How this desi girl learned to stop worrying and love her curls

the FAQ, Main Hoon Na, Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranuat, Ayesha Malik, Poorna Jagannathan

This First Person article is the experience of Rukhsar Ali, a Pakistani Canadian writer who is learning to embrace her natural curls. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I vividly remember when I was seven, my mother dressed me in a beautiful purple sari for Nowruz celebrations in Toronto. She lovingly tied up my poofy hair into a neat braided updo. But as I looked at my reflection in the mirror, all I could think was, “I want to wear it down like everyone else.” 

Growing up in Canada, I'd enviously watch other girls in school flip their sleek long hair over their shoulders, while my hair was usually tied up in space buns with hair ties. I was tired and hurt by the jokes made about my messy flyaways and snap-on hair clips. ­­

  • Instagram sensation Hatecopy uses art to explore her South-Asian and Canadian culture

  • Video

    From Prairies to Bollywood: Record deal shows power of TikTok to get diverse artists noticed

So when Ammi left the room, I ripped out the bobby pins but I couldn't just wish the frizz away. When my mother saw what I had done, she was disappointed and sympathized, but we both felt helpless. Regrettably, that's how I went to prayers that day with all my friends asking me what had happened to my hair. 

It was a defining moment as a brown girl because it made me feel like I wasn't beautiful.

the FAQ, Main Hoon Na, Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranuat, Ayesha Malik, Poorna Jagannathan

I spent most of my teenage years not even knowing I had curly hair. I just thought it was frizzy, as if the official categories for brown hair were: straight, wavy, and just frizzy. I hadn't seen many South Asian girls with curly hair in Canada, and the actresses in Bollywood sported sleek long locks, so I assumed brown curly-haired girls didn't exist. 

If they did, the curly look was considered tomboyish and unattractive, and it was only with straight hair (and a whack of makeup) did the ugly duckling transform into a beautiful desi (South Asian) girl. Case in point, this classic Bollywood romcom, Main Hoon Na, where the female lead gets a hair makeover.

Even though 60 per cent of the world's population has either curly or wavy hair, Indians have always considered straight hair the ideal type, according to the Economic Times of India. That sentiment is found in many other South Asian cultures as well and there's a stigma associated with curly hair — that it's unmanageable and unkempt, and it's better to straighten out that “mess” than to wear it natural.

the FAQ, Main Hoon Na, Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranuat, Ayesha Malik, Poorna Jagannathan

Generations of brown women have internalized this Eurocentric beauty ideal and haven't learned culturally appropriate hair care. My Ammi is an example of this too. Unlike me, she always knew she had curly hair but had no idea how to manage it and started straightening it the first chance she got. I did the same — I picked up a flatiron when I was 11 and forcefully straightened out my potential ringlets. Ammi didn't want me to, but back then, neither of us knew what other options we had. 

I realized I wasn't alone in my struggles when I was 16 years old and I came across a Black woman's curly hair routine on YouTube. 

It was like a lightbulb went off: do I have curly hair?

I spent days binging videos, learning why I shouldn't brush dry hair, what is deep conditioning, and all the curly hair commandments. With a lack of South Asian curly hair representation, I relied on Black women — the community which began the natural hair movement — to educate me on hair care. 

  • Vancouver artist plumbs personal experience for Oscar-nominated short film

  • Photos

    From weaves to dreadlocks, natural to relaxed, Black hair is about celebrating diversity

Not everything worked — because Black hair is not the same as Asian hair. For example, detangling hair in the shower worked but my brown hair required way less product.

After years of heat damage, the process of transitioning my fried hair required lots of trial-and-error with different gels and creams, but I realized that my culture always had its own secrets for achieving beautiful hair that I'd ignored until that point. 

I didn't want to be that desi girl who went to school with pigtails drenched in coconut oil. But I leaned into tradition and held my nose, and my natural curls bounced back in a few months.

the FAQ, Main Hoon Na, Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranuat, Ayesha Malik, Poorna Jagannathan

I wore my natural hair down for the first time to a cultural gathering shortly after, feeling like a rebel and expecting sly looks of disapproval. To my surprise, so many women came up and asked me how they, too, could achieve the same curls.

Even my mother started transitioning to her natural curls and it's a win-win situation for us at home: I teach her curly techniques I learned from YouTube and she creates the best DIY deep conditioning treatments for us based on Pakistani knowledge.

Embracing my curly hair has been empowering and allowed me to own who I truly am. It's given me the freedom to choose however I want to wear my hair and feel beautiful, confident, and unapologetically myself, alongside other South Asian curlies experiencing the same journey.

The best, most unexpected thing that has come out of my curly hair journey? A community of rebellious, supportive South Asian women working to reject Eurocentric beauty standards and reclaim our curls, together. 

And now, when you search for “South Asian curly hair” on YouTube, you get plenty of results. It's a stark difference from when I started my curly hair journey in 2014. A new generation of South Asians are embracing their natural curls with social media making curly hair education increasingly accessible.

