Iris Deng/TMD.

With each tug on a strand of my hair, my confidence grew. The sizzle of the flat iron slowly transformed my frizzy, untamable curls, filling me with joy as I felt like I was enhancing my beauty. I would cringe as I saw my natural hair make a reappearance after a shower. I’d quickly dry myself off, ever rushing to the glorious moment I could straighten it again. The cycle continued throughout middle and high school.

I grew up watching both Bollywood and Hollywood movies and wished my hair sat as uniform and straight as the women on the screen. My hair is thick, coarse and a mix between curly and wavy. I never knew how to classify it on the thousands of online quizzes I would take to identify my hair pattern. It is unique, but not in a way I would like. I would always spritz water in my hair before leaving the house in an attempt to smooth it down because it was frizzy and “hard on the eyes.” As I grew older, I found that many of my Desi friends felt the same. What I realized is that Bollywood does not accurately represent the hair (or skin color, among other things) of South Asians. They produce content that presents Desis as closely as possible to Eurocentric models: straight hair, fair skin and thin bodies. This way, Desis fit into the Western ideal of neat, put together and professional, contrary to how we are represented in America.

When I discovered my ability to straighten my hair in seventh grade, it was like finding gold. People take me more seriously when my hair is straight, which I’m guessing is because it looks more “American.” People compliment me noticeably more, I get told to “do my hair like this more often,” and sometimes, people are even kinder to me. In a way, I feel like I’m treated more human. In Western culture and through colonialist practices, straight, uniform hair is the ideal look. These notions reiterate harmful racist notions which perpetuate Black and Brown individuals as physically unattractive, unprofessional and disruptive. 

These stereotypes and expectations are widely accepted in society and are the reason for most of my insecurities regarding my hair growing up. My hair has been one of my biggest insecurities since I was young. Its coarseness, the bushiness of my eyebrows, the “unladylike” hair that grew on my arms: These were all evident perceived flaws that you could not miss when you looked at me. I attended a predominantly white elementary and middle school growing up, so I was acutely aware of how my hair, among many other things, made me visibly different. I was never able to forget how the scent of my hair stood out when I had layered coconut oil in it the night before, how my eyebrows took up my whole forehead or how I had to shave my arms before pool birthday parties because the other girls “did not want lice.” Since the age of six, I would stress over being able to tie a bun in the very specific way we were required to for our performance for months leading up to my annual ballet recital. Straightening my hair made it more manageable and more like what it is conventionally supposed to look like. Finally, I was able to tame one of the most noticeable Desi parts of my appearance. 

I used to go to local Indian hairdressers when I was younger, but once I turned 16, I started going to chain salons with mostly white hairdressers. They always lathered my hair with luxurious shampoos that I’d never used growing up and told me they would blow my hair out in the way I always wanted it to be done. I was finally proud of where I got my haircuts because, in my mind, these salons were representative of everything I intended my hair to be.

But I was always met with hypocritical comments once it actually came time to do the blowouts I waited so eagerly for. “Which side of the family gave you this curse?” one hairdresser asked me as she picked up my half-dried hair only seconds after expressing her jealousy at the preciseness of my eyebrows. This haircut happened five years ago, yet the comment has stuck with me to this day. How can something so integral to my identity be a curse? As the appointment continued, so did the hairdresser’s expression of discomfort with the thickness of my hair as she reminded me repeatedly of how blowing my hair out was her “arm workout for the day” and sent me off without completing it because the appointment had run too close to her next one. This is an experience I am very familiar with — I’ve been conditioned to understand that my hair is a nuisance, and I act accordingly: “Don’t worry about smoothing it down, I can do it at home,” “I want it straight, but it’s okay if it’s just a blow dry,” etc. 

Just two months ago, I got a haircut at a popular salon in Ann Arbor with primarily white hairdressers. As soon as I walked in, I was met with numerous shampoos, conditioners and deep mask treatments on racks for sale. The waiting area smelled like lavender, and plants were perfectly positioned around me. The front desk employees even offered me tea and other beverages while I waited. I was delighted, as usual, to get the type of treatment for my hair that I’d always desired, unlike what I used to get when I went to the Desi salons at home. I came in wanting a specific hairstyle but was told that my hair would be too coarse and unruly with the product, so I should choose something else. I was prepared for this response, so I picked one of the hairstyles from the backup options on my phone — ones that I wasn’t excited about but pleased to get approval from the hairstylist. Throughout the haircut, I caught the other stylists walking past my chair as they whispered and pointed at me. Subtle gossip ended up with a group of hairstylists who were not assigned to my hair gathered around me as they frantically talked about how they would “get this done” in time. My face was so hot as I had no choice but to sit there in the chair with my hair half cut. Toward the latter half of my appointment, I had three hairdressers working on my blowout without any coordination with the style. It ended up being frizzy, and one side was slightly curled while the other was straight. Whatever, at least they had finished. 

I don’t know if oiling my hair is bad for it, but honestly, I don’t care. I oil it when I am miles from home because it reminds me of how my mom would do so for me on Sunday mornings while she reminisced on how her mother would do the same for her. I oil it and feel, for a moment, that I know my grandmothers despite the fact that I never got the chance to meet them. 

I can go to as many Dry Bar or Aveda salons that are out there, and surely they may be more aesthetically appealing in sight compared to the Desi hair salons I went to growing up, but they will never provide me with the same respect. They will never be able to speak to my mom in Hindi and ask her how her day was as they oil my hair in Parachute before combing it for my cut. Instead, they will explain to me the harm that the natural treatments I use have on my hair while they promote their alcohol-based shampoos to me after my appointment. They will continue to remind me that my eyebrows are only beautiful when they are threaded, and my hair is gorgeous only when it is straightened.

I ask myself what is it that makes the Desi hair salons less desirable if they have done nothing but welcome me? Is it that there is always a loud fan whirring in the background, the stylists are louder and the English is sometimes broken? Is it how these things are continuously associated with the dirtiness, nuisance and disruption that the Western world thinks Desis supposedly bring? I find it funny that I preferred light beverages, lavender scents and luxurious shampoos over actual quality customer service: Service that never made me feel bad for how I looked or like I had to admit that my hair was ugly.

To the hairstylist who affirmed with such confidence that my hair was a “curse” that my family inflicted on me, I ask why you decided to pursue a career in hair if you were never willing to work with mine? Yes, I am aware that my hair is perceived as big, hard to manage and loud. But you cannot marvel at my threaded eyebrows while rejecting the natural state of my hair. And to answer the original question, I got my hair pattern from my dad’s side of the family.

I am no longer willing to satisfy Eurocentric expectations at the expense of expressing my identity. I no longer have the patience to let a group of women who share no similar experiences to mine stand over my head for an hour and contemplate how to get me out of their salon as quickly as possible. I cannot bother to sit through another appointment for hours and leave with an unfinished product for me to work with for another hour at home. The next time someone tries to insult my hair, I will remind myself that its history runs so much deeper than me alone. I hope that there will be a day when I can use Amla and Parachute without wincing with shame as I spot the untouched Aveda shampoos on my shower shelf I was lured into buying. I hope that I will come to fully appreciate the Desi hair salons that accept my hair for what it is and myself, for that matter. And I wish to believe the affirmations I tell myself about the true beauty that my hair has — in not only the rich culture it carries but also in its thickness and ambiguous curl pattern.

MiC columnist Sahana Nandigama can be reached at nsahana@umich.edu.