Curly Girls

Ok, so recently I’ve decided to play around with my hair and see if I can follow the “Curly Girl” method, and see how curly I can get my hair to go naturally.

Now this is mainly due to the fact that I am still, after 11 months, trying to learn the best way to manage my mixed-race daughter’s amazing luscious curly hair. It has grown an awful lot in that time, and gotten so much thicker and longer. I didn’t want to just experiment on a two-year old with all these new methods and thought I would experiment on myself as well just to see what happens. 

Given the current events worldwise in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I wanted to explain a bit more about why and how my curly hair journey is so interlinked with discussions on race happening around the globe. It sounds ludicrous to put those two things together, but hear me out.

I’ve been reading a lot about transracial parenting, both now and before I adopted my daughter, and there is a lot to learn about how to raise a black or mixed-race child in a white family, how to talk to your child about race and prejudice, how to make space for them to open up about their experiences, even though you won’t necessarily have had those experiences yourself. There is a huge responsibility as a white parent to ensure that your child has access to role models and people in your community who are non-white and have similar cultural heritage, to help them fit in, and feel normal, but also to encourage them to explore their roots and their culture. 

It is no longer acceptable to say things like “Oh I don’t see colour, everyone is the same to me, therefore I am not prejudiced” – people of colour have a different lived experience and to pretend that they don’t is detrimental to supporting them, and black children raised in a white family environment can struggle with their cultural identity (as well as their adopted identity) and often don’t know where they fit into society or how to straddle those cultural lines.

Now of course I am working hard to try and ensure that my daughter has a range of role models in all shapes, colours and genders, (as a single-parent family I also need to find lots of male role models to fill the gap where a daddy would normally be). We live in a very diverse and multicultural neighbourhood where there are lots mixed-race, black and asian children, so I know that she will not be alone or stand out in her race or colour when she goes to school (our local primary school is less than 50% white for example, with children from a wide range of diverse races and cultures). But one thing that has come up, time and time again in my books, on blogs, and in newspaper articles about transracial parenting and/or adoption is the issue of hair. 

You wouldn’t believe how often I have read about this one particular failing of white mothers. 

It seems that the most common problem for black or mixed-race children being raised by white parents (and often more specifically a white mum) is an apparent total inability to manage their child’s hair because it is so different. (Here’s an example of the type of thing I’m talking about).

Now aside from the fact that most people nowadays have access to google and could very easily look this up for themselves, it is also a weirdly gendered problem. It is assumed in all the books/articles I have read that when a white mum and a black dad have a kid, the mum is responsible for haircare, and white mums don’t know how. No-one seems to mention the fact that black dads might help and support in the haircare department, this is exclusively a mummy problem, and exclusively a white problem, though it is not limited to adoption and is also apparently an issue for white mums who gave birth to mixed-race kids. 

(As an aside, I know a single dad who adopted a little girl – both of whom are white. Apart from the fact that it took him 8 years to adopt as a single, straight man, as everyone assumed he must be dodgy and couldn’t possibly just be a man who wanted to love and raise a child, he also faced a lot of stigma about having a girl, and a lot of queries about how he would manage her hair “as a man”. Bless him he watched videos, and bought a hairdresser’s mannequin head to practice on, and he now does the most amazing and fancy braids and hairstyles you’ve ever seen. And in spite of all his effort, every morning at the school gates he gets a lot of “Oh wow how clever her mummy must be to have done that!” – literally no-one assumes he could have braided his daughter’s hair himself. As if women are somehow born with the ability to “do hair” – of course we aren’t! We learn and practice just like anyone else!).

One hairdresser in an article commented on how frequently she meets mixed-race women and girls in their teens and twenties who have no idea how to manage their own hair, because no-one has ever taught them how. And how sad this is that these poor girls have been walking around for years in a frizzy mess because of their mother’s cultural inadequacy. 

One black woman on an adoption forum I am a part of made a comment along the lines of “Oh I can always tell when a child has white parents/a white mum by the state of their hair”.

The idea that someone can tell what skin colour someone’s mother has just by looking at their hair is horrifying and frankly quite hurtful. The idea that as a parent, I will be permanently judged and found inadequate based on my daughter’s hair is really upsetting and frankly ridiculous. 

And yet there it is, again and again, the more I explore and read and learn. Believe me I would have dismissed it out of hand had it only been mentioned once… (Here’s another example from a piece of research I am currently reading):

Now obviously this is trial-and-error, I am learning and figuring out what works for my daughter, and there is a huge range of mixed-race hair from full afro, kinky-coily to curly and wavy, so what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. An awful lot of well-meaning mixed-race people have given me advice on the assumption that my mixed-race daughter has afro-style kinky hair, which she doesn’t, so it has been hard to unpick the advice and figure out what works for us. One mixed-race woman on a forum was adamant that I ought to be doing two-strand twists on my daughter’s hair at bedtime to protect it while she slept, and spent AGES describing to me how to do it, and I watched so many videos and tried so hard and it just would not work at all, until I sent her a picture of my daughter’s hair and she said “Oh you have the wrong type of hair, so that just won’t work”. 

