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This is for all of us who learned early on that hair, like life, isn’t fair.

This is for all the girls known as “Brillo Pad” or “Pube Head” in the hallowed halls of the nation’s middle schools.

This is for those who spend an hour blow-drying their curly hair pin straight, only to have the ‘do undone by a rain shower that leaves them resembling a shrub at Valley View Farms.

This is for all the women who can never replicate the romantic movie scene in which Leading Man runs his fingers through Leading Lady’s hair- unless it’s a B-movie in which Leading Man’s fingers get stuck in Leading Lady’s hair.

This is for the women who make great negotiators in matters of business and world peace because they’ve had years of practice negotiating with their hair.

This is for anyone who has ever hated straight-haireds, with their lank locks, their wispy bangs and their perky ponytails that swing gently side to side.

This is, finally, for all of us curly girls who’ve been trying to walk a straight line for too long. It’s time to take heart. There’s a Curl Pride movement afoot and its motto is “Curly and Proud”- not “Scared Straight.”

Straight Talk

A simple statement of fact: In America, straight hair is considered more beautiful than curly hair. Why? The short answer is that straight hair, like light-colored skin and eyes, is a typically Caucasian trait. And in America, Caucasian traits are considered more beautiful than non-Caucasian traits. Since an explanation for this phenomenon would require 100 doctoral dissertations on the interplay of race, power and beauty- or at least a “baby doll” test like the one that helped to end school segregation in the United States- I urge you instead to test the accuracy of this statement in the comfort of your own home.

Page through the magazines on your coffee table and count the models with curly hair. Doesn’t take long, does it? Or watch an episode of “A Makeover Story” on The Learning Channel and observe that one of the first things they do with a curly-headed woman is straighten her hair. Indeed, here in our own (humid) city, the February 2004 issue of a certain crosstown magazine featured a makeover in which a young woman’s “long, curly mop” was blow-dried “smooth” and flat-ironed.

And what about the 2001 film “The Princess Diaries,” in which young Mia Thermopolis is transformed from misfit to royalty largely by straightening her “curly, bushy, frizzy” hair? What that movie is saying is what the culture at large says in a thousand different ways: naturally curly hair equals ugly duckling, and straight hair equals swan. Certainly there are exceptions- Debra Messing with her lustrous waves and Sarah Jessica Parker with her Botticelli ringlets, to name a recent two- but, in general, American TV, film, fashion and culture send a clear message to girls and women: straighten up.

And a goodly number of the roughly 60 percent of American women who have some degree of curl or wave heed that message on a daily basis. In fact, for many curlyheads, walking out of the house without straightened hair is like walking out without makeup- they don’t do it unless there’s a four-alarm fire or Publishers Clearinghouse has come a-knocking. In the old days, curlyheads turned to the ironing board or the chemical straightener (also known as the “chemical haircut” for the havoc it wrought). These days the straightening methods are less violent, though no less time-consuming. Some women use a specially outfitted blow-dryer in conjunction with various serums and potions; some use a ceramic flat iron; and some spring for Japanese straightening methods available in salons (see sidebar).

For nearly 20 years, curlyhead Tracy Wahl performed a nearly hour-long regimen to straighten her hair twice a day after swim practice. “After my shower, I would dry my hair a little and roll it in curlers to keep it flat- otherwise it would dry into kinky curls that were hard to straighten,” says Wahl, 36, an associate producer/director at National Public Radio who lives in Baltimore. “Then I would take it out of the rollers, separate it into sections and straighten each section with a brush attached to my hair-dryer. It was very complicated- and thank God I lived in Colorado, where there is low humidity.”

Wahl’s mother and grandmother have curly hair, and both straighten it. “There was never a question that I’d let my hair be curly,” she says. “My mother and grandmother didn’t pass down an affirmation for curly hair- they passed down an affirmation of straightness.”

“There’s definitely this feeling that curly hair needs to be fixed,” says Michelle Breyer, co-creator of the 6-year-old Web site http://www.naturallycurly.com. Breyer sighs when she thinks of the fact that she used to spend an hour each morning straightening her hair. “I might have found a cure for cancer with all that time,” she says.

