When I was born, I had curly hair. As my hair grew and spent its early years in braids and pigtails, that fact was forgotten. My mom would trim my hair; sometimes I had bangs that always split down the middle and flipped up at the sides when it was humid, sometimes I didn’t. The night before Easter and any special occasion my sister and I would have our hair rolled into foam curlers. My hair always kept those sausage curls better than my sister. At the beach, my hair would get really full with waves and some curls.
I didn’t think much about my hair texture until 7th grade. Armed with an issue of Teen Magazine with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen on the front rocking bangs and a long layered hairstyle, I entered a hair salon for the first time and had a professional cut my hair. She gave me that exact hairstyle, but neither of us took into consideration that Tiffani-Amber had stick straight hair and I did not.
In 9th grade, I wanted to channel some of the fierceness of Marie Fredriksson from the band Roxette and went to a salon to get a short spiky ‘do. My hair curled up with the lack of hair weight. That week I walked to People’s Drug and bought a box of Nice‘n Easy Blue Black. I dyed it in my parents’ bathroom, getting dye on the curtains, the grout between the pink tile, the bathmat. My mom saw the dye stains before she saw me and my dye-stained neck, ears, and forehead. But the black did the trick, it straightened my hair and I had a pretty fierce ‘do for a 14-year-old and again had curly-hair amnesia.
I’ve had wavy to curly styles through the years since, but I always used tools and products to achieve it. I've tried dozens of gels, mousses, and sprays. I was a L'Oreal Studio Line devotee for much of my middle and high school years, well documented in my high school senior portrait.
For much of my adult life, the way I achieved curls was by rough drying my hair that has some product in it, then hitting every strand with a curling iron (sometimes a 1”, sometimes a mix of barrel sizes to make it look more “natural” per an interview I read with Debra Messing’s hairstylist on the set of the original Will & Grace) and holding everything in place with hairspray or texturizing spray. It was a pain in the ass, but it held up for a day or two and fared much better than the times I pretended to have straight hair with a flat iron. Much of my life was spent with a messy topknot or ponytail, with or without clips and Bobby pins to hold back the extra unruly parts.
As I’ve gotten older, my hair has thinned and therefore become limp. I tried bangs, layers, ear-length hair, shoulder blade-length hair, and everything took a lot of effort to look mediocre. I spoke to my hairstylist. He suggested I embrace my natural curl and coax it out with cuts and products. I currently had a wavy textured shag with bangs; he did a snip here and there and left conditioner in my hair and it bounced up into tiny little ringlets. We looked at photos of women with shoulder-length curly hair with bangs, I said that’s the direction I wanted to go in.
I followed my stylist's direction of leaving in some of my conditioner as product and allowing my hair to air-dry. The curls were really thin and close to my head, making me look older and balder. As an influencer and website owner, I know there are influencers and websites dedicated to every niche on the planet; I went in search of those who focus on curly hair, specializing in thin curly tresses.
The Curly Hair Community Intimidated the Hell Out of Me
The curly hair community is a passionate bunch. Most spent the first part of their life cursing their hair. They had war stories of short haircuts gone very wrong before Picture Day or their Bat Mitzvah or Homecoming. Flashbacks of their parents yanking brushes and combs through their unruly hair while cried in pain. Flat irons, so many flat irons and chemical treatments. They became adults and like me, had curly hair amnesia. But through understanding The Curly Girl Method, AKA CGM, and knowing what methods and ingredients to avoid, they transformed their hair into healthy, glossy ringlets. I did some reading, I started following curly hair accounts on Instagram, and I bought The Book.
When I ran out of the shampoo and conditioner I'd be using for years, I headed to Target to buy some CGM-approved products and start The Process. I didn’t like the results, I shared my thoughts on Instagram Stories. I received literally hundreds of DMs about this topic. One DM would suggest one product, the next one would tell me to never use that product. I received so much conflicting advice, and a lot of people criticizing me for my lack of knowledge and how damaging that could be with the size of my platform. It wasn’t as though I was anti-vaxx, I was just sharing that I didn’t like a CGM-approved gel. Any time I made any mention of my hair, I received ten times as many DMs all with their advice of what worked for them and criticism that I wasn’t adhering to their previous advice or the CGM. It was hard to be thankful because it was so overwhelming and there was no consistency for product, process, or method. It was also overwhelming to receive so much criticism for my hair. No one cared when I was frying off my ends with a flat iron or making my hair look as natural as a wig with bad at-home dye jobs. Hell, I didn’t even get as much pushback from sharing my political views as I did with my curly hair products and methods!
