obviously this was information that would have been helpful months before, and obviously he wasn’t any help in the styling department, so I was on my own. Bless. The thing is, even though I didn’t think it was at all in style, people seemed to like my hair. It was unique, even more so because I didn’t start my life with it. I got enough compliments that I decided to quit straightening it. In fact, I figured out that it had certain lifestyle advantages, especially for a competitive swimmer with very little time for a hair dryer.
With no one to guide me, it took years for me to figure out haircuts and frizz and all the unique challenges of curls. In recent years, I’ve found myself doling out advice to friends with ringlet-headed children, and I’ve come up with some basic “rules” for curly hair. If you, or your kiddo, has been gifted a set of curls, here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Embrace it. Work with your curls, not against them. Yes, things have changed dramatically since Halloween my senior year when my mom ironed (like, with a clothes iron and ironing board) my hair so I could look like a hippie. There are some VERY expensive and time-consuming treatments out there if you simply have to have straight hair, but is it really worth the time and money? Life is so much simpler…and calmer…when you accentuate what you have. Whether you have ringlets or waves, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Plus, I always felt that my complicated hair was an accurate reflection of my complicated personality. Take that as you will. It worked for me.
2. Find a good stylist. Straight haircuts do not look great with curly hair. A stylist who is skilled with curls will cut your hair dry and treat each curl individually; the result is a cut that will hang nicely no matter how much time you put into it. This applies to wavy hair and half-curly hair as well; it is worth the money to find an expert. A good haircut will last longer between cuts and save you time when you get ready in the morning. I drive forty-five minutes to see my stylist. She’s that good.
3. Free yourself from expectations. You’ll never have a trendy haircut, and that’s OK. Oh, how I coveted the Rachel. (Does that date me?) And true, Jennifer Aniston has curly hair. However, unless I want to be married to a straightener, that style is not ever going to be a part of my reality. Instead, I say let yourself off the hook and focus on finding a style that works with your face and your life. Short hair has been personally disastrous for me, but it really works well on other women. I know I need to pull my hair back for running and parenting, so mine stays long, with no bangs, on account of the cowlick. (Did I mention the cowlick? My hair is just so much fun. It is its own little party.)
4. Put away the brush. Seriously. YOU DO NOT BRUSH CURLY HAIR. Brush + curls = pain + frizz. Curls work better when the hair is chunked together, so leave it that way. If you have a tendency to knots, use the brush (or a pick, or your fingers) in the shower to separate the hair. All those stories you hear about how brushing your hair makes it beautiful? Not true for curls. If you don’t want to wash it, spray it with water, scrunch it, and let it dry. Done.
5. Put away the hair dryer. Dry heat is best friends with frizz. I actually plan my morning around my hair; I wash it first, then let it air dry while I make breakfasts and lunches and whatever other craziness my morning contains. Right before I leave, I hit it with a hair dryer (with a diffuser…you MUST have a diffuser) for a minute or two to give it some body. That’s it.
6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Humidity is actually your friend if you use the right product; what that product is will depend on your hair type. Super thick, course, very curly hair seems to benefit from creams and lotions; my hair loves gel. Whatever you use, put it in while your hair is wet, scrunch and shape the hair, and leave it alone. I actually style my hair while I’m in the shower, scrunch it with a towel to remove the excess water, and then go about my business. Remember when I said curly hair has its advantages? This is one of them.
7. Low-poo or no-poo. (Not that kind of poo.) Many shampoos have chemicals that actually dry hair; this is especially hard on curls. Look for low-poo or no-poo shampoos; they won’t lather like you’re used to, but they’ll leave your hair so much healthier. (And you can snicker every time you see the word “poo” on your shampoo bottle. Or maybe that’s just me.) Also, conditioner weighs down your roots, so don’t apply it to your scalp.
8. Get used to change. In his fifties, my dad wore his hair a bit longer on top; he had gone completely white, and there was very little curl left in his hair. As my hair goes quickly and prematurely grey, I’m thankful I had this warning. My hair is in fact changing; it is still curly, but perhaps a little more wave than curl. The white hairs have a bristly texture that the (very few) remaining dark strands do not. I had a few months of freak-out before I reminded myself: work with what you have. So I’m learning new ways to handle this curl of mine as I approach my next decade. It’s kind of like puberty all over again.
Our culture is all about flaunting what you have; let’s not limit that to butts and boobs. Life is too short to have hair just like everyone else, and your curly hair is GORGEOUS! My daughter is eighteen months old now and the hair on the back of her head curls into tight spirals. The top is stick-straight. We’ll work with her hair quirks, but you can bet I won’t be straightening it. Her curls are out of control, and I love them. I hope that someday she will, too.