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. ­­

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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. 

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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.

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