Her hair was curly and untamed, and it lent her an air of slight madness, as though the thoughts in her head were springing directly out through her scalp.
- Shamim Sarif, I Can’t Think Straight
Hair! While first impressions are often based our expressions and words, the fluffy stuff that frames your cute face also plays a role in how society perceives you. More often than not, we play the game. We buy the products; we cut, color, highlight, razor and heat our hair to best suit our personalities. As queer folks, we’re particularly accustomed to playing with these concepts of gender and image. Curly hair comes with its own odd sort of self-awareness. If you have it, you probs learned at an early age that a part of you was already railing against the norm. And sometimes, standing out is the exact opposite of what you want to do. Adolescence can be an particularly awkward series of “Princess Mia Thermopolis breaking a brush” moments. You also realize that most people who love curly hair have never actually had it.
These are our post-adolescent curly hair feelings.
Learning to be Curlyby Vanessa
At the beginning of 2009 my hair was straight and I thought I was too. When I think about my hair now, I feel the way I did when I thought about my sexuality four years ago: I don’t really have a clue what’s going on.
I was born with a lot of hair, and it grew quickly. I had very long very straight hair until I hit puberty at age 10, when it proceeded to frizz and tangle. I tried desperately to make it curl, especially at summer camp where it seemed like every girl in my cabin could achieve perfect ringlets with the right amount of Herbal Essences mousse and a powerful diffuser, but it just wouldn’t.
You’d think that because my hair wasn’t curly, it might be straight, or at the very least wavy. In fact, my hair was just long and unruly. I started calling it “nothing,” which makes me sad to look back on but at the time seemed like the truth. Then, in 7th or 8th grade, I discovered that I could straighten my hair. WELL.
I lived and died by my straightener for a long time. No one ever told me my hair was ugly, but I believed it was. To be honest not one person noticed on days when I overslept and didn’t have time to straighten it, but I noticed and I hated it. I wished it could be the way it was when I was 10, before I hit puberty and got boobs and started making out with boys.
Oh, yeah. Up until junior year of college, I believed I was a straight person. I kissed boys, dated boys, eventually had sex with boys. I never disliked it.
Which is why it was puzzling to find myself, at age 20, on a study abroad program in London and completely in love with a girl. The fact that my hair was suddenly extremely wavy (not frizzy, not poofy, not “nothing” — just gloriously wavy) was the least confusing part of that four-month period, though at any other time I would’ve been shocked. I did journal about it though, and somehow writing about my hair and writing about having sex with a girl for the first time tangled in my brain and now the two subjects seem to fit together effortlessly.
I used to think of myself as a baby queer (mostly because I was!), constantly looking for approval or reassurance that I belonged to our community. It didn’t help that the girl I originally fell for eventually told me she didn’t want to be an experiment for a confused straight girl, or that I felt like my past relationships disqualified me from using the words lesbian or dyke or even some days queer. It has taken me a long time to claim those words for myself, to feel confident saying them out loud, to feel authoritative when I write about myself and the community and our lives. I did a lot of hard work to get to this place, but I am here now and I am queer and confident and it is grand.
My hair… well, I haven’t quite done the work with my hair yet. It’s wavy on some days and quite curly on others but sometimes if I sleep on it funny it’s flat on one side and I’m reminded of my middle school days of nothingness and I panic. If I shower and let it air dry (while occasionally twirling it around my fingers) I can get beautiful loose ringlets, and people often question if I’ve used a curling iron (I haven’t! I don’t know how!) I spent hours of my teenage years diligently straightening my long hair, but I now describe myself as a “lazy grandma” and will honestly do whatever takes the least amount of effort when it comes to a hair routine.
I felt a little intimidated reading the other curly grrrls’ hair regiments in this series. I don’t know what oils would do to my hair and I don’t have a specific expensive shampoo that’s done wonders and I don’t go to a hairdresser that deals exclusively with curly hair. I’ve been trying to grow out a bad haircut I got in Israel for a while now, and I like experimenting with different shampoos and conditioners (I currently use Organix Vanilla Silk and I really like it!) Other than that I’m sort of just going with it, which as it turns out is actually a good plan for all sorts of self-acceptance. I highly recommend it, and in the meantime I’ll take all your hair product recommendations for my newly curly/wavy ‘do, please and thank you!
My Hair, Myselfby Carolyn
I thought I had straight hair until I didn’t, which is sort of like thinking you’re straight until you don’t, except in this case a massive Austrian hairdresser who looked like he could have been a former member of any biker gang he’d wanted plucked gingerly at my ponytail and asked me if I knew that I had curly hair, and if I wanted to do anything about that.
I did not know I had curly hair. It had been a little wavy when I was about four, but as a kid, I’d had the kind of hair cuts that have numbers because I really didn’t like anyone touching my head. When I was old enough to figure out ponytails I’d started wearing them all the time, including to bed. Aside from the occasional attempt at relaxing, which completely failed to make me glamourous and instantly good at everything as well as leaving my hair frizzy, I wore it up and mostly product free. In late high school, a friend on whom I had recently developed a rather eye-opening crush twirled it around her fingers and said I needed a haircut, which is when I went to get one.
