On a particularly frigid winter afternoon, the steady stream of women who enter the Curl Ambassadors salon in downtown Toronto are greeted by a self-affirming mantra. The slogan scrawled in hot pink across the stylists’ black T-shirts, “Happy Being Me,” which, in this case, refers to embracing one’s naturally curly hair, is also reflected in the decor: above the front desk, a pair of vintage portraits showcase little girls with auburn waves; in the waiting area, a binder filled with curly styles, plucked from the pages of hair magazines, sits open for perusal. All of which, says co-owner Caroline Muir, whose red ringlets fall just below her chin, is intended to give the clientele, many of whom have for years straightened their curls, the confidence to stop wrestling with nature. As Lorraine Massey, the Manhattan-based stylist whose DevaCurl line of products is used at the salon, told Maclean’s, “We’re not born loving our hair. We have to truly fight and learn to love it.”
In a world where long, straight and sleek has for decades been upheld as the ideal of beauty, those born with curly hair have been abandoned by the mainstream. Not since the dying days of disco has big, curly hair been truly en vogue, and, as a result, the ability to cut and style naturally curly tresses was lost on (and for) a generation. Curly-haired women of all ethnicities have either submitted to expensive and time-consuming straightening techniques or risked the alternative: an endless series of bad haircuts and many bad hair days. But if the Curl Ambassadors’ popularity is any indication—demand prompted Muir and business partner Betty Di Salvo to open a second salon last year—this is no longer the case. Buoyed by an emerging subculture of women, united in their curl-care triumphs and defeats, natural ringlets, spirals and waves are making a comeback.
Part of what has kept natural curls under wraps, says Jonathan Torch, who has been styling curly hair in Toronto since the ’80s, is the general perception of it. “You always see it as frizzy and damaged,” he says. “It has the illusion of messy.” In fact, Western civilization has a long history of derision toward hair that appears to have a mind of its own. According to Greek mythology, Medusa could turn to stone anyone who dared lay eyes on her head of writhing serpents. The nefarious, sensual power of curls is also evident in our retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. As Penny Howell Jolly, an art history professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., observes in her essay “Dangerous Hair,” while Biblical accounts don’t discuss Eve’s hair, “artists frequently depict her with sinuous curls, alluding to the notion that Eve seduced Adam into sin.”
In certain industries, curly hair remains the object of scorn. Torch, who runs the Curly Hair Institute salon, says he has clients who work in TV, and “cannot wear their hair curly on air because they’re not taken seriously enough.”
Laura Atendido, 28, says she started fielding queries from classmates about her “fuzzy Afro” in Grade 2. “I didn’t like the questions about it, so I just tried to do whatever I could to bury it and kill it.” After more than two decades of maniacal flattening, using everything from baseball hats to the household iron (she refers to the burns she endured as “war wounds”), her resolve has only gotten stronger. Today, she adheres to a two-hour-long regimen, so arduous that she only wets her hair every third day. After using a round brush and blow-dryer on damp hair to stretch out and dry curls, she divides her hair into small sections. With a flatiron, she meticulously straightens each piece, before sealing the result with a shine spray, which also combats frizz. On off days, she monitors the weather obsessively. “Your life revolves around it,” she says.
Race can add yet another layer of complication. Charisse Jones, co-author of Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, explains that ever since black women first came to the U.S. as slaves in the 1600s, “we’ve been waging a kind of battle with our hair, covering it up with scarves and trying to figure out how to get it to mimic the hair of Europeans.” As a child, Jones recalls having her hair straightened with hot combs and oil heated on the kitchen stove, a memory she says “is quite literally seared into the minds and into the psyches of a lot of black women.”
Though the processes have become more sophisticated, they are no less consuming: in the U.S., black-hair care, everything from chemical relaxers to elaborate weaves, has grown into a billion dollar industry. As Bernard Bronner, president and CEO of Bronner Bros., Inc., points out in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair, “For certain products, we index triple what the white market does.” The Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, held twice annually in Atlanta, is attended by 120,000 hair professionals, pumping an estimated US$60 million into that city’s economy. As Rock puts it: “Good hair is good business.” During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, freeing one’s natural kinks became a symbol of subversion—the effects of which linger to this day. “If you wear locks, or your hair in a short Afro,” says Jones, “[people] might assume you’re militant or troublesome.”
The emerging cult of curl is a response to these negative perceptions—and the lack of understanding about how to cut and style naturally wild hair into a look that’s more Botticelli and less Medusa. Despite the fact that an estimated two-thirds of the population has some measure of wave, twist or kink to their hair, the vast majority of hairstylists still haven’t figured it out. “Our whole training is based on making it go away,” says Massey, who ironed out her thick auburn mane of curls until the ’80s. “It’s all about imposing upon it, making it change.”
As such, the techniques that are now being used in curly salons are in diametric opposition to what many would consider the golden rules of hair care. Massey, who refers to herself as the “evangelicurl,” abhors shampoo, and cuts curly hair dry. After a shower, rather than towel-drying hair, which leads to frizz, she suggests using an old T-shirt or paper towels to scrunch out water. And curly hair should never be brushed: to remove knots, she recommends a wide-tooth comb in the shower after conditioning.
Torch, meanwhile, employs what he calls a “tunnelling cut,” which reduces excess bulk by trimming a series of tiny, hidden sections of hair to the quick. The products he developed for his Curly Hair Solutions line are water-based, promising to calm frizz without the sticky buildup or crunchy feel of other serums and gels. “For curly hair,” he says, “there’s a whole world that’s just being discovered.”
And it’s not just happening in salons. The struggle to find products and techniques that work is so trying, says Norah Kot Shaughnessy, a gregarious 27-year-old with long, golden ringlets, that, “It’s not weird for a curly-haired person to go up and talk to another curly-haired person they don’t even know.” (When Shaughnessy met Jodi Picoult, an American author with thick auburn spirals, at a book signing in L.A. last year, the pair talked hair.) Much of what Torch teaches his clients, he says, comes from emails and online discussions. “We are constantly learning tricks,” says Torch, who now receives so many emails that he employs someone full-time to sort through them.
Propelling the movement forward, it appears, is the difference that having a good hair day makes. For women who spend hours flattening their hair, only to have it recoil at the first sign of moisture, the freedom to go curly “affects their day-to-day life,” says Torch. Suddenly, women who avoided beaches, pools, and sweaty dance floors are able to embark on these activities with ease. “There’s a lot of tears of joy and hugs of appreciation,” says Torch.
The confidence boost, says Di Salvo, is instant: “When a customer leaves us, they’re ecstatic. They’re comfortable in their skin.” (Significantly, both Governor General Michaëlle Jean and U.S. President Barack Obama’s eldest daughter Malia have recently taken a stance and gone au naturel.)
Because of the time and effort it takes to masquerade as straight-haired, when a curly-haired woman decides to free her tresses, says Massey, an elemental transformation takes place: “You can’t go back,” she says.
But there are still some for whom the choice is not so cut and dried. At the Curl Ambassadors, a woman with long, brown waves leans back over the sink to have her hair washed, and asks, “Can we style it straight? Is that allowed?” After an awkward pause, the stylist replies, “Yeah. I guess I have no problem with that.”