South Asian actresses and celebrities like Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranuat, Ayesha Malik, and Poorna Jagannathan have brought their curls into the mainstream, representing a huge population of brown girls and boys who will grow up with curly-haired role models to look up to and learn from — something I wish I had as a kid.

Now, that seven-year-old girl who cried over her frizzy hair is a curly-haired brown woman on a mission. When I wear my hair down, and flip my curls over my shoulder, I'm part of a revolution of South Asian women, owning and slaying their curls, because we can.


Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.

News Related

OTHER NEWS

Mi'kmaw artists use Nike high-tops to bring beadwork to next generation

The past stepped into the present amid piles of beads in Millbrook First Nation this weekend. Mi'kmaw artists Cheyenne Isaac-Gloade and husband Garrett Gloade welcomed young people into a beading workshop ... Read more »

How the Nike Go FlyEase upended the world of adaptive fashion

Louie Lingard is a sneakerhead. He's been one, he says, for years — New Balance, Reebok, Adidas, he likes them all, though Nike is his favourite.  But despite his interest, ... Read more »

Why Indigenous youth are raising awareness of MMIWG with every stitch of a ribbon skirt

The symbol of the red dress has become synonymous with the crisis of hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It's why a grassroots group of Indigenous youth are making ... Read more »

When exercise was taking over my life, this is how I forged a new perspective

This First Person article is by Jacqueline Chen, a Grade 11 student in the TOPS Program at Toronto's Bloor Collegiate Institute. It won the Beyond The Page essay contest organized ... Read more »

Nom, nom, Vietnam - Episode 90: Stir-fried noodles

Stir-fried crispy noodles is a very popular Chinese dish in HCM City. The way the rich, savoury sauce soaks into the crispy fried noodles makes the meal simply irresistible! Read more »

Tiên Sơn Cave, a hidden gem in Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng complex

A part of Tiên Sơn Cave. Photo phongnhacavestour.com HCM CITY Tiên Sơn Cave belongs to the Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng tourist complex that comprises natural scenic spots in the ... Read more »

Try goat meat specialties in Ba Vì District

A dish of Ba Vì’s goat meat. Photo inhat.vn HCM CITY Meats from goat, hill chicken and ostrich are the must-try dishes in Ba Vì District in Hà Nội. Tourists ... Read more »

HCM City considers museum system to boost tourism

MDIS’s School of Engineering and Technology introduces more programmes to meet the increasing demand in the IT and engineering streams. — VNS Photo HCM CITY – HCM City needs to ... Read more »

Young indie bands are top trendsetters in Vietnam's music scene

Indie bands like Cá Hồi Hoang (Wild Salmon) and Chillies are receiving more attention from fans and media. This kind of music has brought new sounds to the Vietnamese contemporary ... Read more »

Meditation and Mindfulness as a Way of Dealing with Stress

Psychologist Matthew Ryan. — Photo courtesy of Family Medical Practice by Matthew Ryan* In the first session, Tom complained of insomnia, restlessness and “worrying about everything”. His partner Julie looked ... Read more »

Try seafood specialties in Cà Mau

A dish of mud creeper with coconut milk. Photo vietnamplus.vn HCM CITY Mudskippers grilled with chili salt and mud creepers with coconut milk are one of the best seafood specialties ... Read more »

Vietnam draw Lebanon in first leg of Futsal World Cup playoffs

Their first leg of Futsal World Cup playoffs with Lebanon was goalless, but it gave Vietnam an edge going into the second leg. Read more »

Fashion industry struggles to stay afloat amid Covid

To survive the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Vietnamese fashion industry is resorting to online sales and creating affordable clothes. Read more »

South Korean League of Legends pro joins Vietnamese team

Kim "Poss" Min-cheol has joined Vietnam's Cerberus Esports, set to become the first foreign League of Legends (LoL) player in the country. Read more »

Tuyền secures Việt Nam's eighth Olympic berth

Trương Thị Kim Tuyền of Việt Nam (right) tries to kick Fariza Aldangorova of Kazakhstan during their semi-finals of the women’s U49kg category at the Asian Qualification Tournament for Tokyo ... Read more »

Taekwondo athlete secures Vietnam another Tokyo Olympic slot

Taekwondo star Truong Thi Kim Tuyen has become the ninth Vietnamese to book a berth to the Tokyo Olympics this summer after entering the finals of the qualifiers. Read more »

Health workers face toughest pandemic battle yet

The fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, starting from April 27, is considered the most severe in Việt Nam since the pandemic began. Doctors of Huế Central Hospital check the conditions ... Read more »

All About Photo Awards honours Vietnamese photographer

Heart of the Sea’ by Nguyễn Phước Hoài. HÀ NỘI — A photograph depicting an aerial scene of fishermen casting their nets on the sea taken by Vietnamese photographer Nguyễn ... Read more »

