Tears streamed from my eyes as I saw myself for the first time: bountiful curls framed my face, the smooth spirals a deep contrast to the frizzy, tangled, unmanageable hair I had wrestled with my whole life. In uncovering my true hair, I was slowly uncovering my traumas, confronting beauty standards, and healing from my past.
My experience caring for my curly hair for the first time was a rage-filled accident.
I had spent yet another week hearing a barrage of comments about my hair, my skin tone, and my non-European features in my smaller, primarily white hometown and educational institutions. This time, it was different, and my skin wasn’t as thick as I thought it was. Filled with sorrowful rage, I drenched my frizzy, messy hair in conditioner hoping to comb it out into a sleek sheet. However, after a few hours, my hair morphed from a solid wet mass into a mess of spirals.
I had never known I had curly hair.
As an Indian woman, hair was always important to my culture: Hindu goddesses are depicted with long, flowing hair, store sections are full of oils and salves to rub in hair, and the ritual of mothers oiling their daughters’ hair has been ongoing for centuries. In fact, sacrificing hair at the altar of God in Tirupati is seen as one of the most selfless acts due to the significance of hair as a hallmark of beauty in my culture.
Yet, even with such a focus on my hair, I lived my entire life believing all of this attention was necessary since my hair was unruly and sometimes, downright painful as a result of its numerous tangles. Uncovering my curls helped me appreciate the hair culture I had grown up with at a deeper level. Nourishing my hair in turn led to me learning more about the rituals and community surrounding Indian haircare that stretches back for generations.
The discovery of my true hair pattern led me to other discoveries of myself.
Investing in my hair allowed me to feel less guilty about investing in other areas of my life and I began to engage more often in self care, hobbies, and finding activities that fulfilled me. Though curly hair can be high maintenance, the needs of my hair often felt like a ritual to me: grounding me and providing added structure to my life. This was a welcome addition as a woman of color living in turbulent political and social times, and helped to soothe me.
Soon, instead of hating my frizz, I began to love my curls and in turn, I loved myself.
My grandmother would often say that curly hair is a sign of bravery. For a long time, I had no idea what she meant. Soon, I learned that curly hair truly is a sign of bravery, it is a sign that the owner of each head of curls is unapologetically connecting to their needs and nourishing not only their hair, but themselves. And in societies in which women of color are marginalized and European beauty standards are enforced, our existence is resistance and our self-love in itself is an act of protest.