How to look after curly hair when you’ve never had it before

I didn’t curl my hair. My hair, you might say, curled me. It was a stealth re-style, ordered by nature and art directed by a hurricane.

We know that the emotions connected to hair are rarely simple. It’s usually the first self-directed physical marker of significant change – the post-divorce chop, the big birthday colour job. And I should address the elephant in the room from the off: any black woman who’s had to face the dreaded, ignorant ‘professional hairstyle’ commentary can tell you about the politics of hair much, much better than I can. Here’s just one of many occasions when black women have done the education for us. As a white woman of reasonably copious privilege, my hair wasn’t something I needed to think about very much for a long time. This was partly because straight fine hair flies under the white beauty radar, and also because I had a fair amount of it (female baldness, both voluntary and involuntary, also being the cause of much comment). But over the years I’ve lost quite a lot, and that’s often been tricky to come to terms with, even if my carefully chosen Instagrams hide it well. And along the way, it also changed look entirely, and that had a strong impact on me. If that seems superficial to you, head back to read something else another day. I usually write about films and books and occasionally food.

For now, it’s a hair story. My hairmoir, if you will.

I had poker straight hair well into my teens. It was thick and then it wasn’t, so much, but it was always predictably flat. Cutting my hair involved a bit of undercutting, feathering, razoring, layering; everything it takes to give a lot of straight hair some volume short of perming it (I did that once; it ended up more Sophia Petrillo than Merida from Brave). Then at some point in my early 20s that thing that made it tuck in on one side of my bob and flick out on the other got a bit more pronounced. It started to curl around. This was not helpful, since for the next ten years, give or take, it remained straight at the top. And it wasn’t in that ‘straight to my shoulders and rippling in lovely waves from there’ kind of way. It just lay flat and listless at the top and then formed furious fat ringlets just under my ears. So I cut it simply, dried it straight, occasionally pulled some straighteners through it and cursed rain and humidity.

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After I had a child, the curl started to creep north. But still my hair looked so much better straightened until, eventually… it just… didn’t? For a while I kept too much change at bay by sort-of learning to pin curl. But it still involved a lot of washing and drying and straightening and the swirling vortex of the Babylis Big Hair (it’s great, just terrifying). This went on for the better part of five years until even I could no longer ignore that it was time to get to grips with reality. I was 36, and I had, for the first time in my life, naturally curly hair.

I’m 38 now, and feeling the need to talk about the small, but – to me at least – significant part of that time I’ve spent re-learning how to look after my hair. About the realities of changing how you think you look, and what to put in hair that is not only quite enthusiastically curly now, but also very, very fine with thin patches due to a condition I won’t elaborate on because – sorry, honestly – I don’t want unsolicited medical advice. And please don’t tell me about iron supplements, thank you.

Oh, but I do want to talk about how no-one tells you the single very best thing about curly hair, which is how little you have to bother to wash it.

The Cut

If you ever want to hear a hair cut horror story, ask a woman with naturally curly hair. All my past haircuts have been with hair that was either straight or meant to be worn straightened, so I have few hair horror stories that weren’t self-inflicted (perm aside). But my friends whose ringlets ran free long before mine all have Those Stories. The endless “let’s dry it straight to see how it looks” (why? When it will rarely, if ever, be worn thus? Do you have to dry straight hair to know if you’ve cut it properly?). The too-short cuts from otherwise delightful, qualified professionals who somehow can’t fathom that coiling a thread gives it less length than unspooling it to the ground. Curly hair, particularly when it’s thicker or longer, can fortunately hide a multitude of ill-conceived layers, but it deserves so much better.

Enter Unruly Curls. A chance Instagram post from a gorgeously big-haired friend-of-a-friend led me to the discovery that there are hair stylists who will only, knowledgeably, cut curly hair. And there’s a book. I read it first on my Kindle, cover to cover, soaking up the drying tips and looking doubtfully at the diffuser I could never quite get to grips with. I looked at the Instagram photos of women with tumbling locks suspended backwards over dryers. I wondered if my meek mop could possibly fit in in this wonderland of natural beauty. But then I thought about how I’d never really know what to do in this whole new world without guidance. So I hesitantly booked an appointment.

