How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Curly Hair

I haven’t always loved my curly hair. In fact, in the spirit of honest communication, I’ll just tell you that in that past I’ve carried around a great deal of resentment and anger towards said curly hair.

I suppose it’s because for a long time I felt as though my hair had betrayed me. You see, when I was little, I had long, straight, blonde hair. I was happy with my long, straight, blonde hair. When we played Babysitters Club in school, I got to be Dawn, the girl from California with the long, straight, blonde hair.

Then things started to change. I hit adolescence, and my hair started to darken. And curl. I remained in denial about this fact for a long time. In my mind, I still was a still a blonde with straight hair. I dyed and highlighted my hair blonde, which was a pain the butt, when for years all I’d needed to be blonde was to go out into the sun.

But more deviously, my hair started to curl. It started to develop a weird, curly layer underneath the straightness. It didn’t even have the decency to curl all the way! Keeping with same hair routine resulted in a bizarre situation where my hair was straight on top and curly on the bottom.

(Note: This is not the best picture of me from this era. The BEST picture my seventh grade yearbook photo, during the brief period when I was attempting to part my hair on the side. This meant that it was straight on one side and curly on the other. Epic! Sadly, that picture appears to be lost to posterity).

I finally got so frustrated with my hair that I cut it all off.

This resulted in my eighth grade yearbook photo, which I DO still have a copy of. Suffice it to say, cutting off all my hair might have gotten rid of the curls, but it created other problems:


I spent most of my high school years attempting to straighten my hair and/or make it blonde. I tried chemical straighteners. I dyed my hair black, to cover up a particularly unfortunate blonde dye job. I even attempted to cut off my curls on my own, using a pair of nail scissors (note: this is not recommended).

In college, I eventually gave up, let my hair become its standard brownish color, and just tried to brush it out after washing it, creating a sort of vague, wavy-ness.

No, I did not dress like this all the time. But you get the idea.

A crisis arose my senior year of college, when I went through a phase of simply pulling my hair back into a messy bun all the time, even when it was wet (another thing about thick, curly hair: it takes approximately eight million hours to dry. I’m sorry, hair, but you’re a slowpoke. You know it’s true.)

But doing this created a bad situation: clearly my hair felt neglected by the sloppy-wet-bun decision and decided to make its needs known by creating an enormous knot. Simply enormous. (I really cannot overstate how enormous this knot was. It was basically a dreadlock. I know how that sounds. But it really was. It looked like a dreadlock. Like the biggest, messiest dreadlock you’ve ever seen).

Then I was cast in a play where I was supposed to play someone in the seventeenth century. The nice person who’d volunteered to do hair was horrified at my dreadlocked situation but had to be polite about it. We compromised by simply pulling it back, trying to hide the massive knot, emphasizing the curls on the side, and applying lots of hairspray.

Hair, you look adorable! You’d never guess the horrors lurking underneath

Unfortunately,you know what happens when someone pulls back already supremely knotted-up hair and applies lots of hairspray? Things get much, much worse.

After the show was over, I went to a hairdresser and confessed the situation. She felt the massive knot, looked afraid, but kept her chin up like a true professional. She couldn’t comb through the knot (seriously guys, think about this: there was no way to send any kind of brush or comb through my hair, even when it was wet: that’s how bad it was), so her solution was to cut through the middle of knot. No finesse, just chop through the center, hoping to save at least some to my hair, though more than half would have to be sacrificed. We looked at each other anxiously the whole time she was cutting through the gigantic knot, like a patient and doctor during a minor experimental surgery.

Luckily, the experimental was a success. She was able — painstakingly — to comb through the half-knot that remained, and she cut my hair into a chin-length bob.

Well, that was it for me. For many, many years after, I kept my hair shortish, afraid of the horrors the under-curls were going to produce. I was afraid of my hair. It needed to be contained.

This woman is clearly terrified by her own hair.

I honestly do believe that there’s something about my hair that’s particurlarly difficult to straighten, or maybe this is just a justification for my lack of success straightening it. The picture below is the straightest it has ever been (after I got a hairdresser to blow-dry it out).  Mesermized, I sat in my hotel room (I was going to a wedding) and took picture after picture of myself (I was also going through one of my periodic denial-of-my-wish-to-be-blonde phases and  had just dyed it a dark, dark red).

Yep, I sat in my hotel room and took "artsy" photos of my hair.

Then, something happened that changed my life. I went to a hair dresser, who said, “The problem with you is that you keep acting like your hair is straight. But it’s not. It’s curly.” She gave me a copy of Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey and I read it while she cut my hair.

It was like someone finally understood me. The way my hair would explode to twice its natural size when I shampooed it. The difficulties of attempting to straighten it, either with chemicals or a blowdryer. The shame and the frustration.

But this was what I got out of the book that really changed everything: Shampoo. It is evil.

You know all those beautiful bubbles that appear when you shampoo your hair? Those are caused by a chemical called Lauryl Sulfate (which, according to Wikipedia, can act as a repellent for sharks). It’s also the same ingredient that makes dishwashing detergent lather up.

That’s the evil thing that causes your curly hair to explode after you wash it. Curly hair can’t handle lauryl sulfate. Neither can sharks.

The solution is: don’t shampoo your hair.

“Ew!” I can hear everyone say in unison. “BUT THEN YOUR HAIR WILL BE DIRTY!”

Nope. It turns out you really don’t need to put dishwashing detergent in your hair.

Just as I spent most of middle school and high school feeling miserable that my hair wasn’t stick-straight, I also got indoctrinated into the notion that you have to wash your hair every day, and that you have to shampoo it. If you didn’t do these things, you were gross and disgusting.

Repeat after me: if you have thick, curly hair, you do not have to wash it every day. You do not have to shampoo it.

