Chapter OneMy Hair History
How I Learned What Not to Do
I used to think my hair was possessed. When I tried to comb or brush it, it turned into a frizzled netting. I used to feel like something was wrong with me because of my hair. Once I learned how to care for it, however, it became a cherished friend. I've found that with only a few simple changes in care, those same curls that once seemed possessed are now a feature I'm proud to have and are a joy to grow.
I arrived at this hard-won truth through years of fighting my hair and hating it, until I finally learned to love it as it is. By struggling against my natural hair, I turned what could have been sweet-natured curls into a broken beast. I wish I had known these things when I was younger; my teenage years would not have been so burningly awkward.
I wrote this book because I understand what it's like to go for years without knowing what to do with your hair and with little information available for guidance. I wanted others with very curly hair like mine to benefit from everything I learned during three decades of floundering. By reading this book, you won't have to struggle for answers anymore. Curly Like Me will serve as your "one-stop shopping" resource for very curly hair, where you can find information on your hair structure; what causes damage and how to prevent it; how to care for your curls; the best products, tools, and ingredients to use; and what happens when you use chemicals. I also include ideas for hairstyles that enhance your curls. This advice is streamlined and simple, because I want to show you how even the most uncoordinated person (such as myself) can easily enjoy her curls without employing an army of stylists. This book will tell you not only how to manage your curls, but also how to actually make them happy.
No prior experience is assumed, so a person who has never combed a curl in her life will be taught how to groom a head full of curls. This book is meant for people like me, who are not hairdressers and who don't have the time or energy to style their hair in elaborate, labor-intensive styles. Curly Like Me empowers you to take back the care of your own hair. It gives you the secrets to growing very long natural hair without feeling you must use costly treatments, products, or stylists.
The way to grow very long hair is simple: eliminate all sources of damage, and your hair will grow to its maximum length. The challenge, however, is that almost every conventional technique of caring for curly hair like ours causes damage. This book explains, step by step, how to care for your hair with almost zero damage. I do not promote trends, fads, or gimmicks. Even if some of what I say doesn't happen to be the most popular belief at the time, these techniques are the ones that work. I approach understanding your curls from many angles. First, I describe the highlights of my journey in learning how to take care of my hair. By repeatedly mangling my hair and after suffering through countless unfortunate hairstyles, I learned what didn't work for my curls. I also realized that by eliminating every product and procedure that would damage my hair, there was nothing to stop it from growing beautifully.
Next, Curly Like Me includes basic facts on the structure of hair and the bonds that hold the components of each individual hair together. Some of this information gets pretty technical, but it helps explain why your hair acts the way it does and what holds it together. This way, you'll learn what hurts your hair and how to avoid damaging it.
I'll describe each stage of caring for your hair, from washing and conditioning to combing extremely curly hair and to explaining how to grow it to its maximum length. I'll discuss which products work with your curls to make them much easier to groom. This will save you money you would spend on redundant products, as well as on those that don't work, and time you would waste on searching for magic products that don't exist. Although there are no miracle cures, and no product will substitute for good hair care and eliminating damage, you'll learn to use everyday products in unexpected ways to achieve amazing results. I'll tell you what ingredients to look for and to avoid and will give you product recommendations.
I'll also talk about what really happens when we apply chemicals to our hair. That section thoroughly explains the chemical bonds in our hair; it is at this molecular level where all the reactions take place when we permanently alter our curls. You don't have to read these chapters in order to use the techniques I'll teach you, though. This is a reference book on all aspects of tightly coiled hair, so feel free at first to skip around and use whatever chapters are helpful to you. Maybe after you find answers to your basic care questions, you'll become curious about the deeper structures within your curls.
I included photographs of hairstyles you can use to showcase your spiraling curls. These styles can be created quickly and easily, and you'll find instructions and illustrations for how to proceed. Most of these styles took only a few minutes each to achieve. There was no stylist standing by to make sure every strand was in place. I didn't use gel, hairspray, or styling tools of any sort (except my hands). I created each style myself, glanced in the mirror once when I was finished, sometimes made an adjustment or two, and took the picture with a timer.
