The politics of having curly hair

By Vaathsalya Karpe

Growing up, there was nothing I wanted more than having straight hair. It seemed like a reasonable desire. All the popular girls at school had pin straight hair that framed their face perfectly and behaved exactly the way they wanted it to. They could sport short hair and look chic and cool and stylish and not like a haircut gone wrong. One day they wore it in cute pigtails, one day it was loosely-tied braids and another day they left it untied. They didn’t have to stick to the one hairstyle that made them look the most tidy. They got away with messy braids, because even though it was not prim and proper, it still looked decent. None of them were punished for it. To top it off, their hair was incredibly easy to take care of and shone brilliantly (without oil!)

At home, my mother and the rest of her family have straight silky hair. Pin straight. Dreamy and flawless, never a hair out of place. My father’s side of the family, however, has the curliest hair I’ve ever seen. A good portion of their days were dedicated to taking care of their hair and helping another family member take care of it as well.

What this meant for me was that my mother didn’t know how to take care of my wavy, curly, forever tangled mess. Headbands never fit my head: the plastic ones always snapped as I tried them on. The cloth ones were rarer to come by, but lost their elasticity quite quickly. Hair ties had to be scrunchie-size, always. As a child, my hair was oiled most of the time, to make it easier for my mother to comb through it every morning before I headed out for school. 

I dreaded parties and functions because it meant that despite my best efforts, my hair was still going to look like a mess, ruining the whole outfit, the whole picture, and eventually, my day. And my hair isn’t that curly anyways.

So it seemed like I was just grooming myself to be better as I bought straightening shampoos (I actually believed when the commercials said it’d help my hair). I brushed my hair excessively and dreaded hair cuts because none of the hairdressers could figure out how to cut my short hair without making it look like a cloud. I eventually bought a straightener, because all I was doing was fixing what was making myself better.

Here’s the problem. Maybe if there was better curly hair representation in the media, I would’ve been more confident in my natural hair. But that simply does not exist. Maybe I wouldn’t have staunchly believed that straight hair = better. But unfortunately, that’s what the media and by extension, society propagates.

The curly hair you do see on screen? Most of the time, it’s hair that’s been straightened, and then curled with a curling wand. The fake curls. You know, delicate waves, perfectly curled locks of hair, all of it consistent and ever so bouncy. 

In reel-life, the most famous example of this is Princess Diaries. Mia Thermapolis, the main character has huge, frizzy hair (look at that volume!), glasses and is clumsy. But when she finds out she’s the heir to the throne of Geneva, she undergoes a transformation to make her look more princess-like. This means getting rid of the glasses and straightening her hair. (Don’t even get me started on the glasses.)

Over the nine seasons of The Office, we see one of the main characters, Pam Beasely, undergo a lot of change. As she’s changing and coming into herself, she’s also quite visibly undergone hair evolution. The earlier seasons had her hair more curly, more tangled. The top half was brushed through and pinned back for work, but the bottom half was left to do its own thing. Her curls weren’t defined, but they existed. 

Over the seasons, we see her become more confident and take care of her hair more, but somehow, to the show executives, this meant straightening it out and artificially curling it instead of taking care of her curls better. 

In the Harry Potter series, we see Hermoine’s hair exist in its wonderful frizzy-ness at the beginning, which was so much more accurate to the books. Gradually by the last film, she had straight hair, and a great loss of volume.

Outside protagonists, you see curly haired girls often play second fiddle to the female protagonists. If curly hair does exist on a protagonist’s hair it’s usually movie curls, or it’s only a matter of time before it goes under a heating iron. Deranged, wild people are also portrayed with unkempt curls — Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter for example. 

After growing up with these examples and many more, it was hard not to hate my hair. The first time I found some semblance of representation was when I saw Indian actress Kajol in blockbuster movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995). She had fluffy, bushy, curly hair. Just like mine. And she rocked it. My next inspiration for embracing my curly hair came years later, with the 2016 Malayalam movie Premam. Premam was a revolutionary cinema in so many ways, but undoubtedly, the biggest impact it had on the general public was this: too embrace the beauty in the ordinary. 

