My least favorite thing to do as a child was sit still while my mother put oil in my hair. It was a weekly ritual when I was young, sitting by her feet while she poured warm oil over my scalp and roughly massaged it in with her fingers. I hated the feeling of the grease traveling through my hair, the aggressive massage and the pungent odor of the oil. My siblings didn’t have a problem with it — they sat still as their hair was covered and then tied up neatly by my mom.
Having thick, long black hair is a beauty standard in Indian culture. In shampoo commercials, women pull buses out of ditches with their strong hair. Oiling hair is one of the best ways to achieve that ideal and the scalp massages that are a part of the routine are said to have health benefits. People in the subcontinent have been oiling their hair for thousands of years as an intricate and calming ritual of self-care. In India, women put oil in their hair before braiding it and keep it in as they go about their daily routine.
My mom stopped putting oil in my hair after my endless complaints against it. She wasn’t happy letting me get away with it, though, because hair oil seemed to be able to cure anything from headaches to bad tempers. “You got a bad grade because your scalp is thirsty,” she would say to me. “It needs oil.”
Even as a child, her arguments never convinced me and I cringed at the mere thought of having to put oil in my hair. I hated the oil for another reason, too — it was almost impossible for me to wash it out of my hair. No matter how hard my weak fingers scrubbed, they couldn’t wash the greasy feeling out of my hair. When I was young, patches of my hair would still be oily after an almost hour-long shower. Those embarrassing pieces stood out starkly from the rest, shining limply like they were still wet, except never drying.
The idea of going to school with the remnants of oil still in my hair was mortifying to me. What if the girls in my middle school smelled it? What if they saw it and thought that my hair was greasy because I was dirty and didn’t wash it? I would just be another dirty, smelly Indian girl. So I was happy to not put oil in my hair, even as my hair got unhealthier and unrulier. I could sacrifice my hair for a little scrap of social acceptance.
Internally, I knew I did not want to be one of “those” Indian girls. My friends and I gossiped about them during the Indian parties that I went to. The girls who went to school while wearing gold earrings with their hair braided, which sometimes (embarrassingly) had oil in it. “She’s a little weird,” the older girls would say about someone I didn’t know. “Kind of like a fob.” There was nothing worse to us than fitting in with Indian stereotypes instead of fitting in with kids born and raised in the United States.
In eighth grade, a white girl came to school with oil in her hair. I didn’t realize it at first, but she started talking to one of my friends about it. She said that she had seen online that coconut oil would make your hair soft, so she had applied some to her straight blonde hair the night before. “But now it’s so greasy, I don’t really think it worked,” she said.
I stared at her. Her hair really was greasy. She had tried to hide it by putting it in a braid, but after looking closely I could tell. I felt like screaming at her — she was obviously supposed to wash it out. It seemed like common sense to me. To me, her predicament seemed incredibly idiotic. I stared at her, but said nothing.
Although that girl was nice and someone that I liked, something about her putting coconut oil in her hair made me furious. It wasn’t that she had done it in the first place — anyone can put oil in their hair — it was how stupidly she had done it. Why hadn’t she washed it out with shampoo? Couldn’t she have just found a better source online, someone who could have told her how to do it properly?
As I fumed, I realized how ridiculous it was that I was embarrassed by a few strands of greasy hair. Why was I ashamed when there were people dumb enough to put half a cup’s worth of oil in their hair and not have the sense to wash it out?
I realize now that most of my anger came from the fact that I had stayed away from this part of my identity for so long for fear of being judged, but she was able to do it without the same sense of shame. If she had felt embarrassed on an individual level, this incident would reflect on herself and no one else. It would be a fun laugh. For me, the same experience would be shameful because it would play into the greasy brown girl stereotype. For me, the embarrassment would be bigger than myself. It almost felt like I was letting other brown girls down — like the family friends who gossiped about fobs and who prided themselves on how well they could assimilate.
At lunch, I told one of my Indian friends about her. My friend’s hair was long and shiny, but some strands were reflecting more light than others. She thought it was funny, and after a while I thought it was less maddening too. After staring at her hair, I finally asked her why it looked wet.
“Oh, it’s not wet. I just wasn’t able to wash the oil out.”
She said this nonchalantly, then continued eating her cafeteria garlic bread. She didn’t seem to care at all. I suddenly felt pathetic for caring so much.
I started putting oil in my hair a couple of years after that incident. I was tired of my dry frizzy hair, so I decided to ask my mom for a scalp massage, and after a few months I actually found it enjoyable. They really could cure headaches and bad tempers. I learned how to wash it out, too.
When I went to college, a little bear bottle that was once filled with honey came with me, this time filled with the special hair oil my mom got from her hometown. Some of my Indian friends made fun of me for bringing it to the residence hall, but I had to explain to them that I literally could not live without it. I opened the window whenever I put it in and Febreezed the room afterwards so that the smell of the hair oil didn’t stick to anything. When I told my white roommate that it was a very pungent hair mask, she didn’t bat an eye. But when it came time to wash it out, I stuffed my hair in a hoodie and practically ran to the communal showers so that no one saw me with my hair all greasy.
Still, what had once been a dreaded chore for me became something that grounded me. After long, stressful days, I sit down and apply oil to my own hair, making sure that I apply more to the very crown of my head like my mom always does. The massage now helps me relax, giving my mind a break from the ups and downs in my life. In those moments, I’m grateful that I stopped hating it and that I allowed myself to love something that is so useful to me and special to my culture, breaking my own perceptions of what an “assimilated” Indian American has to be.