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Look, a hair cut isn’t life-changing in the way of giving birth or emigrating or winning the lottery. But, like belatedly discovering you can wear a different style of clothes or radically changing the shape or colour of your glasses, it’s still a difference in your life. A new understanding in the way you carry yourself, and in your perception of how others see you. It’s a small thing, a personal thing, a fundamentally altering thing.

I have felt for so long that it would be nice if there was just one small part of all of me that I wouldn’t fix in some way, given the chance. And there still isn’t, but now the only thing I would change about my hair is that bloody health issue. Now that I understand how it moves, what it wants… I actually really like it. And that tiny morsel of self-acceptance is about as radical as I get in this body.

In short: if you can, if there’s anyone near you, if you can afford it even just once as a treat, if there’s a student night or if you can convince someone to offer it as a birthday present, try and find someone who knows and loves curly hair to take their scissors to your mane. You will be so grateful for it.

The Wash

Fine, straight hair begs to be washed daily. Sure, you can pony tail or pin curl it to eke out a little longer, and dry shampoo is popular for a reason, but it’s pretty glommy stuff. It wants to hang out in flat clumps with its friends. Thick straight hair gets away with it for longer, of course. But complaining about thick hair is a bit like complaining about how you still have body hangups even though you’re a size 6; it is indeed a real problem, but you’ll still struggle to find anyone to feel sorry for you.

One of the few ways in which you can live with fine hair and not have to wash it daily -unless you’re a regular swimmer or very sweaty runner – is to have it go naturally curly. Curls tend towards dryness, for a start, and a slightly coarser texture. And because the bounce is built in, if you put a little effort into drying your curls well after every wash you can reinvigorate it for several days at a time with nothing but a little water (my record is 4 days, but I reckon I could have pushed it further if I hadn’t just started to suspect I was being gross). My day two and three curls are revived with shower steam and a light scrunch through with damp hands; if I need to go to day 4, I’ll usually have to pin it up at least partially. Alright, I won’t pretend they’re as fresh and tumbling after even one night of sleep, but the recovery is often nothing short of miraculous.

Even fine curls like mine tend to drink up conditioner, so while I still tend towards lighter products and avoid the oily ones aimed at thicker textures and natural black hair, I still slap on a fair blob of it. That’s after years of refusing to even let a bottle of the stuff stand near me in the shower in case it made my locks even heavier and stringier than they already were. And some curly girls prefer to co-wash (no shampoo, just washing with conditioner), which I tried for a while with some success. Ultimately I just liked the feel of shampoo at the roots and conditioner at the tips so I went back to the usual, but there wasn’t a lot of science behind my decision.

Some stuff I’ve used (all tried myself at my own expense):

Bumble & Bumble Curl range: The super-versatile conditioner (which is leave in, rinse out or  co-wash depending on your preference) is great but it runs out very quickly for the price. I didn’t like the shampoo at first, finding it too thick and heavy, but I have to finish anything I’ve invested that much money in and eventually I warmed to it as I learned to balance the amount of conditioner I used with it.

Frizz-Ease Dream Curls Conditioner: A fairly rich but light conditioner, that does the detangling job nicely and doesn’t seem to leave any unwanted weight. A friend with very similar hair left it behind after a holiday stay with us so I’ve used it up and have no complaints. Being the flighty sort when it comes to beauty products, I’m keen to try out something else – I’ve ordered some Function of Beauty stuff I’ll report back on – but it’s definitely a perfectly serviceable supermarket winner.

The Dry

As bad as heat damage might be, my hair is a formless fluff-cloud left to its own devices; it still tends flat at the top given the chance and curls and waves fight against each other in confusion. So the need to whack it under a hairdryer is one of the many reasons I try to space out washes – laziness being a prominent one, but mitigating damage and dryness is also important. ‘Plopping‘ is a thing and if you have thick curls it’s likely to be awesome, but it can go wrong with finer curls that are more easily flattened. There are all sorts of methods out there and you’ll find the one you fall in love with. For me, nothing beats a diffuser.

