For every curly girl, there is a story. A tale of torturous years spent in battle with the frizz. Trying everything under the sun to tame wild unruly tresses only to be beaten by them time and time again. The straightening iron was an ally. The blustery weather a dastardly enemy. Oh the shame, oh the frustration oh the agony of bending your curls to your straightening will! Then you hear a voice, one that was always there, but is now rhythmically pulsating in your head pleading “Enough Let me be ME!”. And then the rest is history. Your curls are freed. But what if that voice just happened to be from your most precious of people in your life? For anaesthetist and Mum Upeka Karaiskakis (née Ranasinghe) that is exactly what happened. After years of indecision shuttling back and forth between curls and non-curls, it was her little five-year-old daughter, Aayla, who inspired her to commit to curldom for good! But let Upeka tell you how it was in her own words…
Blame it on my Youth…
For a long time I wrestled with the curly hair I was born with. Despite my dad who had a big afro and being surrounded by Aunties in Sri Lanka with big curls, it just didn’t occur to me that that was also what grew on my own head. At the very beginning, my hair was straight and fine with a little flick. Then puberty hit and the curls emerged in full. It was the late ’80s and so little was known about how to manage frizzy hair. Mum’s answer to taming it was to cut my hair short. It seemed to keep the hair at bay until that awkward phase I was soon to enter where it ended up like a big bush- I still cringe at the thought.
Throughout my teens my hair stayed short but I always coveted the long silky soft tresses I’d see on all the pretty girls at school. It made me feel so horrible that I was instead stuck with a stubborn unruly bush. I spent a lot of time tying it up. I tried products like John Frieda Frizz Ease but it just didn’t do anything. Blow drying was traumatic because it ended up a frizzy mess. Suffice to say I just couldn’t win and that made me really hate my hair!
I needed to remedy this quick! I discovered rebonding- a chemical straightener- and thought finally I would have neat, beautiful hair that looked normal. But it looked horrible and flat, and then after a wash day I couldn’t get it to look right. It was still frizzy and it took endless hours of blow-drying it to look decent – never again.
Then at university I met girls who taught me how to blow dry my hair properly using those heated metal brushes. Soon enough I happened upon hair straightening and I immediately thought “OMG if I had had this at school life would have been so much easier”. It was just so much more manageable and for me that was key!
Out with my mates we all had the same look and I felt like I fit in- unlike those days at school. During that time I got my hair cut regularly by an Italian hairdresser. They cut it really short, used twist layering and thinned my hair which in hindsight was such a bad idea. But as I was straightening it, I just didn’t notice its effects.
Starting work I decided to be a bit more relaxed about my styling. The way I saw it curly hair was for fun, straight hair was for work!” I wanted to be taken seriously in Medicine so would always sport a sleek straight look.
While on holiday in Cyprus I discovered the Curly Girl Method and a little big buzz word that is co-washing. I decided to give it a go and bought some products such as As I Am coconut co-wash. I tried it for six months but my hair always felt heavy and greasy. It just didn’t feel good. I tried ACV rinse (Apple Cider Vinegar rinse) but it really wasn’t for me. So I up and went back to shampooing and straightening again. It was just too hard to keep the faith with my curls.
I always had my straighteners – that safe haven that I could run to when it came to the occasions where I had to look good. But little did I realise how problematic that would be when I became a mother. My husband is Greek- we met on holiday in Greece through mutual friends. We got married in 2012 and eight years on we have two awesome kids, Aayla and Kaenan. I always wanted to be a good role model as a parent. Having struggled with my weight and endured blunt comments from family I never wanted to impart that kind of insecurity to my children. I always made sure to be careful around them and to keep out any negative talk about my appearance.
As Aayla grew I could tell how much she wanted to be like me. We love spending quality playing with make-up and doing fashion shows. Each morning she would watch me get ready for work; a regime that involved me straightening my hair. It seemed sweet and harmless enough for a three-year-old-to do, but one morning out of the blue she said “Mummy can you straighten my hair too?”. A little surprised I asked her why and was even more taken aback. She said “I want to be a princess and princesses have straight hair!” It was then that I realised I had been reinforcing straight hair as beautiful. She had made the association between Mummy becoming beautiful and having straight hair! My mission was clear- I needed to show the other side of it all. That you can be beautiful with curls too!
I went all in; I invested in good products and embraced all the twists and turns of my hair. I’m 2-and-a-half years curl proud now and I just feel more me. At work my curls make me stand out; people started remembering me rather than counting me among the other Asian girls with straight dark hair. I remember when I showed up with curls my colleague who is Afro-Caribbean said “OMG I love your hair, I might cut it off and put on the back of my head!”
Another time upon arriving for a meeting, the person instantly recognised me because they remembered my curls in my email photo. My curls started to become great conversation starters.
In October I got a Devacut at Unruly Curls in Ladbroke Grove. I was so looking forward to it. Not only because I hadn’t had a hair cut in two years but also it would be the first time I got to experience a haircut geared entirely towards curls. The results were amazing and I feel so much more confident. I learnt to love the unpredictability of curls- they really are like a box of chocolates; no two are the same and the results are so different each time. My favourite curl day is the morning after wash day but maintaining the definition is my next challenge.
I started feeling so happy about my curls and to think my own child would be the one to give me that final push – she helped me become my more authentic self! Aayla now five, recently started wanting curly hair too which is the best news I could ever hear. I wasted no time in showing her how it could be done; I washed her hair using a sulphate free shampoo and conditioner and then applied Cantu curl activator. She was smiling with the results and said “Mummy I’m so beautiful” which made me feel so proud and fulfilled. Later that day I took her to visit my Mum who said “(She) shouldn’t have curly hair it’s messy!” but no way did it put Aayla off. That’s my fearless girl!
I feel lucky that my own hair journey has given me the tools and confidence to manage my children’s hair. I joined a Facebook Group called UK Curls Docs – a place for medics to share tips in managing natural hair. It feels good to be apart of a community because so little is out there. It may turn out that as Aayla gets older she might not end up with curls but that’s ok. I want her to know that playing with make up and hair is just for fun and that beauty is what’s inside. Girls have to contend with so many societal and cultural pressures that I want mine to feel strong and valued regardless.