I have frizzy hair. This is an indisputable fact.
My hair best resembles a bush of black ringlets springing from different angles across my head. The strands in the front are shorter and bounce up if you give them a quick tug at the ends. When I reach behind my head I feel a mass of uneven curls; the tips are frayed even after a recent haircut and the outer layers are always softer than the inner sheets. I envy those that can run their fingers through their hair and change their part in seconds, because mine just doesn’t move like that.
I love my chaotic hair to death. But there’s one issue. My whole life, I’ve been told that it needs to be tamed.
Summer 2006: I’m standing by the entrance to the bathroom, watching my grandmother plait her waist-long hair in front of the mirror. Her red and white sari is loosely wrapped around her frame and gold bangles jangle against her wrists with each movement of her delicate fingers. The rich smell of coconut oil saturates the air; the scent irritates my seven-year-old nostrils and I take a step backwards. Finishing her braid, my grandmother dumps some coconut oil into her hands, rubs them together and makes a beeline for my head. I scream.
That dreadful summer afternoon was my earliest notion that something wasn’t right with my hair. Many Indian women have similar frizzy hair types, but their locks are always oiled and braided, tied up instead of bouncing against their backs. Short hair is seen as unfeminine. The strands frame their faces, not cover it like mine. The picture of the happy woman plastered on the front of the coconut oil bottle is clear in my head: Her hair is soft, silky and oiled. This was the ideal, and I didn’t fit the norm.
Part of this standard for female hair is perpetuated by Bollywood, an industry that capitalizes on rigid gender stereotypes. I have yet to see a Bollywood heroine that wears her hair like mine — curly and loose. Silky and straight hair isn’t realistic for the majority of Indian women. But because of Bollywood, it’s what every Indian woman aspires to have.
Spring 2012: My clash with hair standards reached its height in Kathak, a type of Indian classical dance I pursued in my pre-teen and teen years. Typical Kathak dancers tie their hair up in a bun and decorate it with jasmine flowers. Their hair is pushed aside to display their face, accentuated with a tikli — an ornament resting on the top of the forehead. A deep red bindi is pressed onto the forehead for the same effect. When I tied my hair for Kathak dance recitals, gravity-defying strands of hair shot up at the root of the bun and near my ears. It looked like a lion’s mane, an obvious anomaly on stage. My teacher and fellow dance students had effortlessly neat buns on their heads. When I looked in the mirror minutes before showtime, I forced myself to ignore my hair and focus on the rest of my appearance instead. But the shame burned at the pit of my stomach, a constant reminder as I performed that I was different.
Years later, I’ve realized why my culture’s ideas about hair never fit my own. I chose to keep my hair down all those years because my hair was an integral part of my personality; it typefied my energetic and happy persona. I didn’t mind the frizz, even though society had always told me to tuck it away. Hiding my hair made me feel naked, as if I was missing a part of who I was.
I haven’t been near coconut oil in years. I wear my hair the way I like it: always loose, always frizzy, but always me. I still don’t understand the antipathy to frizzy hair I see when walking the streets. What’s wrong with frizzy? Frizzy is different and diverse, fun and sassy. And it’s beautiful.