The first time I permanently straightened my hair, I was twelve years old. Even before then, my mom painstakingly took a flat iron to my hair every time I washed it.
Every time I went to a hair salon, when I pulled my hair out of its ponytail, the stylist’s eyes would widen as she said the ever predictable words: “Your hair’s so thick!”
As a competitive figure skater, while the other girls went to practice with their hair neatly tied back, I had my mane constrained by two hair ties the crown of my head, then several other hair ties to contain the rest of my hair — an army of elastics desperately fighting against a ball of curls and frizz.
I watched all my cousins go through this struggle, too. While on a video call with family in the US, my mom complimented my cousin on her hairstyle, which was, of course, straight. My mom asked if she had gotten it permed. No, she just got up early every morning to straighten it.
During a family reunion trip in Las Vegas, I sat in the car with another tita and a different cousin. My tita was desperately trying to take a paddle brush to my cousin’s hair because we were on our way to a nice dinner. My cousin whined that brushing it would just make it more frizzy.
All I could do was smile sympathetically. This was just our plight, I thought. Eventually, she too would give in and douse her hair in chemicals and heat to force it into submission.
Growing up, my hair was a wild thing for me — and my mom, titas, and hair stylists — to tame. It was meant to be restrained, heated into submission, and made to be everything it wasn’t.
A new possibility
A few weeks into quarantine, I hopped on a video call with my best friends, none of whom had ever seen me with my natural hair, though we’ve been friends for years now. My hair was still damp from my shower.
Freshly washed, my hair is a thick, healthy-looking, and almost cute mane of loose ringlets, unlike the frizzy electrified ball of tumbleweed it usually looks like.
One friend didn’t want to turn on her camera because she wasn’t dressed and didn’t have makeup on. By way of coaxing her, I told her that we didn’t care how she looked, that we were all casual and relaxed — I mean, look at my hair.
“No, your hair is cute!” she said.
I was so self-conscious about my hair that I didn’t consider for even a fraction of a second that she might be earnest.
“I hate my hair,” I said, very seriously.
Saying it out loud left a bad taste in my mouth, even after I hung up the call hours later. Why did I hate my hair?
Maybe it didn’t have to be this way. A girl I followed on social media had recently started embracing her curls. Plus, there were so many celebrities who had curly hair. Even my mom had curly hair in her teens and early twenties, until she started straightening it. Why couldn’t I have curly hair?
I figured since I was revamping my skincare routine in the age of quarantine and isolation, why not finally tackle my haircare so that I could live without heat styling?
The Curly Girl method
Growing up, almost all of the women in my life had roughly the same haircare method: shampoo, condition. Brush through the knots. Burn to a crisp.
When I started doing research into taking care of curly hair, I thought maybe I would have to look for a specific type of product. I was imagining (hoping) that there would be some kind of magic styling cream that would solve all my problems.
Then I discovered the Curly Girl method, a set of rules, techniques, and approved products for curly hair maintenance. Its method was drastically different: condition, skip the shampoo, condition, skip the brushing, condition, and absolutely do not style with heat. Then condition again.
It’s not like I was going out much anyway because of quarantine, so I figured I would go all in. I ordered some Curly Girl friendly products online and completely changed the way I washed, dried, styled, and even slept with my hair.
I was prepared for the adjustment to take time. I had put my hair through so much and knew that I couldn’t undo years of permanent straightening, heat styling, bleach, and balayages in a few hair washes.
However, after my hair fully dried that first wash, I was shocked to see the ringlets stayed in place.
I posted the pleasantly surprising results to Instagram and continued to be pleasantly surprised by how my friends and acquaintances received it. For the first time in my life, people were telling me that they wished they had my hair, asking me to share my methods, and even using heart-eye and flame emojis.
It was a strange sensation to see people responding this way to my hair, something which had been such a source of embarrassment and self-consciousness for me for nearly my whole life.
Refining my understanding of what it means to feel beautiful
As I continued to use the Curly Girl method, I thought about my disapproving attitude toward skin-whitening products that so many of the women in my family clung to, feeling privately smug that I was above such beauty schemes.
The Curly Girl method helped me realize that I’m still refining my understanding of what it means to feel beautiful.
Despite all the energy I’ve spent thinking critically about the popular standard of beauty in the Philippines — clean, neat, white — I never realized just how deeply it affected my own life. Even though I didn’t necessarily hide from the sun, bleach my skin, or try to erase my freckles, I was still affected by Filipina definitions of beauty.
Increasingly, I’m finding it impossible to separate my understanding of beauty from my heritage as Filipina Canadian.
Of course, there are still things I want to fine-tune. I don’t love my new conditioner, and I haven’t found a good balance of how often I wash my hair.
But overall, this has been so much easier than I thought.
As I reflected on my curls after the first few washes, I realized that this process has been easy because I’m not trying to force my hair to be something it’s not.
I almost want to call my hair “obedient” now, but that doesn’t quite feel right, because “obedient” makes it sound like a separate entity from myself. It’s no longer this enemy that I want to just shave or hide or restrain. Now, it’s just hair. It’s hair that’s washed and styled a particular way, but it’s just hair. And it’s just me.
Featured image from All Things Hair.
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.