If you think worrying about hair is shallow or frivolous, consider the fact that, along with body shape, it’s one of the first things people notice about you. “Whenever we first meet someone, we need to figure out what sort of person he or she is … and often need to do so quickly. As a result, we use any clues available to decipher whether that person is wealthy, middle class or poor; friendly or aloof; athletic or bookish; and so on,” writes Rose Weitz in her new book “Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). “Hair offers one of the most visible clues.”

This is why curlyheads say- without exaggeration, without ironic distance- that their hair makes them unhappy. Beyond the fact that you feel less beautiful because you don’t have straight hair, you also feel that your hair is sending the wrong message to the world- that it refuses to offer the right “clues” about you. So you feel out of control, kind of freakish.

As Wahl puts it: “It was like my self-esteem was undermined daily by my hair. It was a daily question: how straight am I going to be able to get my hair today? On those days when the perfect conditions existed for my hair to stay straight, I felt much happier. It was a deep feeling of happiness. I walked straighter.”

And yet, in 1994, after roughly 16 years of straightening, Wahl finally had had enough. She and her boyfriend used a razor to cut her hair to a quarter-inch all over. “I can’t tell you how liberating it was,” she says. “My hair was a pain in the ass.”

The good news is that we curlyheads now have a third way between straightening our hair and shaving our heads: the Curl Pride movement. Two divas named Lorraine Massey and Ouidad (no last name, like Madonna) are the acknowledged leaders of the movement, both waging war against the idea that curly hair needs to be “fixed.” Massey’s motto is “Free your hair, and the rest will follow.” Ouidad is known as the “queen of curl” and “your curls’ best friend”- and she pledges to help you learn to love your curls. Each has written her own version of the Curly Bible, created a line of products and presides over a New York City salon, and each has her apostles and followers.

As a card-carrying curlyhead, I decided to offer myself as both subject and observer. Over the course of six months, I would get my hair cut according to both Massey’s and Ouidad’s methods, test their products and record the effects on a constant: my medium-curly, medium-frizzy mid-length hair. I would also attempt to keep tabs on my happiness- or at least my mood- as the Great Curlyhead Experiment progressed.

The Re-Education Begins

After wandering in the straight-haired wilderness for years, entering Massey’s Soho salon, Devachan, is like arriving at the gates of curly hair heaven. To start, both receptionists have curly hair- not just wavy, but tight ringlets. And walking back to the changing room, my best curly friend, Heather, and I pass one curlyhead after another, some getting cut, some getting the salon’s signature coloring method for curly hair called pintura. We also pass a few straight-haireds. They look bland and out of place, forgettable. Frankly, I feel sorry for them, especially when Massey walks by tossing her blond- and black-streaked sexy mass of curls.

Immediately we discover that at Devachan the stylist’s chair is like the shrink’s couch. Instead of asking Heather about the weather or her plans for the weekend, stylist Keith Magnussen asks her to describe her typical hair care routine. When Heather, a family practice doctor, mentions that she brushes her hair before work, Keith’s hackles rise.

“Why?” he asks, searchingly. “Why do you brush it?”

“To make it look more orderly,” she says. “I feel like I appear more professional in front of my patients if my hair is under control.”

“Hmmm,” Keith says, and like a good shrink, he doesn’t say much else. Heather’s answer tells him that she’s clearly internalized the widely held cultural idea that straight hair is more professional than curls. Indeed, most of us curlyheads have been led to believe that our naturally curly hair is naturally messy. I can still hear my grandmother advising me to keep my hair “tied back”- or was it tied down?

Then Keith starts running his hands through Heather’s dark hair, pushing it this way and that, studying her reflection in the mirror. After a few minutes, he says, “I don’t think we need to take any length off, but we need to shape it around the crown of the head.”

When Heather agrees, he picks up his scissors and begins selecting individual curls and cutting them piece by piece- Heather’s hair is still dry as a bone, mind you- according to the method that Massey created. In her book “Curly Girl,” she explains its raison d’etre. “You’ve been blessed with hair that has a mind of its own,” she writes. “Every strand is a separate entity that reacts differently to the scissors. The stylist has to approach each curl individually, considering its texture, its degree of curliness, and how it relates to the curls around it.”

