Amie Zimmerman

Curls as Beauty: An Essay on Unlearning Naturally Curly Hair Negativity

Amie Zimmerman is a hairstylist with 15 years experience in the hair industry. She’d love to see more people embracing their naturally curly hair.

 

In 2008, I had a Persian-American woman come in to get her hair cut. She came to her first appointment with naturally curly hair already blown out into a glossy coif and had waited about a month to come in to see me—I was booked that far in advance. That was back in the heyday of one of the first customer review websites and my salon was well-reviewed in town. While there is no possible way to please everyone who sits in your chair, most users of the site who came to see me would leave rave reviews about my curly cutting techniques, which involved lock-by-lock dry cutting, now generally considered the standard for curly hair styling.

By then, I had been styling hair for seven years and had a full-time clientele of probably 95% naturally curly patrons. The quirk of doing curly hair, and being considered an expert, is that everyone who has curly hair considers you to be an expert in their hair, in their particular curl pattern, and assumes you have the experience to back that up. Word of mouth spreads fast in the curly community—curly strangers will stop and talk to each other on the street. Many days it was trial by fire, never knowing who would be that day’s challenge. In the 15 years that I’ve been doing hair, I’ve had every type walk in the door—from fine and barely wavy to coarse and kinky, with each individual assuming that I knew how to handle their curly hair woes.

That day, my client and I started discussing what she was hoping for. She showed me some pictures. She pointed to the crown where she wanted more volume and to her chin where she wanted some framing layers. It was clear to me immediately that she was describing a straight hair cut and when I asked her about that, she just blinked at me. I phrased it a different way—did she want me to cut her hair for her curls? She responded that she thought I was good at cutting curly hair. Thoroughly confused, I said that, yes, I had a lot of experience with it. She said, okay, then make my curls do this—pointing at the straight hair picture.

And it really hit me, like deep in my gut.

She could not imagine a reality where she would actually want her natural curls to show.

She considered it so undesirable that she assumed that being good at curly hair meant being good at getting rid of curly hair. This happens regularly.

When Chris Rock did his documentary, Good Hair, about the hair industry and its complicated messages to the African-American community, I sat rapt. I had never been a fan of the process of relaxing hair and my fingers never deft enough to be efficient at braids and extensions, so I didn’t have much experience with those services directly. But the underlying messages in advertising and in American culture aimed directly at people of color had never been laid out more clearly to me, and as a curly hair specialist, I finally had the eyes to see it.

I had also recently read a book about caring for curly hair where “curl-ism” was pointed out as a phenomenon. Watch a surprise makeover show. What do they do to the poor, frumpy, wild-haired new mother of triplets? Make her life infinitely more complicated by giving her a straightening treatment that will grow out in two months. There. Now she’s acceptable, regardless of the long-term consequences of the new hair style. Or ask any female executive about her curls. I’ll bet that she does everything possible to scrape those curls straight to her head every day in an effort to get her curls under control so she will be taken seriously. (And don’t get me started about grey coverage and double-standard sexist ageism.) The assumptions about curly-haired people not being taken seriously, being seen as misfits or troublemakers, as rebellious, run deep.

Deep enough to make our young ones consider themselves truly, intrinsically, ugly. That what grows directly out of us, a huge symbol of our precious individuality, is inherently undesirable. It feels like being a broken record to say—what other conclusion is to be drawn when all the dolls and all the heroes have long, silky smooth hair? (Mattel just released a naturally curly Barbie, a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.)

Our culture says that curly-haired people are unhirable, untrustworthy, and unlovely. That people that choose to wear their hair curly are of a less desirable race or class, and that straight hair is an upgrade, a sign of wealth or at least upward mobility. That people who wear their hair natural are somehow making this radical social statement, bucking the standards of beauty, giving the finger to the Man. This has been puzzling to me because as a white, blonde woman I’ve never had to think of this type of statement being made simply by me not altering my appearance. In order to cause shock, I’ve always had to go out of my way to make a statement—shave a part of my head or tint it some kind of bright rainbow hue. My hair, on its own, is wholly unremarkable by our beauty standards. Not so for most of my clients. Their hair is weird and of note and fair game for comments from strangers when worn naturally. I hear these stories daily when I’m behind the chair, and although most of the time my clients aren’t saying it that explicitly, it’s the message they hear from a very young age.

I am intimidated by naturally curly African-American hair. It’s true. From the beginning, in beauty school, it was a separate, foreign thing for me. Not only did I not have any direct experience with African-American hair culture prior to school, in school itself it was widely accepted that Black students would be doing Black client’s hair. I learned the basics of doing a fade, managed to struggle through some relaxers, but never, ever got fast with the straightening irons in their heating ovens. I was terrified of burning someone’s scalp.

So, when it became clear later on that I would be working with natural African-American hair regularly, I had to steady my shaking hands with the knowledge that the principles of curls were immutable and fluid at the same time. I needed to be flexible and put aside what I thought I knew in order to work with hair that had its own will and intention. And the fear is reciprocated. I see it in the eyes of many of my clients the first time they meet me and see that I do not have hair like theirs. Which is fair. Why would I know how to do their hair if I don’t look like them? Will they walk out of my salon with the dreaded mushroom shape? Or the Christmas tree? Who wants to look like a shrub? It takes a lot of trust to put one’s expression of personal identity in the hands of someone who doesn’t look like you. It can be exhausting taking that risk. It’s work to trust. I ask a lot of my clients when I ask them to trust me—another example of my white privilege is to assert that I am worthy of that trust. To take on the mantle of curly expert, even as it applies to clients of color.

I’m tired of my industry’s standards and messages. I’m tired of the greed that motivates us to keep feeding this beast. I believe that it is another example of white supremacy manifesting in how we choose to promote particular beauty standards. Specifically, the one of the long, blonde, smooth, straight hair strand. I’ve been totally ignorant in so many ways for so long about my own white privilege and my role in perpetuating it. I feel so much rage at the way I now see white supremacy embedded in American culture’s value systems that it seems like a little betrayal every time I plug in my flat iron at work; I talk clients out of smoothing or straightening treatments.

Now, I’m all for self-expression. Let your flag fly high for all to see, choose what makes you feel beautiful; alter what should be altered in order to feel more you. Just make sure you’re the one choosing it, not trying to live up to some standard of beauty none of us can attain anyway. And maybe find a stylist who doesn’t automatically ask to straighten those gorgeous curly locks.

 

Amie Zimmerman

Amie Zimmerman is a poet and hairstylist living in Portland, Oregon. She is the poetry editor at the online journal Drunk In A Midnight Choir and has a chapbook, Kelley Point. She loves grapes and the color grey and considers it a small miracle that her teenage son still likes hanging out with her.

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3 Comments

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  3. Bec said:

    Beautiful essay!!!!!!!! I have had a love/hate relationship with my curly hair. People think ‘its just hair’ but actually its an extension of who you are as a woman.

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