Long before I flirted with the frizz, there was one kella who had nailed her curly look; Anjali Tandon- my sister’s best friend’s sister. Compared to the long silky locks of my Indian peers (the archetypal look of an Asian babe), her look was completely the opposite; short, choppy, wild, streaked with coppers and reds. In truth before the hype, celebrity role models, magazine beauty spreads, and natural hair blogs, Anjali was my original inspiration and thanks to her I was able to roll with my own unruly curls.
But little did I know how much her curl style allowed her to overcome a lack of confidence and eventually empower her to resist the cultural stereotype. In her own words, Anjali tells me all about her journey; from an unsure, timid girl blindly wrestling with a wild head of frizz, to a young woman revelling in curl confidence.
I didn’t know I had curls- I don’t think my parents did either! I have my kid photos that hint at what my hair was like. It was always very wavy; whenever my hair was washed it was brushed down, leaving it with a kink. I remember some nights, Mum would put me and my sister Rana’s hair in tiny little plaits. We’d sleep with them in and then in the morning when we’d take them out Rana’s would come out in waves that’d straighten out but mine would turn into tiny curls.
It was like that all the way into my adolescent years. And then when puberty struck BAM! My hair went from being wavy and manageable to a triangle of fuzz! I never had the most confidence, so would hide my hair, putting it up into a bun or ponytail, never daring to let it down. At the same time, I longed to be like my friends who had lovely straight hair and getting all the guys. I decided that I needed a cool look.
And then when puberty struck BAM! My hair went from being wavy and manageable to a triangle of fuzz!
You go Curl!
The idea of going au natural came from my favourite cousin Hema, who had recently moved from Uganda to the UK. I always looked up to her because she was so funky and creative. One day she suggested I go curly. She washed my hair- it was shoulder length at the time- and used some VO5 mousse gel. My parents weren’t so sure about the new look. My mum was very diplomatic, but Dad called me “ghost” (go figure). The lukewarm reception didn’t do much for my confidence so after a few weeks I caved and for the next 18 months straightened my hair.
But then it took ages to get ready and rainy days were shit. I decided enough was enough. I would go back to curly and endure the snide remarks – Dad’s sporadic “ghost” comments, Mum saying I should get my hair professionally straightened, aunts and uncles asking if my hair was a wig or if I had a perm. It all made me more self-conscious but no way was I to put it up again.
At university, I went from accepting my curls to really loving them. At Bath University I stood out; not only was I the only Asian girl in my class, I was the only Asian girl with CURLY hair in my class. I felt distinctive and I think it’s the reason people remembered me. People would ask if I was Spanish or Italian – Mum loved that- which made me feel exotic and unique. I then met my first boyfriend. He was non-Asian, which I think is why he seemed to like the curls and it made me realise that there were guys out there who found them attractive.
At Bath University I stood out; not only was I the only Asian girl in my class, I was the only Asian girl with CURLY hair in my class. I felt distinctive and I think it’s the reason people remembered me.
I always flirted with the idea of short hair. One of Rana’s college friends once came around with really short hair and I thought it would look so cool. At uni I bit the bullet and as the semesters wore on, my long hair was gradually getting shorter. Come final year I was sporting an A-line bob- inspiration from Hema! It was a pretty radical length which again divided opinion. I noticed that when I gradually kept cutting it, my boyfriend would get in a mood. He seemed to prefer long hair as did Mum; after all long hair is the ultimate symbol of femininity. For a moment, I got worried, had I had done the wrong thing? But it was the easiest thing to style (I used my fingers to twist each strand) and so I didn’t care. I eventually ditched the boyfriend for a new love. The love of my curls! They defined me and were a f*** you to all the Indian guys who liked girls with straight hair.
Soon enough I didn’t need to trade off loving my curly look with finding love. After finishing my Masters, I went to Ecuador in search of adventure. It was there I met Alejandro, a guy who truly loved my curls, short and all! He spotted me at a cafe in front of the bookshop he worked in. He said to me my curls were my best feature and what attracted him to me. My curls went down a storm over there. Latino guys were fascinated with them and would seem permanently confused about whether I was from there or Brazil. And then when I replied UK they were even more stumped! Looking back my time in Ecuador defined a turning point in improving my confidence.
My curls went down a storm (in Ecuador). Latino guys were fascinated with them and would seem permanently confused about whether I was from there or Brazil. And then when I replied UK they were even more stumped!
Colour me Bad
Colouring my hair is now a yearly event when I leave the salon, I feel lighter and brighter working those wild streaks of colour – they add to my distinctness.
Like a lot of school kids, I wanted to colour my hair. However, it wasn’t until Hema came by one day with blonde and red streaks in her curls, that I decided to give my curls a wild streak. I went to the hairdressers and got red highlights. Over the years I’ve gone for more daring combinations such as blonde and red and it’s gotten quite a reaction. Everyone loves the red but then when it fades to caramel I get lots of compliments. Often Mum and colleagues suggest I dye my whole head that colour. Colouring my hair is now a yearly event and when I leave the salon, I just feel lighter and brighter – they add to my distinctness.
Curls with a Conscience
The final bit to my journey was aligning my curl care to my ethical values. For a long while I was using mainstream products like Curls Rock and Boots curl cream. But then my friend Laura started an online beauty company that specialised in ethical products. I wanted to do my bit for the environment so ditched my products for more natural brands. I started out buying Boots’ Naked Curls – it’s 97% natural. When Naked Curls ran out I used Aveda Curl Enhancer mixed with The Curl Company curl cream. I also use the “curl styling spray” on days I don’t wash my hair as it gives my curls a bit more bounce! My routine also switched up. I used to wash my hair every day after exercise, but after an injury I couldn’t keep up with the styling so just resorted to less frequent washing and instead reviving my curls with product and some scrunching/finger twisting. It made for better results and now I’m not so rigid with my washing regime.
In the end I really do feel that my curls define me- they helped me figure out who I was and gave me the confidence to feel good about standing apart. I ended up telling Mum about how Dad’s “Ghost” comments were upsetting me so they are aware of how important it is that I keep this look. I do think Asians find it difficult to embrace curls. But when you look at all the advertising in our culture, the ideal is long straight silky hair- maybe it’s our hang up with the Western look- fair skin, straight hair?
In a way I’m lucky. My family isn’t über traditional, but for those who are surrounded by extended family it must be hard to live with the constant judgement and criticisms if you don’t fit the stereotype. I do think we’ve got quite a way to catch up, but I like to think I’m doing my bit to break the beauty mould!
Photos by Jennifer Kaplan