No. You Don't Wish You Had My Hair

How many times throughout my life has someone admired my curls and said, "I wish I had your hair.  It's so pretty.  My hair is so flat."

I am here to tell you once and for all, you do not wish you had my hair.  I am not saying this because I admire your smooth, shiny, straight hair.  I am not saying this because I believe curls in general are aesthetically less pleasing than straight hair (well, I do, but that's not why I am writing this post).  I am saying this because I have lived my life with a head full of abundant, thick, coarse, curls.  I know what it's like to live with this hair.  It is not an easy life at all.

Let's go back to my childhood for a moment.

I was born into a family made up entirely of members with straight or somewhat wavy hair. As I grew out of babyhood, my hair began to grow and sport curls.  This delighted them.  I was special.  I was like their own little Shirley Temple.  Unfortunately there is a bit of a disconnect between what they thought my hair should look like and what it looked like for real.  Shirley Temple had a team of stylists making sure her hair was camera-ready.  I was not so lucky.

My biggest problem dealing with my hair growing up is that my family loved it, but nobody knew how to care for it, or style it.  I didn't realize this.  I trusted them to know what they were doing.  It would take years for me to figure out they were winging it. 

First there was my mother.  Since she was the one who was in charge of getting me ready to go out in into the world in the early years, she was the first person to deal with my hair.  She would do the most instinctual thing to do to my hair.  I woke up in the morning with my hair a messy disaster due to my active sleep patterns.  She would brush it.  The problem is my hair twists and entwines with itself, literally tying itself into knots.  This was frustrating to her.  She wanted my hair to be smooth and tangle-free.  She would struggle with those snarls, brushing it harshly while I howled in pain, trying to get them out.  She tried everything.  I remember her buy "No More Tangles" sprays and making sure I used conditioner when I washed it.  The solutions were always temporary.

Her quest to make my messy hair neat and rid it of tangles had a secondary effect.  Neither she nor I understood that curly hair should not be brushed when dry.  Brushing my hair pulls on the curls and stretches them out causing their shape to relax.  Instead of spirals, I end up with a head of wavy frizz.  In her effort to make my hair more manageable, she ended up doing the opposite.  Still, I believed her because we all blindly follow our parents as children.  Once I was old enough, I brushed my hair daily, not realizing that my attempts to smooth is out with a brush were only making it more wayward.

The second bad influence on my hair was my grandmother.  She took care of my while Mom was at work.  I often spent the night at her house or would go to her place for breakfast in the morning before school.  Grandma Carol had a strange quirk.  Her number one obsession with my hair (and everyone else's) was that it had to be OFF MY FACE.  Grandma dearly loved hair that was neat and tidy.  If you look at her high school yearbook photo from 1929, you can see her hair was what some might call a "bob" but I would call a grown-out crew cut.  I wouldn't have been out of place on a man.   (I think she was traumatized by being forced to cut off her waist-length ringlets when she was a young child. ) She loved short hair and believed all women should have it.  She claimed to love my curls, but wished I would cut them off.  Since Grandma couldn't stand loose, untidy hair, if I wanted to wear it below my ears, it must be pinned or tied back .

The most traumatic thing ever done to my hair was when I was visiting my other grandmother.  I was about four years old and my hair was becoming a bit shaggy.  I don't think it had ever been cut before.  Grandma Tess thought it needed a trim.  She did what she did whenever my brother was visiting and needed a haircut.  She took me to the neighborhood barber.

The problem with taking me to the barber was that the barber did not cut girls' or women's hair.  There was a salon right next door that took care of the female clientele.  The barber thought if I was in there for a cut, I must be a boy.  He cut my hair accordingly.  I was utterly scalped.  My curls were cropped close to my head in a masculine shape.  Not only was I devastated, but when my grandmother informed him I was a girl, he became angry because he didn't want the owners of the salon next door to be angry with him for taking their business.  My family liked the cut though, so my opinion didn't matter much and Grandma Tess learned her lesson.  It goes without saying that Grandma Carol loved it.

I remember the time Mom took me to the salon and asked if my hair could be "thinned out".  I suppose the idea was that if it was thinner, it would tangle less, or at least be easier to brush.  The only way to thin my hair out is to cut underlayers.  That made my hair poofier than ever, sticking up all over my head.

This was how I viewed my hair growing up.  I believed it was a hopeless case.  It was frizzy and snarly. I would look at celebrities with long curly hair and wonder why my hair couldn't look like that. My hair wasn't capable of looking pretty.  It was out of control and needed to be forced into submission.  It was a long journey to learning how to care for and style my hair and it was one that I had to learn myself.  My hair wasn't  different from every head of curly hair on planet.  It behaved the way it did because I wan't caring for it properly.

By the time I reached my early teens, I realized if I washed it (or just thoroughly wet it), and let it dry by itself, the frizz would be minimal and there would be actual curls.  That was my first rebellion against my family.  Brushing made it a mess.  It needed to dry naturally and left alone. A blow dryer just made it poofy and I didn't know about diffuser attachments in those days.  This gave Grandma Carol a heart attack because she was a typical Italian grandmother who believed I would die of pneumonia if I went outside with wet hair.  Brushing was not an option.  I had to comb through the knots while it was wet and that was it for implements.  I learned styling products made the texture of my curls less fuzzy.

