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Getting to Know, and Like, My Natural Hair Texture in Quarantine

For me, quarantine meant finally embarking on the natural hair journey I'd avoided all my life.
Cynthia Rowley fsh F20 004

Like many women whose hair doesn't align with Eurocentric standards of beauty, I've struggled with mine for as long as I can remember. My mom, who is Black, has coily hair that she's worn in braids or dreadlocks for most of my life, while my dad, who is white, has super-fine, stick-straight strands. My hair falls somewhere in the middle: Fine, but very curly, full, dry and prone to frizz.

To be honest, as recently as March, I had to struggle to remember what my natural hair texture was. I just knew I hated it. I can't pinpoint when I started to hate it, or if I wanted to look like Britney Spears, or the Olsen twins, or my classmates, but I definitely didn't want to look like me.

I began straightening my hair regularly as soon as my mom, who preferred my hair long and curly, let me, which I think was around seventh grade. She would take me to a Black hairdresser to have it pressed with a hot comb, or my aunt would do it at her house. Eventually, I got my own flatiron and started doing it myself (really frying my hair into oblivion at the height of the stick-straight hair trend in the early aughts). In college, I figured out how to give myself a blowout and mostly eschew the flat iron altogether.

Still, my life involved near-daily hair-related battles: panicking if I overslept and didn't have enough time to style it; discovering the horrifying (to me) effects of East Coast humidity upon moving to New York; not being able go swimming with friends; being late or cancelling plans because my hair wouldn't cooperate, or feeling self-conscious throughout social situations when I went through with them. The degree to which I let my hair affect my life was sad, and I knew that, but I couldn't see a way out. I was vain, but I was also living in a society where popular culture and media had conditioned me to believe I did not have the right kind of hair (and to buy products that promised to fix that). 

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Throughout my life, I would look at women (and men — even boyfriends) with naturally straight hair and feel deep pangs of envy, and a sort of certainty that I would never measure up. A resentment built up over the amount of time I had to spend on my hair every day just to make it look "presentable," while I knew they could just roll out of bed, spritz on some salt spray or dry shampoo, and look great. It feels weird to talk about this in the past tense, because this was as recently as March 2020, which of course feels like years ago.

The author (middle) and her parents.

The author (middle) and her parents.

The funny thing is, I have nothing against curly hair in general. Throughout my life, I would often admire it on others, but truly believed that I had the "bad" kind of curly hair. Frizzy, poofy and undefined, it just couldn't look good — I was sure of this. 

In my early 20s, I started getting keratin treatments, which initially felt life-changing. For the first time, my hair air-dried relatively straight, or could become perfectly smooth with just a few minutes of blow-drying. I thought I'd never go back. But there were downsides: They were expensive and inconsistent, with varying results depending on where I went and who did them. And while marketing promised stronger, healthier hair, I eventually realized my hair was actually thinning and breaking more than ever.

Last summer, after six or seven years of consistent keratin treatments, I went to a new hairstylist in Los Angeles with whom I'd apparently gotten some wires crossed, and I ended up with a sort of Keratin/Japanese straightening treatment hybrid that left my hair stick-straight. And while keratin treatments usually wash out after a few months, this one didn't: As my hair grew, the contrast between my roots and the rest of my hair, still stick-straight, was striking.

My blow-dryer and flatiron became regular fixtures again as I struggled to create one consistent texture from roots to ends. I knew I was damaging my hair further, but I legitimately couldn't fathom an alternative that would allow me to be seen in public. Again, I was vain. Then, the pandemic hit.

In the early days of lockdown, I found myself watching a lot of YouTube. With my hair still very much comprised of two opposite textures, I turned to the internet for solutions I may not have considered. That was how I familiarized myself with the concept of "transitioning" from chemically treated to natural hair.

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Thanks in large part to the Black community, there was a deep well of content around this common dilemma that I somehow never knew about, and I dove in. I suddenly felt less alone, and excited by the feeling of learning something new. I hadn't realized, for instance, how years of straightening can not only damage hair, but also destroy the curl pattern, so the biggest goal while transitioning is getting your hair and scalp as healthy as possible, so that it will stop breaking and grow back into its natural state.

