I’ve been straightening my hair since the seventh grade. I stood out like a sore thumb back then because I had big, curly red hair, which led bullies to call me things like “frizz ball” and “carrot top.” After one particularly bad day, my mom caught me crying over my hair and suggested we go to a Japanese straightening salon.
I kept going back there for 14 years after that. Once every four months, I'd spend an entire day in that salon relaxing my hair, a literally painstaking process. The salon operated like an assembly line: Someone put chemical relaxer on my scalp, I waited 45 minutes (with itchy eyes and skin), I was washed and straightened, and then a “neutralizer” was left on my scalp for 20 more minutes. After the final blowout, I’d leave with a silky head of hair and a fried scalp. I lived for it.
Once I got into the habit, it felt near impossible to stop. But the last time I visited the salon in 2018, the chemicals seeped out of my hair cap and onto my neck. They left a burn that lasted for weeks; that’s when I put my foot down. I thought, "Why was I doing this? And for whom?" For my inner middle schooler who dreamed of having straight hair? The kids who bullied me? Society?
Every time I treated that chemical burn, I pondered what freedom embracing my natural curls could give me — and if they could still thrive after long-term exposure to chemicals. I decided that it was time to find out — that’s when I discovered something called the Curly Girl Method.
For women especially, our hair can be a defining factor in how we represent ourselves to the world.
I was notorious for my hair as a very young child. My cousins even affectionately referred to me as “Megan Big Hair.” I had a raucous personality with wild curls to match. Red hair runs in my family, but I was the only one of my siblings to inherit it. It felt special and unique to me; it was a superpower that made me outgoing enough to make friends with any stranger.
In my experimental late teens and early 20s, I was still trying to figure myself out, and my hair showed it. I dyed my hair blue, purple, auburn, blonde, and everything in-between. As recent as last year, I dyed my ends bright pink after a hard career shift. What I’m trying to say here is that our hair can symbolize who we are and what we’re going through at any given moment.
And after more than a decade of relaxing my hair, I no longer felt like it was truly showing the world how I saw myself.
I asked myself, “What do YOU feel best with?” The answer? I felt really good with a head of spirals. My personality is lively and outgoing, and I felt like my natural curls would match that best. They were a statement I tried to hide because of peer influence in middle school. In 14 years I spent relaxing my hair, I never took the time to step back and see that I didn’t have to repress myself so much. In those years I went through so much growth — I no longer needed the security blanket of hair that others found “conventionally attractive.”
Oh, this is also the point when I should mention that, as a white woman, being able to embrace my natural curls is in itself a privilege and not at all similar to “the big chop” you hear a lot about in black beauty communities. Struggles that women of color face for their hair textures are not at all the same as mine; racist ideals dictate that black hair is “unprofessional” — this has led to black students being dismissed from school and to job termination for black women in the workforce.
Fully determined to restore my curls back to their original glory, I began researching and quickly realized it was going to take a complete overhaul of my habits — and a whole lot of time for growth.
In total, it took 14 months (from February 2018 until April 2019) to grow out all my hair that had been chemically straightened; all the while I got bimonthly dry cuts from my stylist Elma at Queen of Swords Salon in Brooklyn, New York.
“Dry hair cutting” is one of the first things you’ll learn about when researching curly hair. Cutting curly hair while wet is disastrous; hair dries in a lopsided shape when the curls dry, and shrink as they coil tightly. Up until this point I had no idea that curly hair needs to be cut dry, and I wondered why I looked like a triangle my entire childhood. Hairdressers were cutting my hair wet, that’s why.
I got lucky — I stumbled upon my dry-cutting salon on a walk one day, researched it, and quickly discovered it specialized in dry cutting. Finding a trustworthy stylist who understands your curl type might be a more involved process, though. The first thing about a salon or stylist you should confirm is whether they're familiar with various curl types. Scope out their social media to see their work on other curly customers. If a stylist tries to brush, comb, or wet your curls prior to the cut, RUN AWAY. And they should always use tools that create blunt shapes; avoid thinning shears like the plague.
Many people chop off all their relaxed hair at once before growing their curls back, but my stylist wanted to feel out my natural texture for a while before making me take the plunge.
During the growing-out period, there were so many days I would wake up feeling defeated. Having half my hair follow one curl pattern and the other half follow another made me feel horrible. In the winter I wore a lot of hats, and in the summer I would braid my hair back or crimp it to hide my curls’ inconsistencies. When I finally reached my final dry cut, having Elma cut off the last of my straightened hair was a euphoria I never expected. I had been tied down by it for so long that it felt like I had met myself again for the first time.
Once my untreated hair had fully grown in and my relaxed hair had been cut off for good, there was even more work to be done — enter the Curly Girl Method.
The Curly Girl Method is a hair washing and styling routine that maintains curls by cutting out products with silicones, parabens, and sulfates. It also restricts you from using heat styling, combs, and shampoo. It’s intimidating when you hear it for the first time, right?
The first thing I did to nail down my perfect routine is buy the Curly Girl Method bible, Curly Girl: The Handbook, by DevaCurl founder Lorraine Massey. From that book, I learned that my curls are a combination of 2B and 3A patterns, meaning it’s partially wavy and partially curly. I searched the curl patterns’ hashtags on Instagram and started following curly influencers who had the same hair type such as Janelle O’Shaughnessy and Powerdomi. From there it became easier to absorb information about changing my routine as I scrolled daily.