This is hair-cutting as sculpture, whittling and shaping to let the true form emerge.

“There is no ‘style’ for curlyheads,” Massey adds. “I can’t hand you a picture and say that’s how you’re going to look.” Gee, if I had known that two decades ago, it would have spared me countless trims-cum-scalpings. (Oh, the stylist would say, I didn’t realize your hair would shrink that much.) And it would have saved me from all my vain hopes of replicating the latest style- the Dorothy Hamill, the Farrah Fawcett, the Jennifer Aniston. I would have known that my hair has built-in style.

When Keith sends Heather off to have her hair conditioned, I sink into the chair. After playing with my hair a bit, he suggests taking off a few inches, and I am so pliable at that moment, so lulled by the feeling that someone has my curls’ best interest in mind, that I let him do it. When he asks me about my hair regimen, I can (having read “Curly Girl” a few weeks before) proudly say: “I don’t use shampoo every time I wash my hair and I don’t wrap my hair in a towel when I get out of the shower. And I never, never brush.”

The no-shampoo rule is one of Massey’s main maxims- and perhaps her most controversial. She argues that the harsh detergents in shampoo dry out curly hair, which is dry to begin with. The best way to clean curly hair, she says, is either to use her signature No-Poo, which is a lovely smelling brew of peppermint and rosemary sans cleaning agents. Or, just wet your hair and use your fingertips and a bit of conditioner to loosen any dirt or oil on your scalp. The conditioner in conjunction with the stimulation from your fingers will work as well as shampoo. So says Massey.

After Keith picks and snips his way through my hair, the next- and perhaps best- phase of the Devachan experience commences: lying on a reclining chair under a canopy of mosquito netting and having my hair “washed” with Massey’s No-Poo and then conditioned with her conditioner. Back in the chair, Keith has me lower my head to my knees and flip my hair down. With a towel, he gently blots the moisture in my curls. Then he squirts a generous dollop of gel into his hands, pats my hair all over with it, and begins selecting “families” of curls and cupping them upward, toward my scalp. The idea is to encourage the curls to do what they do best: curl.

After I flip my head back up, Keith uses more gel to shape individual curls, inserts metal clips to lift the hair at the root (thus combatting the typical curlyhead predicament of flat top, bushy sides), then sprays it with a light gel. “Normally you would then let your hair air-dry,” he says. “But to speed things up, we’ll put you under a heat lamp.” That’s another Massey maxim: no blow-dryers, ever. And once your curls are gelled and set, she urges you to pretend there’s a “Do Not Disturb” sign plastered to your forehead- touching your hair as it dries will only fan the flames of frizz.

As I wait for my hair to dry, Keith removes Heather’s clips, gets her to shake her head and repositions some of her curls. I have known her for more than 10 years, and I have never seen her hair look so good. It’s shiny and smooth (no frizz, just like he’d promised). And, most important, it is really, really curly. She’d walked into the salon with a straight woman’s haircut, a modified bob. Now she has a cut that encourages her curls to frame her face and curl every which way. She is so delighted that she pulls the hairbrush from her purse, signs it and leaves it at Keith’s cutting station, just as he’s starting to work on the curly head of McDonogh student Andrew Bernstein, who was given an appointment at the salon as a 16th birthday present by his curly-headed stepmother Sheryl Goldstein.

As for me, after I pay my $95 and leave the salon, I find that my hair is curlier and less frizzy that it has ever been in my life. When I shake my head, each individual curl does its own little jig. At the time I am so thrilled by the experience- a salon full of curlyheads!- that I don’t notice how short my hair is. But even the next day, when I decide I’m not thrilled with the cut, I’m not devastated, either- far from it. For the first time in my life, I feel optimistic about my hair, like our best days together are in front of us.

And I’m right. Following Massey’s rules does make my hair much more curly and much less frizzy, though my hair gets greasy after a few weeks of using the No-Poo. So I just modify Massey’s method, conditioning my hair a few times a week and shampooing it with good over-the-counter shampoo once a week. I can honestly report that I’m happier with my hair than I’ve ever been- except for the day in 2000 when my hair looked amazing and I have the photos to prove it. And yet, like every curlyhead, I can’t give up the quest for the Holy Grail, the perfect cocktail for my hair. Within a few months, I am itching to try Ouidad’s cutting method and products to see if I can get even better results.

