I wasn’t alone. Despite big hair being championed by Bananarama and others in the ’80s, once the ’90s arrived, my curly-haired sisters and I competed for the flattest, most poker-straight hair. Thanks, Rachel from Friends.
I became convinced my career had been enhanced by having glossy, long, straight hair, and throughout my 20s and 30s wouldn’t venture out of the house without a perfect blow-dry.
But spending 45 minutes every morning battling my curls was exhausting – and if it was a humid day, my hair would become a frizz ball the minute I went outside. On days when I did dare leave it to dry naturally people would comment, “Is that your natural hair? It’s gorgeous.” But I never believed them.
Then I met Cheryl, who worked with me a couple of days a week. At the time I had started going to work with air-dried hair as my hairdresser had given me – and my damaged locks – an ultimatum: “Stop straightening at least a few days a week or we are over.”
Cheryl had coily black hair that was curlier than mine. It was shiny and defined. And far from fighting it, she was proud of it. She asked if I’d heard of the natural hair movement, which had originated in the African-American world, where it had become a political statement to wear your hair natural rather than chemically relaxed, in a weave, or any other style made to resemble white women’s hair.
Natural hair became my midlife hair crusade. I discovered a world of YouTubers, Instagrammers and bloggers – women like me who had spent their lives battling their hair, using damaging heat and processing techniques in order to achieve homogenised, glossy straight hair, until finally, fed up, they had coalesced into a curly-girl movement.
Take Lorraine Massey, who grew up being bullied for her ringlets. “My nicknames were Crystal Tipps and Bozo the Clown,” she remembers. “No one wanted to sit behind me at school because they couldn’t see the board.
In an effort to understand her own hair, Lorraine became a hairdresser, only to encounter more “hairism”.
“At my first job, the salon owner screamed, ‘Get her hair blow-dried, she can’t be on the floor like that.’ I walked out in tears, and never went back.” She moved to New York, where in 1994 she opened a salon called DevaCurl and developed the curl-by-curl dry-cutting method.
“Hairdressers are trained to flatten everything down,” she says. “But curly hair springs back up – it has to be cut dry, or you lose too much length.”
In 2002, Lorraine wrote Curly Girl: The Handbook, which has become the bible of the natural hair movement. Her Curly Girl Method went against everything we’d been taught: straight blow-dries (or “blow-fries”) were forbidden. Traditional shampoos were out, too: they contain sulphates, harsh detergents that strip hair of its natural oils. Anti-frizz serums and smoothing conditioners? Also out. Many contain silicone, which temporarily give “slip” (making hair feel silky), but also suck in moisture, causing frizz. And they are impossible to wash out without a heavy sulphate-based shampoo, causing a vicious, frizzy cycle.
Lorraine’s method spawned a new language of curl care – google “squish to condish”, “the Laura”, “praying-hands method” or “scrunch out the crunch” and you’ll find footage of people sharing their techniques.
In 2017, models at the Victoria’s Secret show rocked natural hair where formerly beach waves were regulation. More and more celebrities, including Halle Berry and Mila Kunis, are coming out of their curly-girl closets.
For British singer and TV presenter Rochelle Humes, the turning point came in 2017, when her five-year-old daughter asked, “Why don’t any of the princesses have curly hair like me?”
“I had been blow-drying and straightening my hair since I was 16, so the next time I washed my hair, I let it dry naturally so she could see my curls.” She hasn’t blow-dried or straightened it since, and started the #curlslikeus hashtag to ask for help on what to do with her hair. There’s now a blog (curlslikeus.co.uk).
Today, Rochelle’s curly hair is an arresting sight on UK screens among blow-dried TV presenters. “There is a conception that curly hair is less groomed and less professional,” she says. “People always comment on it, and to wear it you have to be really confident because it gets attention.”
Crazy. Wild. Hard to manage. Coarse. When I think about the way I describe my own hair, it’s almost always disparaging. “Our hair is not demanding, or something to be tamed, unless you think about straight hair as being the pinnacle,” says Kadian Pow, a sociologist at Birmingham City University whose Jamaican mother first relaxed Kadian’s hair when she was seven.
“Those words create hierarchies; they imply there is something wrong with us, that we somehow need taming, or to shrink ourselves into the background. Why can’t we wear our hair as big and as natural as we like?”
She gets me thinking: my ethnicity is Greek and Egyptian and I wonder if flattening it all those years was about trying to blend in with predominantly straight-haired white children I grew up with in 1980s Australia, to somehow deny my own history.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the natural hair movement is a new liberation movement,” adds Kadian. “Black women in particular are aware that hair is about race and identity. Throughout history, the texture and styling of our hair has been used to oppress us, and maintain rigid standards of beauty – chemical straightening and relaxing, weaves.”
While I still do the occasional straight blow-dry, having rediscovered my curls and learnt new ways to care for them, I’ve realised that my journey is about much more than just hair. It’s about being comfortable in myself in a way I have never been before; not freaking out when it rains or when I go swimming, and celebrating rather than hiding my difference from the crowd. Who would have thought that hair can mean so much?
I’ve even discovered that with the right care and condition, it sometimes even moves.
HOW TO CARE FOR CURLY HAIR
Hair is like a plant – it needs moisture. I love the technique called “squish to condish”, where you apply products in the shower and squish them in with water. Use a microfibre towel or an old T-shirt to gently squeeze out excess water and then dry with a diffuser on the lowest heat. Don’t wrap your hair turban-style as it can break the hair. To dry, pat and squeeze the hair, don’t rub it.
Avoid silicones, or anything in a hair product with “-one” on the end. Sulphates, parabens and alcohols should also be avoided.
Cotton pillowcases are harsh on delicate curls, while tight elastics can break the hair at the tying point. Opt for a silk pillowcase and tie your hair with silk or velvet scrunchies. Apply products to hair when it’s soaking wet.
Try “plopping” as an alternative way to wrap wet curly hair. First apply leave-in conditioner, then wrap hair in a long-sleeved T-shirt, using the arms to tie it up. You can then leave it – even overnight – for curls that aren’t damaged by heat-drying.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale April 21.