I started following more Instagrammers that were suggested to me in hopes to find some with my hair texture that could suggest new methods for getting the kind of curls I desired. These accounts shared videos every day of their styling method, regular hauls of products, discussions of how long before a washing. They’d receive thousands of comments discussing the intricacies of the CGM or whatever method that influencer had embraced or invented. I joined Facebook groups for curly hair; they were intense. People would discuss the merits of one gel versus another for days on end and freak out over having to travel or work out or have an event that would interfere with their hair routine and schedule. Newbies were raked over the coals for asking newbie questions and daring to use non-CGM approved products. Having curly hair wasn’t a fact like having wrinkles or dry skin, it was a lifestyle. And for some, it seemed as though it was also a religion.
The Curly Hair Community went from being a resource to intimidating the hell out of me. The 64-page handbooks on Reddit, the 20-step processes, the plopping and prayer hands and scrunch the crunch, the balancing of hair with special conditioning treatments or cooking rice to rinse my hair in the leftover water. The detoxes, the Church of one gel or another, the constant purchasing of new products and gadgets to achieve hair nirvana and how you would be torn to shreds if you dared to use something not blessed by the Community. I just wanted to break up with my curling iron, not join a new house of worship.
For every five people who have commented, emailed, and DMed me advice for or criticism of my curly hair, there has been one person asking for my advice and suggestions on how to embrace curly hair. And I’ve been terrified to share my story for fear of the Curly Hair Community. Those of you who are such passionate curly hair evangelists have intimidated me so much I have put off my curly hair experience until now.
Sharing My Curly Hair Journey
I’ve been coaxing out my curl for over six months and still don’t have a perfect method that I love, but I am glad I decided to go curly. I am not an expert, I am not trying to be an expert here or any time in the future. I use products that not even my stylist approves of. Some days, like the day I am writing this and of course, have nowhere to go, my hair looks amazing. I have nicely-shaped shiny curls that aren’t frizzy but don’t look plastic. Other days, I look like Roseanne Rosannadanna and other days I look like someone’s grandmother with tiny wispy curls attempting to cover an exposed scalp. Anyway, my curly hair journey thus far:
First Step into Curly Hair Life: New Wash by Hairstory
I was drawn in by these cool women on Instagram with beautifully textured hair. Wavy, curly, it looked natural and relaxed and how I wanted to be. I wanted hair that looked as though I opened the car windows, had quickie sex, or just whipped off my helmet while straddling a Vespa. It seemed such hair could happen with one $40 bottle of New Wash. On top of it, the brand Hairstory had great ethics.
I searched the Internet and at the time, I could only find two non-Hairstory sponsored reviews for New Wash – one by Cool Mom Picks that was void of any photos or useful details, and one at Women’s Health that gave what seemed like a negative review, but I felt was user error and also by a woman with hair of a texture and style drastically different from mine. It ended up selling me on buying a bottle.
I watched the videos, I totally was down with massaging the hell out of my scalp (even bought a shower massager… think strong hands do a better job IMO) and rinsing like crazy. My husband tried it and hated it, but after two washes I could feel the difference in the shower on how New Wash did remove oils and product but not in a typical foamy squeaky-clean manner nor in a conditioner manner. The texture was more like body lotion, and I truly felt like I was changing my hair with each wash. It didn’t strip out my hair dye, and after about five washes I didn’t seem to need any hair products to get my modified shag with bangs to look textured and cool. However, using New Wash didn’t turn me into a Curly Girl, just a wavy girl who some days had Cool Girl hair and some days had sorta greasy looking wavy/curly hair.
I also stopped brushing and combing my hair and began drying it with an old t-shirt. Dozens DMed me about “plopping” and I saw the videos, but it seemed hella complicated (and goofy looking) especially for my relatively short hair. I just did a turban with my head going through the t-shirt neck, and twirling it with my head upside down so my hair would be on the top of my head and I could tuck the ends of the shirt into the back for a neat and secure head covering. This worked for me; no frizz, curls stayed clumped, had a bit of volume. However, when I finished my bottle of New Wash, I decided to try something else.
Second Step Into Curly Hair Life: Kristen Ess Cleansing Conditioner
I went to Target to get some CGM-approved products and forgot my list of said products. So I wandered the aisles reading labels and just seeing what looked appealing. I saw Kristen Ess Cleansing Conditioner mentioned somewhere recently… was it a Facebook group for curly hair? A curly hair influencer on Instagram? A post on a Reddit board? I liked the look of the line, I liked that the product was cruelty-free and sulfate-free. I bought a tube.