I employed the same logic as people who used Babyfoot or started getting into retinol during quarantine: No one's going to see me, so why not give this a shot? Plus, I had all the time in the world to do research. And that I did. Much of my free time was spent learning the basics of curly hair maintenance (I finally know my type — 3a/b) while being afforded the "luxury" of not having to be around other humans in case things went south. 

Somewhere around this time came the tragic murder of George Floyd, and powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In my industry, that meant a lot more Black voices were being heard, and faces being seen, and the industry's track record of upholding white, Eurocentric standards of beauty was being questioned more than ever. I went to protests and started to feel hopeful and empowered.

I didn't consciously connect my newfound natural hair appreciation to this cultural uprising in that moment, but I think, subconsciously, it helped me shed some shame around showing the world (or at least Zoom) my natural texture — or perhaps it just gave me some much-needed perspective.

This time also made me think about my own identity and if and how my hair has factored into it. As far as skin color goes, I pass as white, and throughout my life, I think I tried to remove my hair preferences from race; I would think, well, a lot of Black people straighten their hair, and plenty of white people have curly hair. But, any way you spin it, if I began straightening my hair to fit in, it was a white supremacist beauty ideal that I was trying to fit into.

Left: me with a professional blowout in 2014; right: me all natural in 2020.

Left: me with a professional blowout in 2014; right: me all natural in 2020.

So my journey to healthy, curly hair began. I used the money I wasn't spending on going out and socializing on pre-shampoo treatments, strengthening and hydrating masks and leave-in conditioners. I stopped using heat entirely, with plans to cut off the straight part of my hair once it grew long enough. I would style my hair in pigtail braids to both protect it and camouflage the difference in textures.

In a few months, my hair was healthier than it had been in years, and I was able to cut most of the remaining straight bits off (myself!) by mid-summer. I then shifted my focus to figuring out how to make my curls actually look good, which I'd finally started to believe might be possible. 

I spent hours reading reviews to avoid wasting money, and gradually bought products recommended by YouTubers, bloggers and editors. (And yes, as an editor myself, I was gifted a few.) It was a summer of trial and error. I worked on finding the right wash-day routine. I figured out the best way to sleep so that my hair wouldn't devolve into a knotted, frizzy mess overnight. I invested in silk pillowcases and a satin bonnet. Importantly, I also learned not to panic when piles of hair would shed in the shower. (Because us curly girls don't brush our hair daily, all the hair that would naturally shed on a daily basis sheds all at once.)

I just celebrated my 32nd birthday, and for literally the first time in my life, I like my hair. I might even love it? That would have been inconceivable to high-school me, or college me, or even 30-year-old me. And yeah, I'm aware of how privileged I am to have had the time, health and money to have even found this small silver lining amid what continues to be a devastating health crisis. 

Speaking of privilege, I also need to acknowledge that the stakes for my natural hair journey have been low: As a white-passing person working in fashion, I haven't faced the same pressures or policing of my hair someone with darker skin in a more conservative environment might. For decades, as a form of institutionalized racism, Black women (and men) have faced blatant discrimination by employers and even schools for wearing their natural hairstyles, simply because they don't fit a Eurocentric image of "professionalism." It was just last year that legislation was passed to make it illegal to fire someone based on their hair, and it's still only in seven states. (The CROWN Act is now making its way through the senate in hopes of being passed federally.) Clearly, we still have a way to go toward mainstream acceptance of natural hair. I often think about people like Meghan Markle and Kamala Harris and how they have likely felt as though they can't wear their natural hair texture publicly (which is fine, and their choice, and none of our business really), but how much of an impact it could make if they did.

Among the many things I am grateful for is the fact that there is now so much more variety in high-quality textured hair care than there was when I was younger, much of it created by Black female entrepreneurs, which I love. Below, find a few of the products that have helped me on my journey.

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