After years of throwing out that odd, fingery attachment, I finally understand its use. I  know that holding it close tends to create a more dramatic curl, compared to a softer wave from holding it further away. I get that you don’t want it to be too hot, or to move it around too much. I see how you get better results from patience – and even from drying it to 70% and letting the air do its job from there – than from attempting any sort of rough drying.

There are two things that were completely unknown to me as a newborn curly girl. One is that I now have to start drying my hair dangling my head down like a bat, and finish it flinging my head back like a sloth. As my back is buggered, this largely means lying down on my bed in a variety of objectively hilarious positions just to dry my hair. So that’s entertaining. For others. The other is that with curly hair the more drenched it is when you apply product and start drying, the better the result. Putting product into sodden hair seems counterintuitive, but what it does is distribute it evenly around your curls, instead of encouraging the old clump ‘n crunch. Plus drying it from very wet reduces frizz (as does keeping your hands out of your hair as much as possible which I know, but somehow never seem to know know, no matter how many times I remind myself).

Some stuff I’ve used (as above):

Boots Essentials Curl Creme: Look, it’s cheap and smells lovely – usually £1.99 and on a 3 for 2 or similarly generous offer. If you have highly persistent curls I reckon it’s a steal. But it’s so soft that I find any hold beyond the first day virtually impossible.

Bumble & Bumble Curl Creme: A great in-betweener if the pink Boots cream is too soft and everything else seems crunchy-sticky. It’s good for a couple of days of hold and a little goes a long way (which is just as well when you find out how much a lot costs).

TIGI Catwalk Curls Rock Amplifier: My personal fave, and generally used on me at Unruly Curls. Too much and you’ll veer into crunchy territory (and I find it’s especially crunchy if you’re air-drying) but a decent squeeze – a blob about the diameter of a 5p coin – swiftly distributed through soaking wet hair does my just-below-chin length scribble a considerable amount of justice for 3-4 days.

The Style

Not the hairstyle. My style. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows I like to play with my style a fair bit, and I’ve written before about wearing vintage, visually taking up space and coping with body changes (it’s changed again since then, yay). But, as with all these things, it’s complicated.

In the earlier days of her 1950s childhood my mum was forced to sit through fairly inhumane curling practices to look like Shirley Temple. As a result she’s never tolerated anything she perceives as fuss about her person; she favours simple jewellery, removed her childhood earrings decades ago and rarely wears makeup. Even her approach to house decor is supremely minimalistic. I’m generally messier and more random, drawn to bright colours and clashing patterns; trickster gods, wildfire and organised chaos. However, what I mostly wore until my early 30s were tailored sombre dark colours or plain, neutral tones for the illusion of shapeliness and order. My wardrobe has become considerably more eclectic over the last half-decade; I’ve been more willing to tolerate attention (perhaps court it from my fellow women, whom I admit I dress to impress far more than I care what most men think). But it’s felt strangely balanced by this ironed-straight hair – almost as if that signified a sense of control. Towards the end of last year I happened to have my second curly hair cut for my new job just before my mum went into hospital very suddenly. As I crept into the ICU trying not to disturb her rest, she eyed me blearily and said: “what happened to your hair?”

That’s when I knew she would be okay. It’s also when I knew I’d committed to this style now. It was going to be what it was going to be. I was going to show up every day with a head of hair that doesn’t behave and reckons that if you don’t appreciate it at its Doc Brown you certainly don’t deserve it at its…. oh, I don’t know. Probably Elizabeth Bennett, tbh. And this best is generally reserved for Sunday evenings, just before bed, when no-one sees it and the light in our flat is too dim for a good selfie. Whichever version of me rocks up each day is still the same, complete me and everyone else is just going to have to adjust. Right? Right.