I went on a two-week family road trip and took the tube with me. It seemed way easier than two bottles of products, and I felt after my weeks with New Wash my hair had become accustomed to being washed less often and not needing product. I still brought along my curling iron and Oribe Dry Texturizing Spray in case things were looking too rough and I had to go back to my old styling ways.
Kristen Ess did me well. My hair didn’t clump as nicely as with Hairstory’s New Wash, but it seemed to curl up more and I had more volume without grease. It had more frizz and was more susceptible to the weather, but it wasn't bad. However, I felt I could do better.
Third Step into Curly Hair Life: A Ouidad Routine
I befriended this amazing woman who worked for a clothing brand I regularly collaborated with. She saw on Instagram that I was embracing my natural curl and let me know she now worked with Ouidad (pronounced wee-dad) and would I like to try their products? I let her know my hair needs and a week later, a box arrived from Ouidad. In it was:
- Advanced Climate Control Defrizzing Shampoo
- Curl Recovery Whipped Curls Daily Conditioner & Styling Primer
- Advanced Climate Control Heat & Humidity Gel
- Advanced Climate Control Detangling Heat Spray (I've only used this when I've dryer dried my hair)
- Advanced Climate Control Restore + Revive Bi-Phase
- Mongongo Oil Multi-Use Curl Treatment (I know many swear by this but I think my hair is too fine for it and the smell isn't my jam)
I began using it the next day. I started with the shampoo, but only using a little bit. By this time it had been over three months since I had used a traditional shampoo. I then used the conditioner and rinsed it out completely. Added the gel to t-shirt turban-dried hair and let it air dry. Wow… not shabby! No crunchy or heavy curls, no frizz. I raved on Instagram and found that many people do not believe in using Ouidad and told me how the brand is not truly CGM-friendly and may damage my hair. I was finally experiencing the kind of curls I desired and on a consistent basis, I didn't see why I had to change especially since I used CGM-approved products and had negative results. I began playing with the products from Ouidad to perfect my routine.
- Day 1: Use a bit of shampoo, a dollop the size of a garbanzo bean or big blueberry. Focus on the edges of the hair (forehead, nape, etc.) and then move up to get the crown. Rinse, then put a cherry tomato-sized blob of the conditioner (which is in a mousse container but comes out thick like cake frosting) in my hair, raking it through swith my fingers, scrunching and pressing to be sure it gets into all my hair. If some gets on my scalp no biggie, but I focus on the strands. Rinse out 95%, while still sopping wet add the gel, enough to cover most of my palm (the gel is watery so I can’t compare it to a vegetable or legume) and then pile it into a t-shirt turban while I get ready. Once dressed, I remove the turban, spiral a few pieces around my fingers and rearrange my hair so my bangs are where they need to be and most of my hair is pushed towards my face. I then don’t touch it until it’s 100% dry. Once completely dry, I scrunch to get rid of any crunchiness.
- Day 2: Either I wet it in the shower or wet it with a spray bottle of plain water. I then spray it with the Restore + Revive and add maybe a quarter-sized bit of the gel if my hair doesn't feel too product-y, t-shirt turban it if it’s really sopping and I’m not wearing a bathrobe or else just rearrange it and let it dry, then scrunch to get out the crunch.
- Day 3: I wet completely in my shower and do a cleaning with the conditioner. I rinse it out 95%, add a palm’s worth of gel, turban, then rearrange.
- Day 4: Same as Day 2
- Day 5: Same as Day 3
- Day 6: Back to Day 1.
I go to the gym every weekday morning and I am a sweaty person who sweats a LOT from her head. I’ve tried letting it airdry, I’ve tried just using the Restore + Revive spray on it dry, it doesn’t work. My hair needs to get at least damp to dilute the sweat to turn it into anything decent and it doesn't clump nicely unless it gets sopping wet.