For several years I still had an obsession with keeping it controlled, so I cut it off super-short in high school (I was over the earlier trauma over short hair by then) but I would still sigh with envy over Andie McDowell.  I took the risk of growing it out to see if my hair would look as bad as Grandma Carol told me it would if I wore it long and loose.

It doesn't look bad - sometimes.  My head is not a messy tragedy - usually.  Growing my hair out was not a mistake.  Most people tell me they like it better this way.  Just because my hair looks good, doesn't mean it's a walk in the park.

If you are reading this and have straight hair, think for a moment about your hair care routines.

Let's say it's a morning where you overslept and need to go to work.  You don't have time to jump in the shower.  You put on clean clothes, brush your teeth, and run a brush through your bedhead.  You can brush it neatly into place with a few strokes.  You're ready to go out the door.  It may not be your best look, but you look presentable.

Now let's look at a morning where you wake up on time and have time to shower.  You get in the shower and wash your hair with a squirt of Suave, or if you're feeling ritzy, Pantene.  You may not even need conditioner because scalp oils can easily travel down the shaft of straight hair, making your hair self-conditioning.  Your choice of styling products can also be whatever is on sale at CVS and you quickly dry and style your hair because it can quickly and easily be blow-dried.  You walk out the door ready and you didn't spend much money.

Let's compare this to my hair care routine.

I wake up in the morning with killer bedhead.  Taking a shower is not a choice.  Just brushing my disheveled hair is not an option.  My hair needs to be wet completely and started fresh.  Do I wash it or not?  My hair is dry and porous, so washing it too often isn't good for it.  On the other hand, I work out daily and ride horses so I  sweat a lot. Hair this voluminous can trap a lot of dirt and sweat and oil.  Even if I opt not to wash it, I have to throw a bit of conditioner in it to help detangle.  My shampoo and conditioner are formulated for curly hair and I pay a premium for them at specialty beauty stores.

Once out of the shower I need to gently comb the knots out with a wide-toothed comb.  Next comes a coating of leave-in conditioner (another special product for curly hair). Then I have to use the comb to arrange it.  I finish up by scrunching (curly formula) hair gel into it.   It's not finished at this point.  I don't know what it will look like once it's dry.  If I have to go to work, I won't find out.  It doesn't matter if it's the dead of winter.  It will still be wet when I leave the house.  Blow drying it on full blast will make it frizzy and a diffuser will take forever.  If it's cold outside, I stick it all up inside a hat and then take the hat off on the train and hope the warm air dries it by the time I arrive at the office.

I never know how it will look once it's dry.  Some days it's perfect.  Other days it's still a frizzy mess.  Some days my curls are large and round and sometimes they are small and tight.  That can depend on the weather or if I washed it or how long it took to dry.  If it's a humid day, I know it will look terrible and I have to tie it up.

The only exception to this is days I go to the barn.  I can get away with not soaking it and starting over.  I can spritz it with water and brush it into a messy ponytail.  The water and copious hair gel keep it pulled back smoothly and stop the baby hairs from frizzing up all over my head - somewhat.  It's not a good look, but the horses don't care.

When I need a cut, I have one person I trust to take care of it.  She has been cutting my hair since my freshman year of high school.  I know someone who can work with it and I fear any change. I dread the day she retires (she has her first grandchild, so I am beginning to wonder if she might want to retire to spend time with him).  I'm thinking of trying a Ouidad salon since they specialize in curly hair.  I know that's going to cost me.  I don't dare get a cheap cut at Lemon Tree. 

"But my hair is flat!" you exclaim.

Is flat the worst thing your hair can be?  Think about it for a moment.  Curly-haired women will subject themselves to expensive and time-consuming keratin treatments in order to make their hair lie dead flat against their heads.  When you were a child, did kids taunt you for being a "flat head" the way I was taunted for being a "frizz head"?  Think of the fashion and entertainment media.  The magazines and TV shows don't taunt celebrities for having hair that is "sleek" and "sophisticated".  They do taunt celebrities who have "poodle heads."  When I go to work sporting a blowout, I always receive a ton of compliments and occasionally I'm told to "keep it," or "I like it better that way."

Even if you really hate your flat hair, it's much easier to make flat hair fuller than it is to make curly hair smoother.  You can cut your flat hair into layers and use some styling products and a blow dryer to give it volume.  You can add curls with with rollers and curling irons.  I can straighten my hair, but it's an hour's worth of work with a blow dryer and a flatiron (and more curly formula styling products).  A drop of humidity in the air ruins it.

Straight hair also has so many more cut options.  Straight hair can be cut into all kinds of shapes in different lengths.  Curly hair doesn't have many cut options.  Most cuts end up looking the same on us anyway.  The only thing I can change drastically is the length. 

So in short, my hair is unpredictable, hard to care for, expensive to treat, and not considered fashionable.

Could I go for a keratin treatment, or even just a traditional relaxer? Sure I could.  That would also be more of a time and money commitment.  It would also mean more maintenance and I can't deal with maintenance.

So for now I try to embrace curly pride and go with the flow.  It's my small rebellion against a society that tells me the beauty standard has to fit into an increasingly smaller box.   You may like the way it looks, but if you wish you had my hair, be careful what you wish for.

A good hair day


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