Goalies Lâm and Trường compete for national team starting spot

Goalkeeper Bùi Tấn Trường is competing for a starting spot in the national team. — Photo thethao247.vn HÀ NỘI — Bùi Tấn Trường and Đặng Văn Lâm are competing to ... Read more »

Three Vietnamese teams to compete in PUBG Mobile Pro League

Eagle Esports, HVNB and Infinity IQ will represent Vietnam at PUBG Mobile Pro League (PMPL) Southeast Asia Championship Season 3 this month. Read more »

Three Vietnamese teams to compete in PUBB Mobile Pro League

Eagle Esports, HVNB and Infinity IQ will represent Vietnam at PUBG Mobile Pro League (PMPL) Southeast Asia Championship Season 3 this month. Read more »

Hidden world of Japanese maikos revealed through photo collection

Together with geisha and geiko, maikos have been considered as symbol successors of the beauty of Japan. Photos courtesy of L’Espace HÀ NỘI — A photo collection depicting Japan’s apprentice ... Read more »

Photo contest featuring labourers launched

A photo by Nguyễn Ngọc Hải submitted to a photo contest Nét Đẹp Lao Động (The Beauty of Labour) launched by the HCM City-based Người Lao Động (Labourer) newspaper. The ... Read more »

Key goalkeeper to join national team early for World Cup qualifiers

Dang Van Lam's club Cerezo Osaka has agreed to let him off early to prepare for Vietnam's important World Cup qualifiers. Read more »

Biennial World Cup on agenda at FIFA Congress

A World Cup held every two years is set to be discussed by football's bigwigs on Friday when FIFA holds its latest Congress. Read more »

Uncle Hồ’s memorial space opens at Children Cultural House

Children visit the memorial space themed “Uncle Hồ with Children” at the HCM City Children Cultural House. Photo courtesy of the organisers HCM CITY — A memorial space themed “Uncle ... Read more »

'Vietnam Idol' winner releases music video of hit song

Singer Uyên Linh seen to perform the song ‘Giữa Đại Lộ Đông Tây’ in the show Xuân Hạ Thu Đông Rồi Lại Xuân (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring again). ... Read more »

Two exhibitions highlight landscapes of Italy and VN

Photos highlight the evolution of the glacial masses, underlining the effects of climate change on the mountain landscape in Italy. Photo courtesy of the organiser HCM CITY — The Consulate ... Read more »

Romance is alive and kicking

MAGIC MOMENT: Liverpool players mob goalkeeper Alisson Becker after his last-minute winner against West Brom. AFP Photo Paul Kennedy There’s a great line in the movie Moneyball when Billy Beane, ... Read more »

Phan Văn Đức signs record deal with Nghệ An after turning HCM City FC down

Phan Văn Đức (left) will stay at Sông Lam Nghệ An until the end of the 2024 season. Photo slnafc.com VINH Việt Nam national team forward Phan Văn Đức signed ... Read more »

HCMC FC sign Brazilian defender from Portuguese club

Center-back Brendon Lucas has joined HCMC FC from Portuguese club Portimonense SC. Read more »

Vietnam World Cup qualifiers to be broadcast on national television

National broadcaster VTV will show live all of Vietnam’s football World Cup qualifying matches in June. Read more »

Workshop on how to turn earth into art

At the workshop, attendees will get in touch with the earth in a different way when they hold it in their hands and form it into the shapes as their ... Read more »

Books printed to mark Uncle Hồ’s birthday

The book Bác Hồ Với Quốc Hội Việt Nam (Uncle Hồ and Việt Nam National Assembly) features President’s role in the National Assembly and government in the first period, starting ... Read more »

Documentary about French photographer to be screened

Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville) by Robert Doisneau (1950). A documentary about him will be presented on Saturday at the VCCA. Photo ... Read more »

The Magic Flute film at Deutches Haus on May 29

A scene from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, performed by German orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker. File photo from berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com HCM City — A film screening of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute ... Read more »

Vietnamese fashion thrives despite the pandemic

Designer Công Trí’s Fall-Winter 2021 collection has been featured in Vogue US magazine. Photo: thanhnien.vn HCM CITY — Despite being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnamese fashion designers have opted ... Read more »

South African woman mends broken heart in Việt Nam

Alushka Linh features singer Hồ Trung Dũng during a concert held on the occasion of Lunar New Year of the Buffalo. Photo courtesy of VTV Ngô Minh Many wonderful stories ... Read more »

The Factory hosts conversation on Vietnamese sculpture

The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre will host an art conversation “The Undercurrents Of Vietnamese Modern Sculpture Pre/Post-1975 Until Now: an Introduction” on May 22. Photo from the organiser’s Facebook page ... Read more »

Thanh Hóa invests VNĐ500 billion to further excavate mausoleum

A new recreated plan of the whole site, which will be excavated soon for restoration. Photo dantri.com.vn THANH HÓA — Last week, local authorities of the central province of Thanh ... Read more »