Last week, BuzzFeed released a video, What My Hair Has Taught Me. Featuring black and biracial American women and men talking about how hair has been integral to their conceptions of beauty, the subjects submitted photos of themselves and shared about their experiences before the natural hair movement that peaked in the mid-2000s. I never thought it would strike a chord, but I felt moved. I've been wearing my hair natural for the last eight years or so, and like the subjects, have struggled with it all my life.
Though the politics of natural hair doesn't sink its teeth sharply into Singapore's socio-cultural space, years of negative reinforcement have its detriments. In Singapore, inclusivity and representation among minorities — whether in skin or hair colour — have always been a problem in our pop culture landscape, and the struggle that's felt among the curly hair community isn't as superficial as you might think. Growing up in a population where the majority sports straight hair, a certain beauty standard is set whether we like it or not.
Unlike the natural hair movement by black communities that celebrates their heritage and identity, curly hair isn't exactly reflective of the Malay identity — largely due to our physical diversity. While I inherited the curly gene from my late grandmother, my own mother grew up with poker-straight hair, and even bragged that she looked like a Chinese girl. Because she didn't really know what to do with my hair, she kept it short. I remember lots of tugging and brushing, and occasional comments like "You look like a 'negro'" and "You look like a crazy person".
Growing up in the '90s, advertisements and mainstream media dictated that straight hair was the crowning glory you should achieve. While I'm now almost 30 and can separate enforced beauty standards set by my consumption of advertising and media from my own identity, as a child and teenager, I didn't know better. In primary school, I was incessantly teased and ridiculed. Secondary school welcomed people who thought that calling my baby hair 'pubic' was hilarious. Because I thought that Avril Lavigne dictated what's cool and what wasn't, I desperately wanted hair that was really straight, with the humble L'Oréal gel and iron as my tools of the trade. Before I head to school every morning, I would tie my hair in a ponytail and iron my fringe on the ironing board. When I made my own money, one of the first things I bought was a hair straightener. I had bid farewell to the iron and ironing board, but I still kept the belief that straight hair was acceptable and that anything else wasn't.
Hair salons in Singapore didn't make life easier either. Last year, Beauty Undercover, an indie beauty blog in Singapore, even wrote a story with the headline, "6 Things Non-Chinese Ladies Want to Tell Our Hairstylists". Uninformed hairdressers always wrecked my mane because they didn't know how to deal with its texture. I was often accused of not caring for my hair, but before YouTube, I really didn't know where to turn to. Brand videos would use curling tongs to form curls on straight-haired models and call that a curly hair tutorial. I'm sorry, what? Magazines were of no use, either. They either showed models with fake curls or hair that only curled at the ends.
We're all suckers, at the end of the day. As Sk8er Boi faded into oblivion along with belly button rings and blue eyeshadow, so did the trend of rebonded, straight hair. Suddenly, everyone worshipped Victoria's Secret models, and as their annual fashion show slowly grew into a pop culture phenomenon in the mid-2000s to early 2010s, so did the demand for hair products that catered to curls. While the likes of Watson's and Guardian had practically zero options for curly hair in the early 2000s, L'Oréal started to bring in their EverCurl range, giving curly girls who trusted the brand another solution. Sea salt sprays such as the ones by Toni & Guy started retailing, promising to embrace the hair's natural texture. Marc Anthony's Strictly Curls range also entered Watson's, while shops such as Sasa stocked the likes of Tigi Catwalk, where I'd load up on the Curls Rock Amplifier.
When Lush entered the Singapore market in 2011, it was all systems go for people transitioning back to their natural hair texture. R&B Hair Moisturiser was specifically made for curly hair, with ingredients that were curl-friendly: Avocado butter, oatmeal, olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil, jojoba oil and candelilla wax. The Curly Wurly shampoo jumped on the coconut oil bandwagon, albeit late — Indian mothers in Singapore have wiped coconut oil onto their young since they were babies, with some infusing amla, an Indian gooseberry, in the mix.
Fashion and entertainment's responsibility
Changes in the runway also kept to date. When Imaan Hammam, the Dutch model of Egyptian and Moroccan parentage walked her first runways at Dior, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga in 2014, her natural hair was pulled back or straightened. In the fall of 2015, Tommy Hilfiger embraced Hammam's natural curls in his Spring 2016 show and the rest followed suit — you'll be hard pressed to find the model without her signature curls on the runway now. Prada muse Mica Arganaraz and model Alana Arrington were other faces whose rising popularity added to high fashion's diversity. After telling her agent that she wanted to show her natural hair, Angolan model Maria Borges made history in 2015 by being the first black Victoria's Secret model to walk the show without extensions or relaxers.
The entertainment industry was suddenly rife with opportunities for curly hair idols to shine. While the likes of the Spice Girl's Mel B, Shakira and Beyoncé as the OGs of embracing one's individuality, a new crop of talents also exist to further enhance the cause. Hair chameleon and The Greatest Showman actress Zendaya often wears her hair in a myriad of styles, while musician Tori Kelly performs with her blonde tresses in beautiful disarray. Even Hollywood icons such as Halle Berry —who've previously adhered to what the mainstream desired — has proudly given a nod to the movement, wearing her natural hair at last year's Oscars. "I celebrate my natural hair by allowing it to be wild and free," she commented.
It's been a long road to self-acceptance, and every curly girl knows this. With hair that has a mind of its own, I've tried almost every product there is out there, but for now, these 5 tried-and-tested rules and methods seem to work:
1. I only wash my hair twice or thrice a week so as to not strip it of its natural oils. 2. I only use heat on my hair when I go to the salon for an indulgent wash and blow twice a month. 3. I swear by Living Proof's Defining Styling Cream and Defining Styling Mousse. It's lightweight, isn't sticky, and holds your curl pattern. You're welcome. 4. Don't rely on products that boast of their coconut oil goodness. The real deal comes from your neighbouring mama shop or Indian retailer in Little India. 5. Invest in a silk pillowcase that won't tug at your hair while you sleep. Check out Slip.
Although the natural hair movement's political context doesn't explicitly apply to me, its very foundation — that the hair curling from our heads should be free to exist — speaks to me loud and clear. My hair should be free from straightening chemicals and its texture should be embraced and not considered unprofessional or unacceptable. Like how India Arie questions in her 2006 song, 'I Am Not My Hair' (one I've been listening to on repeat since the start of writing this story): "Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person? Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?"