20 Aug FINDING MY ROOTS
I can’t remember when I began to dislike leaving my hair down. Perhaps it was in middle school, or sometime earlier.
All I knew was that having my hair down was a bother. It always seemed to get in the way and considering how active I was when I was young, tying my hair up just made sense.
At the same time, I was envious of the other girls at my school: the ones with hair that fell perfectly straight, or in effortless waves down their back. It had to be nice to have hair that didn’t rebel every time you tried to smooth it down. My hair, with its unpredictability after every shower, looked just like the “before” photo in every hair commercial on TV.
In high school, I began wearing my hair in a bun. It was partially because I found buns easier to do, a painless way to keep my hair together. Later, I realized it was also because I didn’t like the way my hair looked like a frizzy cloud on a bad hair day, even in a ponytail.
I was not the only one who struggled with my hair in this way. Many South Asian girls tend to turn to flat-irons to tame unruly hair. My friends would meticulously straighten their hair every day to fit in with their peers. For someone like me who didn’t want to put in that much effort, keeping it tucked away in a bun was my best bet. Eurocentric standards of beauty remain dominant even in South Asian countries, with the biggest celebrities showing off glossy strands in their hair commercials. Straight hair is revered and admired.
Part of the frustration I felt came from the fact that South Asian hair is unique. It isn’t like the hair of other ethnicities and thus requires a different type of maintenance. This made it difficult to determine which products I was supposed to use in the first place, especially when most haircare articles exclude my hair type. On top of that, trying out new hairstyles resulted in an image that was never the same as the original photo, making me throw my hairbrush down in frustration.
As I grew older and more concerned with my appearance, I began to do my research, and connect with the wisdom of my culture.
I was staying with one of my friends in a hotel room when she offered to do my hair with the products she used in hers. For the sake of context, I should say my friend is not South Asian, but since her hair is coiled, she tends to need more moisture-retaining product. Out of curiosity, I agreed. Perhaps I would learn something new. I showered, sat down, and watched as she massaged her thick leave-in conditioner into it, scrunching it up gently to ensure my strands absorbed the product.
My hair, which needed liberal amounts of frizz-proof cream to even have a sliver of hope of managing, was out in thick, luxurious curls. I ran my fingers along my locks in awe, and with a little bit nervousness in my gut, left to join my other friends. The number of compliments I received that day left me dumbfounded, and secretly flattered. For so long, I had spent my time trying to put my hair away where it could not bother me, or force it into the perfect mold I saw on others. Now it was admirable.
“Your natural hair is gorgeous!” they would gush.
“How can I get mine like yours?”
“I’m so jealous! My hair could never hold a curl.”
I went to my mother and showed her what my friend had done. She gave me a puzzled look and told me that in our culture we did the exact same thing to make our hair shiny and curly. She said she had even done it for me as a child.
Of course, I was utterly lost. What in the world was she talking about?
The answer was coconut oil. She explained that when she was a schoolgirl, her mother would mix it with a type of leaf and massage the mixture into her hair, leave it for a bit, then wash it out later. The same went for all her friends.
It clicked. When I was younger, my mother had done that for me as a child, but I had disliked the smell of it, and going to school with my hair weighed down my oil. Somewhere along the way, we had stopped doing it and I had turned to shelf-products completely forgetting about a more natural, more effective method of maintaining my hair.
My hair needs moisture, especially when many of the shampoos sitting in the aisles of our stores contain chemicals that tend to strip our hair of it. While I can choose shampoos without these chemicals, I still need to deliver that moisture to my hair so that it ends up in curls rather than the frizz I had detested so much growing up.
My mother made the mixture she had been given by her mother and helped me put it into my hair. After leaving it for a couple of hours (and watching a few episodes on Netflix), I washed it out.
My hair had never felt softer. It remained in its thick curls without the help of any after-wash product and retained that moisture for days. No frizz, no before-photo, nothing but glossy hair. It became easier to work with, and I felt more confident leaving it out with little work being done to it.
South Asian women have been using methods like this for years to keep their hair silky. I had to rediscover the process, one that bonds the women of our culture in an unspoken manner, passing knowledge down from mother to daughter. When I did, I found a new sense of appreciation. I had searched everywhere for an answer to my hair struggles, and here it was, in the place closest to me. Everything I did brought me back to my roots.
Beauty standards have become more inclusive, but I had always wished my hair was just a bit easier to maintain, easier to make it look like what I saw in magazines and articles.
I now realize that even though it’s not easiest to take care of, I would not have my hair any other way.
I still like to keep my hair up often, but I no longer shy away from letting it down in all its curly beauty, knowing my ancestors would love it as much as I do.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: NBC NEWS