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Opinion: How Indian women are embracing their curls

  • Barrak’s growing-up story is that of every curly-haired Indian girl these past few decades
  • Seeing thousands of women feeling happy about their curly hair is not a phenomenon I have previously encountered in India

A section from Angela Mary Vaz’s illustrations on the theme of curly hair. 
A section from Angela Mary Vaz’s illustrations on the theme of curly hair. 

Asha Barrak’s curls spent the first quarter-century of their life cut short or tucked away from her face in a ponytail, her ringlets brushed firmly till all definition was eradicated. In Chhachhrauli, Ladwa and Kurukshetra, the Haryana towns where Barrak spent most of her childhood because her father was an operator at the electricity board, that’s how curly hair was tamed. “My parents never knew how to handle my hair."

Now she lives in Singapore and she’s her own best model for Ashba Botanics, her recently launched curly haircare brand, India’s first—taking you through the paces as she styles her hair on video (always apply product when your hair is wet, section the hair, smooth it with your fingers to minimize frizz). Then she tosses her head from side to side and back to front, showing off curls with unbelievable shine and definition.

Barrak’s growing-up story is that of every curly-haired Indian girl these past few decades. I know it’s my story. Till class XI, I wore my hair parted in the middle, in two tight braids. I oiled my tresses weekly and brushed my hair daily until it stood out in a fluffy afro around my head. Alas, rock star chic didn’t go with a convent school uniform, so this wasn’t an everyday look for me. Back into their braid shackles my curls went.

The hairbrush as chief villain of curly hair was depicted aptly by blogger and comic artist Angela Mary Vaz in a before and after comic strip on Instagram. Vaz, who began to post comics on Instagram in 2016, slowly began focusing on hair. Like the one about how every curly-haired girl has suffered a haircut from a stylist who doesn’t understand that the length of curly hair is dramatically different when it’s wet and dry. Or the one about the guy who has his arm around his curly-haired girl through the movie, not reaching for the popcorn even once—because his wristwatch is stuck in her hair. “I started getting obsessed with hair," Vaz says.

Like every curly girl, Vaz has a hair story. “People made fun of my hair in college calling me ‘pubes’ and ‘noodle head’. It definitely bothered me but I never showed that it did. I just laughed it off."

Vaz’s older comics are not on the photo-sharing platform any more but she continues to riff about hair—both straight and curly—on her new Instagram account Straycurls (this column’s illustration is courtesy Vaz).

Talking of hair stories, when I was 18, I visited a new salon in a leafy by-lane of Khar whose two co-founders were rumoured to understand curly hair. The cut was short and resembled the poodle hairstyle of the 1950s but after a lifetime of braids, I thought it was super trendy. It was only when I ventured out of India in my 20s that I grasped the power and politics of curly hair. Despite this exposure, I straightened my hair for my wedding at 29.

It took years to erase the early conditioning that had made me feel uncomfortable about my curly hair. Now I wouldn’t trade my hair for anything. For me, the best part about the Smash Brahminical Patriarchy poster that created a Twitter storm last year was the fact that the woman featured in it had fiercely curly hair.

Barrak discovered her curls in her 20s too when, as a software engineer, she travelled to Chicago on work for a year. In the US, she saw curly-haired women who didn’t suppress their waves and she began googling to learn more. That’s when she encountered Lorraine Massey’s Curly Girl: The Handbook. Barrak began practising the tips in the book—collectively known as the CG (curly girl) method—and the difference was dramatic.

When she came back to India, everyone wanted to know how she cared for her curls. So, in 2014, she began Right Ringlets, a blog that detailed her experiments with the CG method. While CG advocates that you wash your hair only with conditioner (just co-wash), Barrak found this wasn’t a practical idea in India.

One year later, she started a Facebook group for curly-haired women called Indian Curl Pride. Its more than 30,000 members are a vibrant community, ready to discuss every nuance of your curls. It’s replaced perusing copies of Country Living as my favourite guilty immersive pastime. Seeing thousands of women feeling happy about their curly hair and posting pictorial proof every day is not a phenomenon I have previously encountered in India.

You’ll be lost in an ocean of acronyms such as DC (deep conditioning), FSG (flaxseed gel) and SOTC (scrunch out the crunch) if you haven’t read the pinned post. It’s a world of satin pillows, things you need to do pre-poo (before shampooing) and CG-approved products free of silicones, sulfates and parabens.

“Is this product CG-approved?" is every newbie’s favourite question on the group, along with a photograph of ingredients. The answers are always prompt. It’s got dimethicone (a widely used silicone in haircare and skincare), so avoid. In this case, the product was Morroconoil Restorative Hair Mask, one that most Indian salons blindly prescribe for curly hair.

There are so many product reviews and recommendations on this group, I can’t resist heading to Amazon right after. While writing this column, I bought myself a bottle of SheaMoisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil shampoo.

I tried to buy one of Barrak’s products too. But as someone posted, just a few days after Barrak launched her leave-in conditioner and gel: “Shortest horror story—Ashba leave-in out of stock."

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at@priyaramani

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