By Sahej Marwah Apr. 20, 2021
After two decades of trying to tame my curly hair, I let it breathe. With time, the comfort of not having hickey-looking burn marks on my neck and forehead from the straightening iron became something I looked forward to. Embracing my curly hair has been synonymous with embracing my person.
I was born bald. While most babies were born with sprigs that eventually transformed into a full-blown mane, I was born with a shiny, barren scalp – not one strand of hope on my head. Several months of my infancy were spent with my mom rubbing hot almond oil on my scalp in hopes that all that rubbing and wishing – much like Aladdin’s lamp – would lead to some miraculous genie in the form of follicles. It did; but little did we know that that would only be the beginning of the trouble that my hair would bring me.
Curly hair has always got a bad rap for being unkempt or quite simply “frizzy”.
Curly hair has always got a bad rap for being unkempt or quite simply “frizzy”.Salon visits as a child meant preparing myself to be ridiculed by the aunty who passed underhanded compliments like, “She has a very nice hair colour but her hair is very frizzy.” Ironically, to combat this frizz, she would turn up the heat on the straightening iron correcting this “flaw” that I was born with. Her attitude towards my hair dictated my relationship with it; I looked at it as something to be tamed, to be assuaged into tidiness. It did not help that Mia’s transformation from a plebeian to a princess in the Princess Diaries movies prompted that her hair be blown straight to reflect royalty, for curly hair never could.
Then came my school which followed stringent codes of conduct with such fervour that straying from them would mean penance only short of crucifixion. In the 9th grade, my class teacher seemed to be personally offended by the few curls that would peak from my braids. She abhorred that I did not have “Indian” hair – type or colour – so she made it her life’s mission to make mine hell. She ridiculed me in front of the class for some imaginary, age-inappropriate chemical treatment, and went so far as to call my mom to school to chastise her about the same. In retrospect, I realise that she was just as much in denial about my hair as I was.
In retrospect, I realise that she was just as much in denial about my hair as I was.
The world seemed to be in on some odd conspiracy where curly hair could never reign supreme. All the world’s Sunsilks and Pantenes promised me “smooth, silky, and shiny” hair which was basically the brand code word for “not curly”. I was straightening my hair with such insane frequency and intensity that at times I could smell it fraying. There was a sick satisfaction that accompanied the opening of my ringlets into raw spaghetti precision. If my straight hair sometimes made me look like Salman Khan from Tere Naam, I did not care for it – a far less resounding insult than having curly hair was. I was fighting its existence with such ferocity that we became two divorced entities. My hair became a part of me that I could not punish into good behaviour, the stubborn child that it was, and I severely lacked the upper arm strength for the regular blow drying. By the time I was ready for college, I gave up on it altogether.
This was the first time in almost two decades that I let my hair breathe. I would wash it, condition it, and then let it form a halo around my head as it dried. I could no longer be bothered by it. With time, the comfort of not having hickey-looking burn marks on my neck and forehead became something I looked forward to. No cowlicks to pat down nor any bangs to gel into place. Now that I had stopped fighting my hair, it had stopped fighting me.
I jumped to the final stage of grief: acceptance. I scoured the internet for ways in which I could respect what I was born with. Much to my surprise, there existed entire communities that shared my experience and my grief. In the non-White parts of the world, curly hair was the norm. Internet blogs spoke eloquently about the Curly Girl Method (CGM) and emphasised the importance of using the right products. At home, the cultural integration of curly hair is still underway. In 2014, beauty blogger Right Ringlets (Asha Barrak) created an online community on Facebook titled Indian Curl Pride (ICP) in order to form a collective of women who were on the same ride as she was. Drawing inspiration from the original manifesto, Curly Girl: The Handbook, by Lorraine Massey, Barrak offers tips and tricks to manage this hair type in Indian weather. I was taking in every word and when I went shopping next, I no longer read brand names but kept my eyes peeled for products without parabens or sulphates.
Before I knew it, I was being instituted to a world that wanted to bridge the animosity that had been created between me and my hair.
Before I knew it, I was being instituted to a world that wanted to bridge the animosity that had been created between me and my hair. The journey was not smooth to say the least. I have had more bad hair days than good. Most mornings begin with a short prayer to the curly gods asking them to behave. This, coupled with the paucity of products in the country and the dearth of awareness of hair types compelled me to spend an arm and a leg to access products. Deciding wash days comes with a five-point plan. Has it been worth it?
Embracing my curly hair has been synonymous with embracing my person. Now that I have ceased abusing my mane, I can welcome the long history of where it came from and one that it will become a part of. People around me noticed the difference it made to my look as well as the confidence that it bestowed upon me. So many “curly girlies” make their hair their entire personality but who can really blame them – do you know what it took to get here?
Now when I see people with pin-straight hair, I am no longer pining for a life that I cannot have. Although I still have to tackle the stray comments about how much better straight is (haven’t we all heard that one before?), I take great pride in my Maggi noodle locks, in occupying that extra aerial space. There might be a lot of things about myself that weigh me down but my hair will never again be one of them.
Sahej Marwah likes to have a finger in every bowl. She spends her time baking, writing, editing, podcasting, and pampering her cat. It's safe to say that she is now running out of fingers and is open to donations.