Fourth Step in Curly Hair Life: Winter is Coming
I ran out of the conditioner in mid-October, right when my hair started acting a little different thanks to the colder temps and dryer indoor heated air. I made a purchase at Ouidad and got:
- More of the Curl Recovery Whipped Curls Daily Conditioner & Styling Primer
- VitalCurl+ Soft Defining Mousse
- VitalCurl+ Tress Effects Styling Gel
I was looking for something that would maybe hold my curls longer than the humidity gel without weighing them down like the CGM gels I had tried in the summer. Ouidad had a gift with purchase and deal on travel sizes so I also got minis of:
- Advanced Climate Control Defrizzing Conditioner
- Ultra-Nourishing Cleansing Oil Shampoo
- Ultra-Nourishing Intense Hydrating Mask
- Moisture Lock Leave-In Conditioner
- Revive & Shine
I decided to “detox” my hair with a travel size sulfate-laden shampoo from a hotel and try some of the new products. The Tress Effects Styling Gel seemed to hold my hair together better and not get fizzy or limp, though the Humidity Gel still made my hair feel softer and bouncier. The mousse made my hair look very '80s with lots of volume but no real defined curls. I tried both together, I tried the mousse with the lighter-weight Heat & Humidity Gel, I just didn't like it. The Climate Control Defrizzing Conditioner didn't hold a candle to the Whipped Curls. The Cleansing Oil Shampoo made my hair feel heavy, as did the Leave-In Conditioner. I like the Hydrating Mask and have used it twice; it's a nice treatment once every few weeks. The Revive & Shine is great for non-wash days when hair may look a bit dull or has experienced too much dry shampoo.
I also bought some clips off Amazon to hold bits of my hair up off my scalp while air-drying to give it more volume. They work… when I remember to use them! I put some in my toiletries bag so at least I remember to use them when on travel.
I tried diffusing. I bought the Deva Curl diffuser, and tried the one that came with my Hot Tools dryer. Both would give me way more volume, but even if I didn’t touch my hair and go on the lowest settings my curls would be thinner and when I’d scrunch out the crunch it would just look sad.
My winter solution is to leave a bit more of my conditioner in my hair after my shower, and on my non-wash days spray some Restore + Revive Bi-Phase into my wet hair after adding the gel. Add the clips if I remember and let air dry. This is doable since I work from home, but I need to find a solution when I have less time as I can’t leave the house. I did buy one of these dryers a while ago, but I never use it because it’s so big and awkward I need to pack it up and find a place to set it up.
My Curly Hair Future
I have spent the majority of my life treating my hair like crap. Dying it, bleaching it, highlighting it, lowlighting it. I’ve gotten crazy haircuts, and even given myself some of my craziest cuts. I’ve ironed it, both with flat irons and with my clothing iron (thank you Tracy Turnblad for the inspiration). I’ve curled it with foam rollers, hot rollers, curling irons. I’ve hard curled it, teased it, braided it, even tried to dread it. And I’m over it.
I am almost 45 years old, and I am comfortable with my age and that I look my age. I do love going to the salon to get cuts and color; it’s an enjoying ritual for me and I love balancing it with relatively easy-care for the weeks in between visits. I don’t love the process of styling hair. I want hair that will age with me. It will embrace the changing texture as more grays come in, and will be more forgiving if the time comes when I want those grays to be seen. Hair that can let me roll down the windows, get splashed, and glam up last minute for an event. Hair that will let me dance all night, get sweaty, get silly. Hair that only needs a few minutes to go from bedhead to presentable. Hair that is less Real Housewife, more Aging Badass Rockstar.
And because I am almost 45 and have fewer f*cks to give, I will no longer feel intimidated by the Curly Hair Community. They’re trying to be a resource, and they are a wealth of knowledge, overwhelming as it may be. They are there for those who are looking to get a degree in CGM, those who have deep-seated hair resentment and are looking to be cleansed by the rice water and find a community of like-minded souls who are seeking hair salvation. I respect them, I thank them for their hard work, but I just can’t convert. My hair may look like Kip Winger some days, but the freedom I have achieved is worth it.
Where to Donate Opened Beauty Products
If you're like me and you've tried a lot of products that just didn't work and don't have any friends or family who would want to finish that bottle of gel or conditioner, consider Project Beauty Share. Project Beauty Share collects personal hygiene, cosmetics and beauty products and distributes them through non-profit organizations that serve women and families overcoming abuse, addiction, homelessness, and poverty. Click this link to learn what products Project Beauty Share accepts. What I do is grab a Priority Mail box from the post office and leave it open in my office. When I try products that don't work, I place them in the box. Once the box is full, I stuff it with old magazines and newspapers to keep everything from banging around, tape it up and mail it out. Project Beauty Share doesn't offer free postage and I don't get a tax receipt, but I find the minimal shipping fee worth it to have these otherwise good products get into the hands of those who will benefit from them.