Your curls might be a bit tighter or looser than mine, but the tips in this book will work if your hair is truly curly. Although you might need to modify my advice to suit your own unique curls, these ideas are a great starting point to help you understand how to work with your hair. None of these techniques will damage any type of hair but, rather, will help you enhance your curls rather than squish them down, hide them, alter them, or hurt them. Knowing how to care for your hair is much like opening a combination lock. Not only do you need to know all of the numbers and in what order they appear; you also need to be aware of which number to spin twice. Growing long, healthy curls is a similar process. You need to know all the techniques to grow your hair long and also figure out how they fit together. The lock won't open if you don't know which number has to go around twice, and growing healthy hair is much the same. You could be doing everything else right, but if you're still damaging your hair with one aspect of your regimen, it won't grow.
My Hair History
I learned the hard way how to take care of my hair. Every useful technique I discovered was despite my own thick-headedness. Apparently, I'm one of those people who must try what doesn't work before she can find what does. I threw myself into each new attempt to change my hair and ended up with even worse hair damage than before I'd started. Only after I had tried everything to change what I was born with and had seen it fail did I finally stop running from my curls. I decided to face them, accept what I had, and make peace with them, and that was when everything changed. Following are the highlights of my journey.
Ever since I can remember, I wanted long mermaid hair-hair that flowed down my back, locks that I could toss dramatically over my shoulders. When I was a child, I stared at girls with hair longer than mine and tried to figure out how they got theirs to grow that way. It has taken me more than thirty years to learn how to have long hair falling down my back in a riot of spirals. Every lesson I learned, unfortunately, was at the expense of my hair. I was able to keep learning only because my curls kept growing back to give me one more chance to get it right.
I came by my curls by being black and white, and when I was a child-up until about fourth grade-Momsey, my black grandmother on my mom's side, did my hair. Each night she spent an hour combing, smoothing in French Perm hairdressing, and sectioning my hair into about twenty little balls over my head. Every few months my hair was relaxed; every few weeks it was washed. My straight hair strained to reach partway down my back. Momsey alone seemed to have the magic touch. My relaxed hair was a fragile creature, and we all seemed to tiptoe around it.
I now think that because Momsey had been able to get my hair past my shoulders when I was a child, I spent the next twenty years trying to re-create what she had done (without success),instead of starting from scratch. Only after nothing worked for me did I try to do it my own way, without chemicals.
I spent my childhood summers in California with my dad, who is white. He and I were baffled by my hair, and he handled it the only way he knew how, which was to wash it with basic shampoo, not use any conditioner or moisturizer, blow it dry, brush it every day, and put it into two gigantic ponytail puffs with rubber bands. Because my hair had been relaxed during the school year, we could at least get a comb through it, if we were determined enough. Each year my hair got shorter.
My mom, distressed that my hair kept getting shorter instead of longer, took me to a hairdresser when I was eleven to see whether a professional could stop the damage. I was taken to a back room where, inexplicably, my hair was cut very short and I was given a Jheri curl. The curl was put on top of the relaxer that had been applied to my natural curls. I cried when I looked in the mirror and saw all my hair gone. It would take me more than eighteen years to figure out how to get it long again.
Over the summer I visited my dad, who saw the greasy activator I'd brought with me, and requested that I not use it. As the summer progressed, the dried-out Jheri curl became further damaged from the harsh shampoos, no conditioning rinses or any other moisturizers, and daily dry brushing. I just brushed my hair and tried to pat it into a round shape as best I could. Had I understood then that that tormented chemical mess wasn't what my natural hair was really like, I would never have gone through all of the ensuing battles with chemicals trying to avoid the hair I experienced that summer.
My grandmother on my father's side wanted to try to help me by styling my hair herself after hearing (probably for the thousandth time) my frustrated complaints about not knowing what to do with it. She had two daughters of her own, and she assured me that she knew how to do hair. One day during a summer visit, she worked earnestly to style my hair with her curling iron. My hair's consistency was like that of warm plastic. After that, my grandmother didn't bring up the subject of hair again. At the end of the summer, when I returned to my mom's house, my hair was immediately relaxed, and would continue to have chemicals in it for the next twenty years.
