Fashion 09 1999 The Curse – and the Cult – Of Curly Hair by Rachel Rafelman “Having naturally curly hair is a big responsibility,” Lucy, a character in the comic strip “Peanuts”, used to say. Unfortunately, Lucy wasn’t much of a role model, and for those of us who grew up in the shadows of the smooth-haired “Breck Girls,” curly hair never felt like a responsibility – more like a curse. For all you straight haired people out there who are already protesting, “Oh, but I always wanted curly hair,” thanks, but let me just say, I don’t believe you. Try looking at it from our point of view. Your straight hair wafts gently in the breeze. Ours, in anything less than a gale-force wind, refuses to budge. And when it does move – usually into strange and unattractive configurations – it stays there. “I live in fear of the wind,” says Charmaine Gooden, a Jamaican-born Canadian beauty writer and broadcaster. “My hair opens up into shapes that are almost sculptural, but really unattractive, and then it holds.” This experience is shared by all curlies. On bad hair days we are “topiary heads”, which is why so many of us found the film “Edward Scissorhands” deeply frightening. The worst thing about budge-proof hair is that you can’t “fling” it, a terrible deprivation in high school where straight haired girls regularly flipped their long tresses over one shoulder, thereby demonstrating an adolescent insouciance that was, and still is, quite beyond me. Having unflingable, budge-proof hair also means that most hair accessories are out. “I feel like a missed out on all the neat little hair thingies other girls had,” says Wendy Dennis, a curly-haired Toronto journalist and author. “They just fall right out of my hair.” And, Gooden adds, hats, assuming you can get them to stay on, are definitely out as well: “I don’t even want to think about the ‘hat hair’ I’d get. It’d last for days.” But what really gets us about our curly hair is the assumptions others make. “Curly hair is seem as sensual and kind of wild,” says Dennis, who believes that “it never hurts to be sexy.” But there is a downside. Jodi Levi, a resource manager, attributes a stunningly inappropriate sexual remark made to her recently by a man she scarcely knows to the effect created by her long, thick strawberry blonde ringlets. “Guys definitely think you’re wild,” she says. Curly hair also resists the “coiffed” look associated with good grooming, and its slightly messy (in a good way) aura can erroneously convey a certain lack of self-discipline, even danger (think of Medusa). Where straight hair is dignified, curly hair is ditzy. Grown-ups have straight hair, little kids have curls. Mothers always want to brush curly hair and impose their will upon it with industrial-strength setting lotions and the kind of fat elastics the post office uses for oversized parcels. Levy recalls that when she was at boarding school, she was enjoined to restrain her ebullient hair in a ponytail, something her schoolmates with less exuberant locks were not required to do. Again the assumption is that riotous curls are a portent of equally riotous and rebellious behavior. If the outside of your head if fluff, so, the thinking goes, is the inside. And this unfair supposition is reinforced in the media, where “serious” female characters almost always have straight hair. The best example here is Michelle Pfeiffer, whose hair was wild and snaky in The Witches of Eastwick and straight and sleek in Dangerous Minds where she played a brace, dedicated inner-city teacher. Nicole Kidman’s curly red tresses were ironed flat both for her roles as a government agent in The Peacemaker and when she played an ambitious weathergirl in To Die For. Even Minnie Driver’s trademark tiny ringlets have recently been straightened for several high-profile public appearance, in her bid, it is rumoured, for more “serious” roles. On TV's Ally McBeal it is Elaine, the office slut, who has curly hair. The rest of the staff are straighties. But the thing I resent most about my own very curly brown hair is its style implications and restrictions. Salespeople often assume that I will favour exotic garments, in bright colours and bold patterns. “This dress will go well with your gypsy looks,” a salesclerk once said to me while holding up a full-skirted silk number is a lurid, hectic print. In truth, my wardrobe is closer to that of an impecunious UN tour guide – dark colours, sensible structured separates – than it is to Carmen. Still that sharp, chic look I see in magazines eludes me. It is, I’ve concluded, exceedingly difficult to look soignée when you’re sporting rambunctious curls about your beautifully cut lapels. “I have a gorgeous Armani outfit, and I have my hair blown straight whenever I wear it,” Levy concurs. “It wouldn’t work otherwise.” Dennis likes the slightly outré style her hair confers on her. “I can do funky really well,” she says. “If I buy glasses, for example, I get the ones with great big frames. But serious or demure, it doesn’t work with my hair.” Gooden, Dennis and I have all spent years longing for one of those cunning, geometric Vidal Sassoon-like bobs, or for the centre-parted, straight as a die do’ of the 1970s. We’ve all spent long, torturous hours unkinking our hair – setting it on soup-can rise rollers (and sleeping in them!), plastering it around the head in a “wrap,” deploying chemical straighteners so strong they brought tears to the eyes (but a certain clarity to the sinuses) and using an iron (I mean a real