Girls with Curls – society’s response to curly hair

I have curly hair. No, I’m not talking about a single, vague ‘S’ shape wave that I’ve had people my entire life insist to me is curly – I’m talking real curls. On the Andre Walker hair typing system, I’m a 3B (though it’s worth noting this system has been criticised for not originally including options 3C and 4C to encompass the diversity of afro-type hair, and these types have since been added by others). When you look at my hair you’re likely to be reminded of springs, slinkies, telephone cords.

Curly Tip #1: When it comes to curly hair, less is more. For example, my current hair regime is do absolutely nothing and add a cute headband with a bow. I’ve never gotten so many compliments in my life.

When I was growing up, doing my hair was like doing battle wearing a blindfold. My hair was a wild beast full of snarls and most attempts to tame it were futile. Having my hair brushed as a kid was agony and would often reduce me to tears. Being told that pretty little girls brushed their hair a hundred times a day would also make me cry because I knew that brushing my hair did nothing but turn it into a cloud of static.

Curly Tip #2: Don’t brush your hair when dry. Don’t brush your hair when wet. Just don’t brush your hair. Throw your hair brush, together with all your anxieties, directly in the bin.

Getting to the age where I had to take responsibility for my own hair was even more difficult. I dreaded school photo day in the middle of windy September when my immaculately straightened hair would be blown into inevitable disarray by midmorning. I’d leaf through Dolly magazine for hair tips hoping for inspiration, but the rare piece on curly hairstyles invariably involved straightening your hair first, then curling with a curling iron. Tousled beach hair involved lots of product and at most a slight natural wave. The girls on the pages almost always had long, straight hair and as an egocentric teen I felt very underrepresented. Only about 15% of people with European ancestry (like me) have curly hair, while the majority have either straight or wavy hair. It’s only as an adult looking back on magazines like this with a more critical eye that I realised that it fact it wasn’t me who was being marginalised. A recent study on ethnic and physical diversity in Australian adolescent magazine advertising showed that a mere 5% of the models in the teen zines surveyed were of an ethnicity other than Caucasian. “Normal” hair isn’t just straight, it’s white.

Curly Tip #3: Don’t take advice about curly hair from people who don’t have curly hair. What the hell do they know?

Around about year 12 I started to let my hair just be curly. Part of this was getting into headbands and hats, and part of this was having actually no time between studying to wage war with my own keratin. Either way I started to learn some things: my hair curled better if I didn’t dry it, my hair curled better if I left a bit of conditioner in instead of washing it all out, my hair curled better the less I brushed it, I was less likely to get what I like to call “triangle head” if I layered it. Over the years, despite a lot of people telling me I look better (read: mainstream) with straight hair, I straightened my hair less and less. I stopped buying products like gel, mousse, Frizz-Ease and all the other things that marketing told me I needed to “tame” my hair. Hair products seem to almost always be either designed for straight hair or to make your hair straight. In fact, if you want to get an idea of the sheer economic magnitude, the physical risks of chemical relaxants, and the exploitation of people in developing countries behind the industry of making black hair less “black”, then you absolutely need to watch Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”. One of his interviewees has this great throwaway line: ‘If your hair’s relaxed, white people are relaxed; if your hair’s nappy, they’re not happy’.

One of the few women interviewed on the show who had her hair natural said ‘To keep my hair as it grows out of my head is considered revolutionary’.

Curly Tip #4: Work with your hair, not against it. Straightener, hair dryer, diffuser, relaxant, defrizz serum and styling products. How much money are you giving to companies that tell you your hair isn’t normal?

As an adult, I have more than come to terms with my hair. I’ve played around with undercuts and a boyish short back ‘n’ sides, and now I’m slowly growing my mane out again. Instead of being a source of angst, my curls are now a source of pride. So why is my twee little story about learning to love my natural hair important? To tell you about the people who are actually discriminated against because of the texture of their hair.

Recently in South Africa, black students at a prestigious all girls high school protested the school’s discriminatory dress code. The dress code banned cornrows, braids, dreadlocks and (implicitly) Afros. Essentially any natural black hair style. Just think about this for a second. It’s like having a school dress code that bans a particular eye colour. Oh, I’m sorry, but your eyes are against the dress code so you’ll have to organise some contact lenses or just not go here. Similarly, in Jamaica in September a little boy only three years old was denied admission to a private preparatory school because of his hair. In just the last month an American judge ruled that it was not against the law for a workplace to make removing locks a condition of employment. Then, earlier this year, a Canadian employee of major clothing company was taken aside by managers and told to remove her braids because they didn’t fit the company’s “clean, professional look”. If you look at each of these stories, if you google search “curly hair discrimination” there’s a pretty clear trend. The photos aren’t of people who look like me, white girls with curls. No, it’s not curly hair that’s being discriminated against, it’s black hair.

Curly Tip #5: In some jurisdictions in Australia, being discriminated on the basis of your hair texture may be illegal, such as in Victoria. Racial discrimination, even if indirect, is also against the law. Know your rights.

Although there haven’t been as many high profile stories of textured hair discrimination in Australia, curly hair has been in the middle of a police racial profiling scandal and there is still a very strong social perception that curly hair is unprofessional. In the growing Afro-Australian community, there is still a lot of tension between expressing ethnic identity and conforming to white hair standards. In her recently published memoir The Hate Race, Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke outlines her own physical, emotional and financial losses trying to fit into her predominantly white school by getting a chemical relaxant (and the chemical burns she suffered as a result).

At the end of the day, people are free to do whatever they like with their hair. Straighten it, curl it, leave it natural – your hair, your business. However, if you straighten your hair every day, or say you find women with straight hair more attractive, or notice someone’s “untidy” hairstyle when you’re conducting job interviews, maybe have a think about why that is. Giving preference to straight hair over curly hair may have the much deeper implication of giving preference to one race over another.

Curly tip #6: ALL hair is beautiful. If you’ve got textured hair and want to find out some more about how to embrace your curls and show them off, check out the Natural Hair Movement or websites supporting naturally curly hair

Image: Simon Wakaba

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Angharad Lodwick 5Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges

2 Comments

  • Kathleen O’Brien commented on December 3, 2017 Reply

    I can’t believe you would say “normal hair is white.” How ignorant can you be? As a 50% Irish girl with extreme curls, that’s a horrible thing to say. Maybe you don’t know, but everyone hates me just because I have curly hair. I’ve been made fun of my whole life because my hair is curly. Don’t act like it’s only a racial thing, it’s more that society has been preprogrammed to believe curly hair looks messy and too crazy. It’s only partly because of race but not the only catalyst.

    • Zoya Patel commented on December 6, 2017 Reply

      Hi Kathleen, I think you’re deliberately missing the point here. The article is using generalised terms specifically to point out the way that white culture homogenises people of colour.

      There is plenty of cultural evidence to show how curly/kinky hair in people of colour is often described as ‘messy’, ‘jungle’, or ‘wild’, further embedding the stereotype of women of colour as being less ‘civilised’ than white women.

      Obviously #NotAllWhiteWomen have straight hair, and people get bullied for all kinds of reasons beyond their skin colour, but your experience of curly hair does not take away from the engrained racism women of colour experience for their curly hair. Two truths can exist at the same time. It’s not a zero sum game.

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