None of the three female leads sported any makeup at all (not even the no-makeup makeup look) and their hair was kept so natural. Malayalam cinema is well known for being grounded and as close to real life as you could get, but this movie took it up a notch. Premam changed my mind. These ladies, their curly hair wasn’t the center of their personality. It was these strong, capable, independent women, who also happened to have curly hair on their head. Not these curly haired women who also happened to be strong, capable and independent. Their curly hair was desirable and sought after. (As a side note, Malayalam cinema isn’t stranger to this, but Premam was one of the first movies that crossed state borders and became a part of South Indian cinema pop culture.)

Hair culture hasn’t always been this way. Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Midge Wilson of DePaul University explained: 

“The ’60s were tolerant of curly hair among whites as well as the Afro for African-Americans and Jews,” she says. “It seemed loose, free-spirited, even wild.” Once the Free Love era was over, that perception became a prejudice. “In pop culture, deranged women often have big, uncombed curls. Well-groomed hair is seen as no-nonsense and serious.”

Sadly, in real life, curly hair is considered unprofessional in most settings. Millions of women go the extra mile just to be taken seriously at their jobs. 

Curly hair is seen as unprofessional, unruly, unkempt, wild, unpresentable. Straighter, sleeker hair, is seen as serious, no-nonsense, professional. Female company executives always, both in reel and real life, always have straight hair. 

According to new research, “black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to get job interviews than white women or black women with straightened hair.”

So many women go through this limbo every morning of balancing looking professional but not being a try-hard. Even Michelle Obama, had to resort to using relaxers while she was the FLOTUS. Why? To be taken more seriously and not have her hair be yet another thing to end up on the list of things critics attacked her for. Her hair was something she could control, and so she did. After her term when she went back to her natural hair, it made headlines.

Moreover, a lot of hair products aren’t designed for multiple hair types. The default is catered to people with straight hair. Hair products contain sulphates and silicones damaging chemicals to most hair types, but especially more to curlier hair.

Such products damage their hair to the point where so many people grow up with hard-to-take-care-of hair, and have relatively straight hair until someone remarks “Hey, I think you might actually have curly hair!” and they try curly-hair-products and the curls come out of hibernation, finally able to breathe. A revelation. 

Of course, curly hair products do exist, but they aren’t accessible and affordable to all. A lot of retailers simply do not stock it because there’s no demand, because people don’t think that it’s the product that’s the problem but their hair. 

This is why the curly/natural hair movement is so important. Yes, in theory, all hair is just hair and should be treated the same way. Similar to how all humans are humans and all races should be treated the same way. But that’s far from reality. 

For so many years, Black women have had to relax their hair just to avoid workplace bias and be seen as more professional, more sincere and conforming, and more disciplined to her work. To look more polished and presentable. A lot of jobs would downright reject you if you showed up with your hair curly. Even if you had it tied and pinned up. 

Black children have been punished and expelled from their schools for wearing their natural hair. In 2017, a Black student was denounced in Orlando, saying that her hair went against dress code policy. 24 hours before this incident, in Boston, twin girls were punished for wearing Box braids to their high school. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, numerous organizations are looking into ways at tackling systemic racism, and this stigma and bias against natural hair is one of the looming issues. When biases that are rooted in idolizing Eurocentric standards of beauty seep into corporations and become normalized and impact people disproportionately, we have a big issue.

What’s also bothersome is that curly hair is treated as a specimen. If you dare to unleash your curls, be prepared to also deal with the numerous consequences that come along with it. It becomes a conversation piece at social gatherings. Some even go as far as touching it without your permission, like it was something on exhibit. It may be harmless and well-intentioned but the underlying implications of it could end up severely damaging someone’s self esteem and sense of identity. 

The concept of straight hair equating pretty, successful and professional is damaging, especially to young girls who are the most vulnerable to this. Women rocking natural hair — especially black women — is a political statement. It’s saying that you’re going to wear your hair loud and proud, and not conform to society’s ridiculous enforcement of Eurocentric beauty standards. It’s about embracing your beauty, the beauty you were born with, the beauty that’s the most you and who you are. 

Not straightening your hair is a form of rebellion. It is a political statement. When you’re fighting your whole life to embrace your identity, skin tone isn’t just skin tone, political affiliation isn’t just political affiliation, race isn’t just race, and hair isn’t just hair. Curly hair is a part of our identities and asking society to let our curls — and us — breathe isn’t a demand, but our right.

Vaathsalya Karpe (she/her/hers) is a staff writer and graphic designer for Bell. She is a junior at UW–Madison majoring in Computer Science with certificates in Graphic Design, and Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society (ISSuES).

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