I have read a lot of biracial and mixed-race hair blogs, and also had some advice from a hairdresser about using oils, and I have talked to various friends with mixed-race kids about their respective haircare routines. Everyone does it differently and there is no one-size-fits all solution. We’ve mostly been using Cantu and Shea Moisture products, and have a range of leave-in conditioners, combs, detangling sprays and so on. However in general as my daughter’s hair gets thicker and longer I find that I’m just keeping it plaited/braided all the time as it’s getting so frizzy and hard to brush and detangle if I leave it down, even though her curls are so beautiful. 

Another thing that I read in my journey through hair blogs and parenting guidance and transracial adoption books is the importance of role models – not just culturally but in terms of hair. So many mixed-race kids (it seems) grow up hating their thick curly hair because they watch their mum, their friends, and models and actresses on tv and in magazines all with smooth, shiny, glossy hair and they develop complexes about their own hair, spending years damaging their own hair with straighteners and chemicals to try and fit in with everyone else. 

So apart from buying several children’s books that deal with how wonderful naturally curly hair is and promote positive role models, so she can see other children reflected in her storybooks with the same kind of hair as hers, I have also been trying other things. I try to regularly point out and mention that both her Grandad and her Grandpa have curly hair, and so does her cousin, so that she feels a sense of connection within our all-white family, using curly hair as a bonding tool. And of course I thought I would try and see how curly my own hair would go, so that she doesn’t grow up wishing she could straighten her hair like mine, and instead so that we might have one more thing to bond over, our curly hair. So that she can grow up seeing her mum embracing natural curls and not feel ashamed or embarrassed of her own hair. 

(Also in these articles and books are a whole load of confusing advice about embracing your child’s natural hair, but don’t fetishise it, and don’t let people touch their hair, and don’t talk about it all the time, but also tell them how lovely it is regularly and help them learn how to love their hair. It’s all very confusing).

After struggling with quite a bit of trial and error using oils and conditioners and all sorts of sprays and lotions, I bought a book called “The Curly Girl Handbook” and discovered there is a large following of the Curly Girl Method. I joined a couple of facebook groups, initially for children and then later the adult one for myself.

Here’s my hair, typically blow-dried straight, before I started my transition to “Curly Girl”:

I’ve always had slightly wavy hair, but definitely wouldn’t consider myself as having curly hair, and it tends to fluff up a lot when it’s been blow dried, so it always looks like I have big hair or thick hair, though actually when it’s wet there’s not much of it – it’s fine and fluffy.

The theory of the Curly Girl Method is that 

  • Most shampoo and conditioner has silicones, oils, waxes or sulphates in. These typically coat the hair follicle so it appears shiny and healthy, but the hair inside isn’t getting moisturised or hydrated, so the more silicone that gets piled on the outside, it appears healthy but actually isn’t. Similarly with oils, they often sit on top of the hair and don’t allow moisture to get inside and hydrate it. 
  • Therefore you can only use botanical or natural products that don’t contain sulphates, silicones, waxes or oils. You also don’t use shampoo at all (or if you really want to, you need to use something called a “low-poo” which is very mild and doesn’t strip the hair too much
  • In general, you use a botanical conditioner to both wash and condition your hair, and then scrunch dry using gel or mousse to get it to curl.

In the facebook group that I joined, they don’t follow the strict method and so some people use clarifying shampoos or oils even if they aren’t strictly in the method.

So of course I found myself buying lots of new products! Curly Girl-Approved conditioners, leave-in conditioners, and gels, as well as a scalp-brush to help clean my hair if I’m not using shampoo, and microfibre towels to help dry it without frizzing, and I also bought a diffuser for my hairdryer.

You sleep with your hair piled on to of your head in a “pineapple”, and can use a stretchy headband called a Buff to cover it, or use a satin pillowcase to keep your curls nice for the next day, and then refresh the curls in the morning using a spray bottle with a mixture of water and conditioner in it.

It has taken me a while to try out different things, and work out how much gel to use, and how much conditioner etc, and I am told it can take quite a few week to “transition” as your hair rehydrates and your scalp adjusts to the lack of shampoo, so it should get healthier and curlier as I go along.

Here’s what mine looked like on Day 1:

Quite frizzy and dry.

Day 7:

Here’s my night-time pineapple:

And tucked into my buff

And after about 2 or 3 weeks (this was my best wash day so far…)

I’m very pleased and loving my new curly hair, though it’s a lot more work than my previous haircare routine!

And here are some pics of my gorgeous daughter’s epic curls. It’s been so soft and lush since I started using all the products and is definitely in much better condition than it was before I started the curly girl method…

I have no idea if I am doing the right things, or if some of this will backfire on me when my daughter is all grown up and in therapy…. Like every other parent out there you can only try your best to make the right decisions for your child. I am trying really hard to keep learning and educating myself about race, and prejudice, and think about how I can make sure that my daughter has the right role models and open space to talk about these difficult things. I think that’s all any of us can do…

2 thoughts on “Curly Girls

  1. Pingback: White Fragility | Had we but world enough and time…

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