Embracing Curls: How celebrating our natural hair became a radical act

August 2, 2020

Examining Southeast Asian hair and its post colonial legacy.

Hair is an integral part of an individual’s identity; a marker of beauty, vanity and even socio-economic standing in society. As humans we are unreasonably attached to our hair, celebrating good days, lamenting hair loss and using all forms of technology available to us to give the impression of thick, lustrous hair (hair extensions, transplants etc.) when our own follicles fail. Hair is magical, mythological and in some cases, takes on a life of its own. From Medusa to Samson, perhaps no other human feature has found a place in history like hair.

Hair differs from region to people, transforming in pattern, texture and density across the globe. In Indo-Pak and Bangladesh, our hair is beholden to the hot, humid clime, making it coarse, low porosity hair that requires more protein and moisturisation than our Caucasian counter-parts. Southeast Asian hair, misunderstood in modernity, has its own unique set of properties and care rituals that set it apart from say, Far East Asian hair but colonization and globalization have attempted to cut, colour and heat style the uniqueness out of it.

Colonization penalized textured hair, in its African colonies and in SE Asia. Hair has long been woven into identity politics and to date, women with textured, curly or kinky hair fight a battle for social acceptance. Like the natives’ darker skin tones were deemed uncouth, the kink and curl of hair was labelled primitive and unsophisticated. No set of peoples have suffered more at the hands of their hair than the Africans but for SE Asian women, the reclamation of our natural hair and pride in its texture is a long battle that we haven’t even began in mainstream.

To understand the identity politics of hair, it is important to understand its makeup and texture as well. Healthy hair is made up of a protein called keratin and derives it colour from a chemical called melanin, the very same chemical that our skin produces; darker hair/ skin produces more melanin. Our hair starts greying or losing colour when the pigment cells in our follicles begin to die – the older you get, the less melanin producing cells there are in each follicle.

Hair texture is defined by its circumference; fine, medium or coarse. Fine hair is usually straight, medium is wavy or lightly curled while coarse hair is usually curled or tightly coiled. Our hair in the subcontinent falls under the latter categories, medium or coarse and requires painstaking care to upkeep, especially at longer lengths. Globally, however, fine, straight, light coloured hair is considered aspirational; women in colonized parts of the women go to salons in droves to chemically treat their hair to mimic the colour and texture of our colonizers.

Just as we battled with our complexions, women in the sub-continent have waged war with their natural textures for decades; our natural hair has been compared to straw, labelled wild, untamable and associated with hermits, witches and religious ascetics. Our hair is considered acceptable only when it is blow-dried sleek, each strand under control. We spend fortunes on treatments, not to mention countless hours at salons, pulling, tugging and wrapping our hair around round brushes to straighten them into submission. Before the advent of blow-driers and straighteners, our mothers and grandmothers would quite literally iron their hair while now, even the smallest salon offers straightening treatments, lasting till your next hair wash or semi-permanent solutions that alter your hair texture irrevocably.

Hair straighteners and peroxide dyes are the fairness creams of the mane world.

We switched from using henna on our hair and skin to chemically bleaching our skin and hair to achieve lighter tones. The bleaching spree that light Caucasian features spurred didn’t just give us fairness creams but also taught us that blondes have more fun, are more attractive and are preferred by men. In the sub-continent today and quite possibly across Far-East Asia, more women opt to colour their hair lighter than embrace their dark, virgin tones.

Similarly, oiling using to be important hair-care ritual; the oil would keep our hair deeply moisturized, preventing frizz and allowing it to shine. Over the years, going out in public with oil slick hair was considered a fashion faux pas; coconut oil that has long been a mainstay of our haircare rituals was shunned for its “smell” that the colonizers termed odious and was eventually phased out of regular use.

Combine the social norm of blow-drying with the beauty ideal of lighter locks and you have the complete philosophy of sub-continental hair that renders women looking like uneasy Western clones. Walk into any posh restaurant in any major city and you’ll see every variation of blow-dries but will be hard pressed to see many women wearing their hair naturally. Not only do these practices harm the health of our hair, they are also deeply entrenched in the belief that sub-continental women must adhere to Western ideals of beauty. The time and cost this involves is immense and the havoc it wreaks on our mental health is completely separate.

Slowly, however, the reclamation of SE Asian hair is beginning. Women are starting to embrace their waves and curls. Curly haired style and beauty bloggers are so far at the helm of this movement and we can only hope that in years to come, this radical act of letting our hair be will be advocated by more mainstream artists. Very, very rarely will mainstream media feature a woman with voluminous curly hair. Even actresses like Sarwat Gilani, who has tightly curled hair, appears onscreen with straightened hair, a decision mostly made by TV executives.

There are, marginally, more women these days that are accepting their natural hair for what it is. Just like conversations around complexion and colourism have been essential in identifying the colonial forces that drilled fairness as a virtue in our minds, it is important to at least start the conversation around natural hair. We need to understand how our relationship with our hair changed not because it wasn’t good enough but because we were taught to believe that we had to change it in order to assimilate with civilized society.

One can only hope that in time the women of the sub-continent will wholeheartedly begin to embrace their natural hair in all its different forms, curls, waves and frizz. Till then, we normalize our textured locks through talks.

Embracing Curls: How celebrating our natural hair became a radical act