And yet… as privileged as I am I’m not, of course, immune to the pernicious nonsense of beauty norms. It’s so terribly tempting to look at what I’ve written above and inject whatever the style equivalent of nominative determinism is into it. To flip that lazy little switch that says “I look this way, so I must behave this way”. It is, objectively, complete nonsense to suggest that one’s natural hair has any connection to one’s personality (the way one chooses to wear it might, of course). To suggest otherwise is to play right into the hands of people who want to perpetuate those (largely white) beauty norms. It takes the attention of every synapse and sinew not to give into that. And it’s not the first time I have come up against them. As a fat teen I reflexively defaulted to sarcasm and self-deprecation as a survival instinct since I couldn’t pull off the only other accepted option available – ruddy and jolly. As an adult I have an uncorked exuberance that I can’t seem to bottle no matter how hard I try. I am frequently uncomfortable with taking up the amount of space that I do, and it’s tempting to think of it as all of that compressed self-consciousness bursting out of my scalp in rebellious swirls. It’s a foolish romanticism, and maybe another privilege dam breaking over me. If I sound naive, forgive me; I’m still working it out. That’s partly what writing this is for.

The Conclusion

Over the last few years at least 423,692 very important things happened to me and around me that weren’t my hair. I’ve recently written about one thing that was very personally significant. It feels ludicrously indulgent to talk about this one barely useful part of myself, but I don’t think there’s a woman alive that hasn’t felt the importance of it.  So I wanted to write this mostly for myself, but also for any other woman whose physical appearance – or some aspect of it – has slowly crept away from her in a way she doesn’t fully understand but is learning to embrace.

Of course, motherhood did many things to my body I was expecting, didn’t do some things I thought it might, and threw a curve ball here and there. But mum bodies get written about a lot, and I am usually quite uncomfortable with that conversation as it’s generally posited as going from good (slim, toned) to bad (stretch marked, loose) when I have never been in the ‘good’ category, ever. I always had a large tummy and therefore didn’t pick up a single ‘new’ stretch mark during pregnancy (does that mean I don’t get to call them mama tiger stripes? If they were caused by being a variety of different sizes growing up, am I still allowed to be proud?). But that’s a discussion for another day. This change to my hair – apparently unprompted, definitely unplanned, but not unwelcome – might just turn out to be a silver lining in terms of the way I think about myself; it’s certainly forced me into one of the outbuildings of self-acknowledgement that make up the sprawling estate of self-acceptance. Feel free to fill in your own metaphor around twists and turns here, if it helps you navigate the unexpected with a smile.  We’re all of us rockin’ without rollers here.

Disclosure: Not one of the products mentioned above was given to me or paid for by anyone but me; some were recommended by my (also personally paid for) hair stylist. But if you want to send me stuff to try, then I am certainly up to the challenge. 

5 Comments

  1. Loved this post so much and related to a lot of it too although my curls are never are bouncy as yours girl. So funny as my hair went from poker straight to curly at 13 due to hormones apparently so I’m not strictly sure what my hair type is. You must write the stretch mark/ mum bod post-fascinating topic. I recently blogged about the Body Neutrality movement as that sits far more comfortably with me x

    Reply

    1. I know it’s a post I need to write but it feels like it’ll take a lot of vulnerability – not quite there yet! I liked your post on that! Thank you so much for reading and being such an awesome support xx

      Reply

  2. YES!!! My hair is more like a pet. I don’t bother it much and it doesn’t bother me much. It has been known to protect me from people who get too close for comfort. My recipe for a happy hair life (more or less) is wash it twice a week at most. Never use a comb. Use leave-in conditioner. Every few years I whack off a few inches. It’s way better than ever trusting another person with scissors around my head. It doesn’t grow back the way it used to.

    Reply

    1. Mine is growing back verrrrry slowly as well so I’m sort of resigned to shorter hair forever now – and there’s a freedom in that. However it does mean more frequent trims as it’s more obvious when it’s out of shape!

      Reply

      1. It’s true – someone who doesn’t know how to handle curly stuff can do a whole lot of damage. You look beautiful! Like it just ‘does that’ 🙂 Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.

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