Queen (of Curl) for a Day

Instead of having to make a trip to New York City to The Ouidad Salon, I only have to make the trip to About Faces Day Spa and Salon in Pikesville, where last fall Ouidad trained and certified two of the salon’s stylists in her trademark “carve and slice” cutting method. The training is intense and intensive- not to mention expensive (it cost About Faces roughly $10,000 to certify 10 stylists at four of its Maryland locations). But in order to perform either Ouidad’s cut or style- or offer her products for sale-the stylists had to be certified by her. “She’s got lawyers working on lawsuits against people who are advertising her cut but haven’t been trained by her,” says Paul Skotarczak, one of the Ouidad-certified stylists at About Faces in Pikesville. “This is big business.”

After giving my name at the receptionist desk, I’m led back to the shampoo station where one of the main differences between Massey’s and Ouidad’s philosophies immediately presents itself: my hair is shampooed. Unlike Massey, Ouidad advocates a gentle shampoo- one with a low pH or created for chemically processed hair- and she says you can wash your hair almost daily if you like. As she writes in her book, “Curl Talk,” “When you don’t shampoo frequently enough, the secretion of oils combined with styling products and other debris from the environment will block your hair follicles and prevent vital nutrients from reaching the hair and scalp.” (That might have been exactly what happened when I followed Massey’s no-shampoo dictate.)

But, besides the fact of the actual shampoo, another difference is that Paul will cut my hair while it’s wet. That can be a little scary for anyone who has read Massey’s book, in which she warns curlyheads to steer clear of stylists who cut curly hair wet (she says they won’t have a sense of how much it will shrink). I admit I’m a little leery of getting a wet cut- especially since I’m trying to grow my hair out- but I’m a lab rat, and must take risks for the good of the movement.

After the shampoo is rinsed out, my hair is conditioned with a daily conditioner then coated with a deep conditioning treatment and I’m placed under a dryer for 20 minutes. Both in her book and at the salon, Ouidad’s deep conditioning treatment is held up as the elixir of Gods. Maybe my hair was in pretty good shape when I went in, but I didn’t notice a huge difference afterward. And for $50 on top of the $125 cost of the Ouidad cut and style, you want to notice a huge difference, right? (By now, you’ve no doubt realized that the curl pride movement isn’t just about spirituality- it’s also about profit.)

Paul leads me from the washing station to his chair, past a woman having her hair straightened with one of the Japanese straightening methods- oh, to convert all those still wandering in the wilderness!- and as he begins talking about Ouidad and her methods, I see that he’s a true disciple. “When I met Ouidad, I told her that I’d been searching for something to help curly girls feel beautiful for 20 years,” he says. “I had tried more than 100 products, and a lot of different cuts. Nothing works like Ouidad’s cut and products.”

When I tell Paul I don’t want any length cut off, he doesn’t blink an eye. “Curly hair should be long,” he says (making me think with a smile of all the times my mother said, “Keep your hair short so you can manage it better”). After combing through my wet hair, he divides it into sections, then cuts into the middle of each section. This is “carving and slicing,” and it’s designed to reduce volume without reducing curl. A good carve and slice cut, says Ouidad, will encourage the curls “to fall into a ‘puzzle reaction’ in which each spiral fits into the next, creating a smooth, even pattern.”

After creating a decent-sized pile of hair on the floor- all width, no length- below me, Paul moves onto the styling portion of the cut, which also reveals a key difference between Massey’s and Ouidad’s philosophies. At Devachan, Keith’s goal was to free my curls, let them be what they wanted to be. With Ouidad’s styling method, Paul actually shapes my curls into the size and shape he wants. He coats the hair with a generous portion of styling lotion- and by generous, I mean he puts in enough gel that when he squeezes the curls, I hear a sound reminiscent of the squish of feet in water-logged sneakers.

