“Hair means care, hair means race, culture, it means resistance, and it is punishment, it is sculpted to be displayed and it is sacred and to be shielded. It is private and intimate but also public and (still) political.”
– Ozlem Koksal
The worst, most anxiously anticipated part of my morning routine: attempting to style my hair. Most mornings I yank my worn hair tie out angrily (along with multiple strands of loose hair) and stand dejectedly in front of my mirror. Frizzy, poofy, and unevenly textured – at least 10-15 minutes must be set aside to style it. In my perception, most South Asian women with curly hair were never taught how to handle or take care of their curls. Although hair is a significant aspect of beauty in many South Asian cultures, practices and products are often tailored to straight or wavy hair rather than curly. At least in my own experience, the image of ‘beautiful’ hair is often described solely as straight, long, and silky.
Some may argue that your hair is a small aspect of your physical appearance–which begs the question: is it really anything deeper than that? People of color, especially Black women (and even Black men), would probably disagree. In her essay, “The Cultural Significance of Hair,” researcher Ozlem Koksal writes how our hair “…says so much about us yet we speak so little of it in our discussions of art and culture.” She goes on to cite British art historian Kobena Mercer’s work, in which he argues that hair is “never a straightforward biological ‘fact’ because it is always groomed, prepared, cut, concealed and generally ‘worked upon’ by human hands. Such practices socialize hair, making it the medium of significant ‘statements’ about self and society and the codes of value that bind them, or don’t” (Mercer, 1987). Hair is also religiously significant; many Muslim women don the hijab as a means of modesty, Orthodox Jewish men are prohibited from trimming hair in a specific facial region, and in many Indigenous tribes, long hair is considered sacred.
I remember my mom explaining how for her growing up as a young girl in Kashmir, the only acceptable hairstyle was two evenly parted and neat lath (braids). She says it was “unacceptable to leave your long hair open” or down, and it implied you were looking to “attract attention.” She recalled an incident when she was planning to attend a party and my grandfather got angry that she had left her hair down. In the end, to her annoyance, he made her tie her curls up. Kempt, orderly, and tidy, this image represents, as writer Nakita Rathod argues, “traditional ideas of femininity in South Asian women.” Straight hair reflects “order, elegance and grace,” ideals South Asian women are supposedly meant to embody.
So, what would curly hair represent? I’ve often been told my hair looks messy, unkempt, or even wild; curly hair is often viewed as something to be tamed. For Rathod, the “desirability for straight hair relates to a wider discourse on texturism, something that we have seen more commonly discussed within the Black community.” These ideas can undoubtedly be traced to conceptions of race which were formed hundreds of years ago and are intimately tied to eugenics and artificial explanations for white superiority. Koksal’s essay notes that “How hair looks and the assumed common sense about what is tidy and presentable goes directly back to colonial ideas, to the attempts of fetishizing and dehumanizing those that were perceived as ‘exotic.’”
Now, the curly hair industry itself has morphed into something completely different. Personally, I’ve gone through tens upon tens of different gels, mousses, leave-in conditioners, and shampoos. The oversaturation of curly hair products on the market can be overwhelming; a consumer insights report by TextureTrends found that curly-haired women spend twice as much on products as their straight-haired counterparts and over 90% are “constantly looking for new products to add to their hair care regime.”
But the specific relationship between South Asian females and Desi beauty norms isn’t always so negatively tainted. In fact, I’m sure many South Asian women can relate to the shared childhood experience of their mom giving them olive oil head massages before a wash day. When attending Desi weddings, I often attempt to emulate older Bollywood hairstyles, like Deepika Padukone’s voluminous, 70’s-inspired looks in the 2007 film Om Shanti Om. Other women of color also look to South Asian women for hair care advice and tips. And although I’m often frustrated by the time-consuming maintenance routine, I’ve appreciated the uniqueness of my hair from a young age. My natural hair suits my personality and appearance more; it has texture, bounce, and playfulness, and it reminds me of my mom.
My mom at age 4, in Srinagar, Kashmir. (1976)