laundry iron, not of those wussy curling irons) – in an attempt to obliterate frizz. (According to Gooden, these punitive rituals are as prevalent amount black women as they are among white. She adds the “hot comb” to the list, where a metal comb is heated on a stove until red hot, then removed to cool slightly before being run through the hair.) Regardless of how, when a semblance of straightness is achieved, it can be undone in seconds on a humid day, when all curly hygrometer-hair bounces back with the alacrity of suddenly released bedsprings. The only edge we curlies have over the rollered, blow-dried straighties is our putative ability to shower and go. So you can imagine how crushing it was to read that actress Andie MacDowell, known for long, tight curls, has her hair blown straight and then given its distinctive “look” through the arduous and expert application of curling irons. Gooden laughs when I tell her this: “That’s almost exactly what they did to my hair for television. It took forever. People would write and ask how I got my hair to look like that. “ Off-camera she applied a lot of hair products (conditioner, anti-frizz serum and a concoction of gel and mousse) to her wet hair, but allows it to air dry. Hair products are the nemesis of the curly-haired woman – we’ve all spent significant sums of money of gels, mousses and lotions that didn’t do what they said they would. But we’ve all got our favourites. Dennis likes Bumble and Bumble Brilliantine: “Its price is equivalent to the gross national product of a small African country, but I can’t be without it.” Gooden is devoted to John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease hair serum, and Levy is loyal to her KMS Styling and Setting gel: “I love the smell.” But, according to stylist Lloyd Lamsee of the Color Club for Hair, as long as the hair product applied to the curly hair “covers the hair shaft” well, it’s simply a matter of “pocket-book constraints and fragrance preferences.” What’s really essential is a good cut. This is a surprisingly controversial subject, and there are several schools of thought on how to cut curly hair. Jonathan Torch, owner of the Cutting Crew in Toronto, has devoted his career as a hairstylist to solving curly-hair issues. He’s invented “tunneling,” a technique that involves in-cutting pieces of hair down to the scalp, allowing the curls on top to fall. “With thinning shears you are cutting right into the centre of the curl,” Torch says, “which causes frizz.” Lamsee has a different take on the matter and holds up an array of the very thinning shears Torch has just reviled. “It’s the same thing,” he insists and demonstrates how a specifically sized pair of thinning shears can create the same “tunneling” effect. They cut out selected areas of hair and, according to the style and size of the shears, various amounts as well. Lamsee has been cutting curly hair in Toronto for more than 20 years and emphasizes the importance of “silhouette.” “It’s all about the angle at which you cut the hair, like cutting a hedhe,” he says. The image doesn’t appeal to me, but I have to concede it’s aptness. “Shape is what you’re looking for. And proportion. You have to consider the face and body type.” Both stylists agree that women with naturally curly hair shouldn’t fight it. Over the years, Torch has encourages curlies to throw away their flattening irons and come out of the closet. And in 1998 he founded The Curly Hair Association, a kind of support group. “When people learn they can control the curl, it’s like freedom,” Torch says. “They no longer live in fear of humid days.” Lamsee also sees many instances where having curly hair is an advantage. For one thing, it gives a softer look. “Curly hair is much kinder to aging faces, and grey roots take longer to show,” he says. “It also requires much less daily maintenance.” But you have to be a curly yourself to understand the biggest benefit of tendrilled tresses – it’s a great topic of conversation. “One of the things I love about my hair is that is causes instant bonding among curly-haired people,” says Dennis. “Like a secret society. We all identity with one another.” According to Levy, her hair is a topic among her friends as well. “They ask me, ‘So, how’s your hair’ in exactly the tone you’d use to ask about someone’s kids.” Curlies also indulge in group kvetches, share product info and swap stylists naps. There are even websites – www.naturallycurly.com and Torch’s site, www.valuenetwrok.com/cuttingcrew - where you can read takes, look at curly hair “makeovers”, read up on the latest products and receive advice from curly-hair “experts”. Over the years, we’ve all learned to live with our curls; some of us – Dennis and Levy, for example – have even learned to love them. But the reaction of Lamsee’s stylist wife, Vanessa, seems more prevalent: “I hate it,” she says, referring to her own long curly hair. “If I could have straight hair, I’d go for it in a second.” Straight hair has been all the rage on the runways and in magazines for a few seasons, but now several stylists are predicting a return to curly hair. “Curly hair is definitely back. Oprah has recently gone curly,” observes Torch. “And I’ve noticed that even Disney is creating characters who have curly hair.” Personally, I’m dying to see Minnie Mouse sporting rodent ringlets. That’s the day we curlies will know for certain that we’ve finally prevailed. - Toronto writer/author Rachel Rafelman contributes frequently to FASHION.