After he divides my hair into sections, he uses his fingertips to squeeze, rake, shake and drop each section. The squeeze encourages the curl; the rake customizes the size of the curl; and the shake and drop keep the curl from weighing down. “The idea is to make the curl do what you want it to do,” says Paul. By the time he’s squeezed, raked, shook and dropped all over my head and blow-dried my hair with a diffuser, my curls look amazing, even better than they did when I left Devachan. Truly, my hair looks like it could be in a magazine: it’s bouncy, shiny and without a trace of frizz.

Teresa Baldwin, a curlyhead who has struggled with her hair all her life and spent hundreds of dollars on products and cuts, recently got a Ouidad cut from Paul and calls it a “miracle, like winning the lottery.”

“I told Paul, ‘God put you here,’” says Baldwin, a Catonsville mother of two. “I was crying. I’m going to be 42 soon, and I’ve never been so happy. I wish I could get on TV and tell everyone.”

Curl Conclusions

I, too, was thrilled with the way my hair looked when I walked out of About Faces, but I soon concluded that, given that the Ouidad style Paul created that evening is difficult to achieve-and almost as time-consuming as straightening- it’s really a special occasion ‘do. All the curlyheads who have their hair blown straight for a prom, wedding or any big event should spring for the Ouidad style instead- it’s just as glamorous, and carries no humidity-related risks (the cost for just the style- no cut- is $60).

And though I didn’t ultimately conclude that the cuts I received at Devachan or About Faces were necessarily revolutionary, I’d definitely recommend that my fellow curlyheads try one or both. After years of scary and alienating haircut experiences (one fellow curlyhead was a victim of a technique called “slithering” 13 years ago, and is still traumatized), you deserve to go to the salon equivalent of Cheers, a place where everybody knows your curl. I also think it’s worth trying the products- I especially like Massey’s gel and Ouidad’s shampoo and conditioner.

That said, we curlyheads should be careful. We don’t want to shake off the shackles of straightening only to spend huge amounts of money on products. As Breyer of http://www.naturallycurly.com says, “Curlyheads are the biggest product junkies there are. They spend much more money on hair products than straight-haired women.” According to a survey of the nearly 100,000 users of the Web site, curlyheads buy an average of eight hair care products each month.

So let’s be clear: Curl Pride should be about liberation- not marketing. We want to be Curly and Proud, not Curly and Poor.

That’s why I’m happy to report that my six-month-long Great Curlyhead experiment revealed that how you treat your curly hair is more important than what kind of cut or specific products you use (unless, of course, you get a horrendous cut or use alcohol-based products). The biggest improvement in my curls- and my disposition- resulted from following a few key guidelines culled from both Massey’s and Ouidad’s philosophies: cutting down on shampooing and increasing conditioning; only combing in the shower, when I have conditioner in my hair; blotting my curls dry instead of wrapping my hair in a towel; and being more generous with gel, which provides control for curls and discourages frizz. These things don’t cost money- they just require a change in habits.

Speaking of a change in habits, my curly friend Heather has brushed her hair only four times in the six months since her cut at Devachan- and she felt guilty each time.

And remember Tracy Wahl of the elaborate straightening ritual, and then of the quarter-inch hair? I’m also happy to report that her hair is healthy and well, falls halfway down her back- and is curly. These days her once-elaborate hair care regimen involves only washing her hair and letting it drip dry- no blow-drying, no brushing, no products. “Strangers come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you have amazing hair,’” she says. “I’d never had that experience before in my life.”

Wahl and others have noticed a lot more kinks on the street these days. Whether it’s a consequence of more TV and movie stars coming out of the curl closet, or a symptom of our increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, it’s difficult to say. What I can say is that now that you have the curly hair QT, pass it on. Tell your curly co-workers and friends. Tell the curlyheads you see in the grocery store. And, most important, tell the young curly girls.

When I look back on my own curly girlhood- on the tears, the broken hairbrushes, the hours spent scowling at my reflection in the mirror and, of course, the countless dreadful school pictures (which always seemed to be taken on rainy days)- I wish I could tell that girl what this woman knows now. I’d wrestle the hairbrush from one of her clenched fists and the hair-dryer from the other and replace them with a bottle of conditioner and a tube of hair gel.

Then I’d say, “Hey curly, take it from me. Straight ain’t so great.”