My hairdresser told me that my curls have "high density and fine curl," and that plays heavily into my routine.
That’s why my hair looked oily when I was using products that weighed down my curls. I'd wondered why shea butter wasn’t working for me despite looking fantastic on someone with a similar curl pattern. Turns out my hair was just a different weight and density. Shea butter was a no-no, but seaweed-based products did wonders for me.
Consulting your hairdresser about what types of products you use is a handy tool for finding the right stuff. Getting salon-level results at home is easier when you use the same products, and your healing hair will thank you for it. Some of the products I mention below may be more on the pricey side, but investing in your hair’s health and bounce will pay for itself in fewer hair appointments, repairing treatments, and heat-styling products.
On the Curly Girl Method, I only wash my hair once a week — and it’s a much more involved process than your standard wash and rinse.
When I enter the shower, I make sure to soak my hair all the way through before putting DevaCurl’s Low Poo Delight Mild Lather Cleanser ($24, Ulta) on my fingers and massaging it into my scalp. I avoid touching my ends so the lather runs down my hair to prevent drying them out. I rinse my hair out entirely, then I flip my head over.
From there, I take a small scoop of DevaCurl’s Heaven In Hair Intense Moisture Treatment ($28, Ulta) and squish it into my hair rather than raking it through. I use a pulsing motion as I squeeze upward — think of the way you swish mouthwash around your mouth after you brush. This penetrates the hair shaft and hydrates deeply. I then quickly swish my hair under the shower stream until my hair is slimy to the touch — I let some conditioner stay in there — and entirely wet.
After I cleanse, condition, and partially rinse my hair, I turn off the shower but don’t get out yet. That’s when styling product comes into play.
THANK. GOD. FOR. STYLERS. Stylers are what help hair keep its spiral, and applying them is what makes distinguishes the CGM from an elaborate rinsing method. With my hair still saturated with water and some conditioner, I rake Kinky Curly Knot Today Leave-In Conditioner ($12, Target) though my hair. No matter what hair type or curl type you have, you should be using a leave-in to heal and strengthen your curls. Lotions are preferred because they give you the control to disperse and work product evenly through the hair, whereas sprays usually stick to the top layers of hair.
I top that off with some Amika Curl Crops Defining Cream ($25, Sephora) and a layer of DevaCurl’s Ultra Defining Gel ($24, Ulta). I find that a combo of cream and gel gives me the perfect amount of hydration and control, but that might be different for you, hair preferences pending. After applying those through my hair, I start slowly scrunching some (but not all) of the water out of my hair.
Then comes the silly-sounding yet penultimate step: plopping.
“Plopping” is basically just wrapping your hair in a T-shirt. Terry cloth towels are horrible for curly hair especially. They can rip strands apart and cause frizz, so it’s best to either buy a microfiber towel or have an old tee on hand when you shower.
To perfect the plop, place your curls in the center of the shirt, twist the ends together, and tuck them underneath the back. I had to watch a YouTube tutorial to really nail the habit — using a long-sleeve shirt also helped me get extra security when I started. Leave the shirt on for 15 minutes to let the product sink in before letting it air-dry.
You can blow-dry curly hair with the right diffuser, but I have yet to perfect using one without looking like a frizzy mess, so I am a wash-and-go devotee for now — it cuts down on time and hair damage anyway. There are plenty of affordable diffusers with stellar reviews from the curly community on Amazon, though.
This whole routine, by the way, is just what works best for me. The thing about the Curly Girl Method is that it’s less of a one-size-fits-all technique and more of a general lifestyle adjustment. You have to experiment with it until you've nailed what's best for you, whether that’s using products that have unapproved ingredients in them or using the occasional heat-styling tool. You are the person who knows your curls the best; you don’t need to blindly follow someone else’s routine.
I’ve picked up a few tips to lengthen my time between washes too.
Whenever I need to refresh my curls’ bounce, I spray ’em with water, then flip my head and shake my roots out with my fingers. Adding tons of product on wash day is key; when I spritz and scrunch to refresh, my hair will do its thing without drying out.
When I go to bed (with my hair always dry), I divide my hair into sections with claw clips using “The Medusa Method” (shown above). Because I have shorter hair, this helps to preserve my curls without stretching them out. For those with longer hair, I recommend putting your hair in a “pineapple,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Pile your curls on top of your head and keep them secure with a loose hair tie. Other curly girls swear by Invisibobble ties for keeping their curls bouncy and crimp-free.
Having a silk pillowcase is a blessing, too. Not only does it protect my hair but it makes me feel like I’m sleeping in a ritzy hotel bed.
After about two months on the Curly Girl Method, I’m feeling great about my curls, which has led me to feel great, period.
Knowing what ingredients are in my hair products makes me feel better about how I’m treating my hair and myself. I never knew what exactly was in that chemical hair relaxant, only that it hurt my eyes and burned my skin. Using alternatives makes me feel happy about what I am putting on my body and altogether makes me feel like I’m giving it the respect it deserves. Living more authentically has helped me to embrace so many parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.
I caught my boyfriend looking at me the other day. He told me that I looked happier than I had in a while and that my curls seemed to bring out the carefree nature I had as a kid, when I didn’t care what people thought of me. I think growing in my hair brought out my inner child, and it helped me find something I had been missing for a long time. It’s my new signature, and I’m reclaiming this large red head of hair with a newfound love of myself.
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