I would describe the results of my first hair cut as a person with curly hair as resembling the wigs they used to have to wear in British parliament.
Finding out that my hair was curly coincided with finding out that I was gay, but turning my hair increasingly fluorescent shades of blonde coincided with coming out. I started off with neck-length brownish hair when I told my friends, and ended up with a platinum ALH when I told my grandmother, and then I realized a few things: 1) that all my hair was starting to fall out and what was left was straight and brittle, 2) that I had felt like I needed a really gay hair cut to feel like a really gay person, and that what I actually wanted was hair that I actually liked.
Coming back from years of bleach meant that I read a lot of things about curly hair on the Internet and promptly decided that I was no longer going to wash mine except with a salt scrub once a week and maybe some conditioner. This worked with out any noticeable positive or negative effects for exactly five months, until I woke up, realized my hair felt really, really gross, and washed it five times. Now, my hair is unbleached and short and a little bit femme and a lot more like me.
I wash it between four and nine times a week with Aveda Rosemary Mint shampoo and whatever curly hair conditioner was on sale the last time I needed some, which I comb through with my fingers and let sit for a few minutes. All common knowledge suggests that this level of washing should turn me into a poodle-esque frizz ball, and while I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened yet, consider it a warning. After showering I scrunch the longer parts with a towel and pat the shorter parts so they dry without getting too frizzy, and then I scrunch in Aveda Be Curly Style Prep and, if it is humid or I have to go somewhere before my hair dries on its own or it looks like it might do something weird, use John Freida Frizz Ease hair spray.
My number one hair thing is getting it cut by someone who knows what to do with curly hair (and particularly knows to cut it dry first, wash it second, and that I do not want a straight blow dry). In my head, I am someone who will put on heels and go to the barber, but in actuality, this has only led to disaster. And having to learn how to use a diffuser.
Relaxers, Fitted Caps and Side Shaves: The Trinity of My Queer Hood Hairstoryby Gabrielle
Hair. Jeezus Cristo. I had the best baby hair ever in life. It was soft, wavy and light brown. No kinks, no tangles, just good old baby hair that would eventually fall out and be replaced with some untamable locks. (Not that kinks or tangles are bad but they require effort to manage and skill to master. Even as a baby, I needed my hair to be super low maintenance.) At age 13, my mother and I went to the Puerto Rican owned beauty salon and I received my first relaxer treatment. If you’re unfamiliar with a relaxer, here’s the gist: a relaxer is a heavy lye cream made of sodium hydroxide, petroleum jelly, and some type of emulsifier (ingredients vary). This cream is combed through wet hair specifically of the curly, kinky, nappy, non-straight, non-kristenstewart type of hair. It often stinks. So lucky me, no seriously, I was super excited for my first relaxer. I hated dealing with my curls and fighting with my mother about her way of doing my hair. (She’d sit me between her knees and pull through the knots in my hair with a metal comb and if i complained, she’d give me a real reason to cry.Ever been hit in the head with a hot brush? Yeah not so fun.) Anyway, so I got my first relaxer treatment and it burned my scalp while also leaving silver dollar sized scabs on my head. But lo and behold, after sticking my head under a dryer for another hour, my hair was smooth and silky like hair you see on tv.
I went back every weekend for a wash and set and then every few months to re-do the relaxer treatment. Flash forward to me being 20 and spending over a hundred dollars on a treatment only to leave the salon and get doused by a speeding car hitting a puddle in the curb at just the right angle. No more straight hair and I just said fuck it. I mostly wore bandanas and caps anyway and after this incident, they became my staple. Bandanas and caps and fitteds and do-rags and anything to cover the hair i didn’t want to deal with. Also, my femme-ness was wearing off and I found myself attracted to a more masculine/funky little style, so out went the relaxers. After the treatment finally grew, my curls were softer but my hair was also a little thinner. Eventually the bandanas and snapbacks took their toll on my hair too or more specifically, my hairline. So last summer, I shaved the side of my head and freed just enough curls for me to deal with.
Management: I use Dr. Bronner’s soap for everything, including shampoo. I particularly like the Rose and Hemp scented soaps. They smell good and keep me from spending bank on fancy ass chemical-heavy shampoos. For conditioner, I like to try out different concoctions from hair dressers/barbers that I trust. Randy, my favorite barber in the world who now lives in West Virginia, created his own hair conditioner so I bought some. It’s made of lavender and coconut oils, along with some other stuff that makes hair soft. I use it to detangle my curls and as a leave in conditioner. On humid days, I’ll also apply some Queen Helene gel which I can get from the bodega for like $3 bucks. It doesn’t leave the same type of flaky sticky crap in my hair that other major brands like Dep or whatever do. If I don’t put anything in my hair, then it’s just frizzy and dry. I haven’t figured out how to leave it completely natural without it looking like it could start a forest fire. So I stick to oils, homemade conditioners and the occasional dollop of round the way gel. As for the shape-ups, I get them done every 2.5 weeks and designs, maybe once every few months or when I get the urge. I love my curls more now though and my side shave; it’s like all of gender presentations on my one big beautiful pumpkin head.