Straighten Up

Not ready to join the ranks of the curl pride movement? Still addicted to the straight and narrow? Here’s the scoop on two straightening and relaxing methods created in Japan and available at local salons.

Thermal Reconditioning
The most recent arrival on the straight scene, thermal reconditioning hit the Baltimore area about three years ago, says Jayne Gary, co-owner of La Clinica in Lutherville. The process involves applying a chemical solution that breaks down the hair’s cystine protein bonds (which cause the curl or wave), then reshaping those bonds with the use of a heat iron. The straightening is made permanent- no second thoughts, curly girls- with the application of a bromide neutralizer. The whole kebob takes several hours- and could take up to seven. Costs start at $400. There are several kinds of thermal reconditioning treatments, each employing different chemicals or irons, and offering different degrees of straightening and moisturizing. The Shinbi and Bio-Ionic methods are two of the most popular in the Baltimore area, according to local salons. Shinbi’s draw is that it contains added protein treatments and products that temper the harshness of the chemical straighteners. Bio-Ionic’s main benefit is the special thermal iron that’s used to straighten the hair, which contains negatively charged ions that restore moisture.

The Paul Brown Method
Though it’s less popular than the newer thermal reconditioning methods, the Paul Brown curl-relaxing method, which has been around for about 13 years, has one big advantage: it allows curly girls to wear their hair curly or straight. The method involves painting the hair (which is stretched out on plastic boards) with an ammonia-free treatment that contains extracts from Hawaiian flowers. This solution is left on the hair for 25 to 35 minutes before a neutralizer is added. After the neutralizer has been on the hair for seven to 10 minutes, it’s rinsed off and the hair is deep-conditioned then blown-dry. “Many of our clients opt for this method because it is a relaxer and they can still wear their hair in curls if they want. While the other treatments leave the hair permanently straight, the Paul Brown requires that you blow-dry your hair straight,” says Shari Scheuermann of About Faces Day Spa and Salon in Pikesville. This method costs about $200 and lasts about four months. -Melissa Rocks

About Faces Day Spa and Salon, 1809 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-602-0888; 110 W. Timonium Road, Timonium, 410-560-6600; The Shops at Kenilworth, 894 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, 410-828-8666.
La Clinica, 1624 York Road, Lutherville, 410-828-7464.
Imperatore, 3811 Canterbury Road (in the Ambassador apartments), 410-366-3600.
Renaissance Day Spa and Salon, 11331 York Road, Hunt Valley, 410-527-1176.

Extend Yourself

Want long, lustrous hair? Want it by tonight? Julia Roberts and Faith Hill have hair extensions. So do Demi Moore and Madonna- even Mel Gibson. “People with straight hair want the wavy look that is popular now,” says Gabrielle Hart, a senior stylist at Studio 1612 in Mount Washington. “Some people want length or thickness. Others want a variation of color.” Depending on which look you want, there are three main types of extensions: glue bonding, braiding and barrettes. Glue-bonded extensions are pieces of human hair that come coated with a protein resin, which is heated and then attached to your natural hair. The whole process takes three to six hours and you can expect to keep the extensions in for two to six months, depending on how fast your hair grows. Another option is to have extensions braided into your hair using techniques such as French Braiding and Tree Braiding. Braids can be done root to end or only near the root and left to hang free. Possible downside: the braids are visible. Barrette extensions, says Hart, are ideal for people who “don’t have four hours to sit.” These extensions are less permanent and clients can even learn to do them on their own. The added bonus is that barrette extensions are custom-made. Debbie Bracken, a stylist with About Faces in Towson, cautions that extensions are not maintenance-free. “You go from having little hair to having a lot of hair,” she says. Also, only certain products can be used so as not to damage the hair- for example Silica-based products should be avoided, as they can cause braided extensions to slip. And, of course, you have to brush your hair more carefully. The cost for extensions? Anywhere from $200 to $2,000. -Sibyl Snow

Studio 1612, 1501 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington, 410-664-3010.
About Faces Day Spa and Salon, 1809 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-602-0888; 110 W. Timonium Road, Timonium, 410-560-6600; The Shops at Kenilworth, 894 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, 410-828-8666.

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