In my early teens, I moved to California during the school months and was suddenly left alone with my hair full time. I put relaxer on it to tame the curls and always ended up burning myself. My clumsy application of the chemicals left second-degree burns and scabs behind my ears for weeks. My hair was so damaged, it broke off at my shoulders, and it was still unmanageable. After I washed my hair, my arms ached from trying to get a comb through it. I spent hours trying to comb it, and still it was a fuzzy nest. I often ended up with the comb tangled in my hair at some point during the process. Frantic, I mentally yelled at my hair and usually ended up in tears before I was finished combing and setting it. Suffering from its own torment, my hair continued to arc off my head as if my scalp were electrified.
It was just that hair and me alone together, and I tried everything I could think of to make it presentable. I wrangled curlers and rollers into it each night. Then I couldn't sleep because they jabbed my head all over, and I became an insomniac. In the morning, my hair would still be half-wet in the back and would fuzz when I took out the curlers. I looked for a magic shampoo, conditioner, treatment, or ingredient to make it act like everyone else's naturally straight hair, then I searched for a miraculous hairdressing to weigh it down and make it grow, as they all promised to do. But all that these potions and lotions left behind were grease stains on everything my hair came in contact with. I startled people whenever I wore a white T-shirt to school. My back and shoulders were always covered in broken hair bits, as if I'd gotten caught in a violent hair-snipping storm.
When I put my hair into a braid, I needed a ponytail holder made of onyx to fasten it. Onyx was the only thing heavy enough to weigh down the braid. Without it, my braid stuck out like an antenna, as if intently listening to something far up in the sky.
I went to an all-white school (well, sometimes there was one other person of color in the entire school), and I lived with my all-straight-haired white side of the family. Heck, even my brother had wavy hair. People around me could easily run combs through their hair like it was no big deal. Their combs would emerge from the ends of their untangled hair, which then flowed back into place as if nothing had happened. They shrugged off rain or wind. Their hair was shiny and long, and they could toss it in the wind. They could braid it casually, and the braids lay where they put them. My hair seemed to enjoy singling me out and making sure I never forgot I was different. I hated my hair, so I punished it as severely as I felt punished by it.
When I was fifteen, my dad took me to a salon to get my hair professionally relaxed, to see whether that might work better for me than doing it myself. The chemicals seared my scalp-the hairdresser left them on for the full amount of time. Then she put me in tight rollers under a hot hood dryer. She burned my forehead when she used the curling iron on my bangs, and teased my hair in a bouffant hairdo. Afterward, my hair was crunchy and my scalp ached, as if my hair had been put on way too tight. My head glowed with heat for days, and I knew that this wasn't the solution I wanted either. So I kept walking around with my shirts covered in broken hair bits while I cast about for a better way.
Every couple of years I took a pair of household scissors and, in frustration, hacked off my hair down to a few inches. Just after I cut it all off in the summer before eleventh grade, I dyed my hair bright orange and decided something had to be done.
In twelfth grade I tried dreadlocks. I thought locks were exotic and lovely and maybe my ticket to long, flowing hair. That I had no idea how to grow them didn't slow me down. I thought my hair would just naturally separate and lock on its own if I simply stopped combing it for long enough. Instead, after a few months of not being combed, my hair turned into a solid mat on my head. I tore it apart in sections and then cut out chunks to form the individual locks.
After I had separated my mats into individual locks, I waited impatiently for my hair to finally grow. The individual locks stuck straight out all over my head like the spines of a sea urchin, refusing to lie flat. I sewed glass beads onto each lock to weigh it down. Every few months I measured one of them. In a year, they hadn't grown. Near the end of twelfth grade, I finally chopped them off with kitchen scissors and was back to short hair again. (I now know that my hair actually was growing, but because it was also still locking and tightening at the same time, its growth and the process of locking probably just evened each other out.)
Mistakenly thinking that the hair I'd experienced after the Jheri curl was what my natural hair was like, I decided to relax my hair again. To have those curls with no restraint seemed so out of the question, I didn't even consider it.