So now, I just condition my hair. Once in a while, I use a shampoo that doesn’t use lauryl sulfate. My favorite so far is Aveda’s Moisturing Shampoo. It’s perfect to prevent dryness out and doesn’t cause your hair to explode. And? If you don’t shampoo your hair every day, your shampoo lasts forever. So don’t let anyone mock you for buying expensive, organic shampoo. If they want to wash their hair every day with shark-repellent dishwashing detergent, then let them.

Just to demonstrate, I took some pictures of what happens to my hair after I wash it with regular shampoo:

If this doesn't repel a shark, I don't know what will

Screw shampoo. Seriously.

And now I’m not afraid to say that I love my curly hair. I realize it wasn’t my hair’s fault that I was so frustrated with it for all these years. I put crazy chemicals in it, and I tried to deny its true nature. My hair was curly, and I just didn’t get it.

Now, by no longer shampooing and using a little curl refiner when my hair is wet (I just use Garnier Fructis conditioner and curl refiner; unlike shampoo, I’ve seen no benefit in using fancier products), me and my curls get along like gangbusters.

I can comfortably grow my hair long, and it doesn’t overwhelm me, develop a weird hybrid texture, or knot up into terrible dreadlocks. I realize now that my hair was just acting out. So now I have no need cut it off entirely and prove to the world that my face really can’t handle super-short hair.

I still dye my hair blonde and forget to touch up my roots, though:

As I put in that picture of me in eighth grade I feel comfortable concluding with a picture in which my hair is doing its thing well. You can totally tell those blonde streaks ain’t exactly natural, though (Blonde, I can’t quit you):


ps. I will return with more Adventures in Thrifting, Weird Thrift Store Finds next week. By the way, I just found out about this. DOES ANYONE HAVE THRIFT STORE PAINTINGS WITH MONSTERS PAINTED IN THEM?

  • Catriona MacLeod

    AGREED (photo evidence as proof of curl fabulousness) though people still looks at me funny when I say I don’t own a hair brush.

    • Laura Owen

      Intensely fab curls! I brush a little when wet — otherwise, not really.

  • Lia Towers

    I don’t wash my hair every day, but I do still use shampoo, though many of my fellow curlies have told me the wonders of not shampooing. The shampoo I use is sulfate free.

    I’ve been trying to figure out what products works best with my hair for years. I’ve found that the Redken curly selection is the best for my hair. It’s a bit pricier but I don’t have to use much to set my curls and it doesn’t leave that crunchy feeling and it doesn’t get tangled up in knots.

    I also only comb my curls, I use my comb in the shower when there’s conditioner in it and then I comb through it again after I put some product in my hair. And I get this!

    • Laura Owen

      sulfate-free shampoo can be great — and I agree, only comb when wet. I’ll have to try that Redken stuff. I’m trying to be more shampoo-open-minded. Aveda has helped me with that.

    • Lia Towers

      I’m pretty sure Aveda was sent by the hair gods to help us mere mortals with our hair issues.
      I got to this one guy who has taken every class on hair coloring and curly hair cutting, he works wonders.

  • Kathryn Lentini

    My curls are uneven. Towards the top front of my hair, they’re very curly. I mean VERY. Then on the sides they’re wavy ish. Then at the back they’re curly again. It looks super weird. So no matter what I do, my hair looks bad. Or I can spent a half hour blow drying it so it can be straight. I don’t use shampoo with sulfate in it because my hair is so damaged from straightening it and I’m trying to make it healthier. But I just can’t win. Oh and last summer, I made the terrible mistake of getting my hair relaxed (chemically straightened). I loved it for 3 weeks then HATED IT. I don’t recommend it, but some people love it. Anyways, my point is, there seems no help for those who have my sort of problems. I’m considering getting a perm (no, not like the ones from the 80’s. They’re actually really cool now) once I get my hair healthier. This way they can make all my curls the same curliness.

    • Laura Owen

      I have uneven curls too! It’s another myth about curls that you’re curly “all over”. I have a strange mixed texture too. Tip: if you want it curlier all over, when it’s wet, scrunch the wavy parts up with lots of curl refiner; you can can even hold up it little bunches with clips. Let it air dry. It’s not exactly even all over, but it’s a lot curlier in the wavy portions.

  • Rachel Pody Allen

    This book totally changed my life. I read it a little over a year ago after moving to an arid climate ( I was used to fighting with humidity.) I changed the products I use and now my hair is healthy.

  • Colleen Sweeney

    I also don’t wash my hair daily. But I also highly recommend cutting it regularly, so you don’t get split ends. I can’t afford regular haircuts (I am unemployed), so I straighten my hair because my layers look like crap right now.

  • Meredith Larrabee

    Laura–I am moving to Tucson in a few months and would love to know where you get your hair done. I live in Utah right now and I have a hairdresser that I absolutely love, and I’ve been super nervous about finding a new one! I want your recommendations!

    This is definitely similar to what I went through as well. I love love love Curly Girl and a few of the Deva Curl products (I use their conditioner and styling foam). I decide in the shower whether or not to shampoo based on how my hair feels that day… I alternate between not shampooing, using Loma Awareness shampoo (which my hairdresser gave me as a Christmas gift), and using L’Oreal sulfate free hydrating shampoo (which is the more suds-y of the 2). It works pretty well. I also only ever comb my hair with my fingers (and only in the shower).

    • Laura Owen

      I can absolutely recommend two Tucson places (neither were the site of my Curly Girl epiphany, as that was in Minneapolis, but there are excellent). Both are on fourth avenue, which is a fun area to explore anyway: one is called The Coyote Wore Sideburns, and I’ve been going to Signe there for yonks and yonks. She can layer curl hair extremely well, and taught me that tips for curling the wavy parts while they were wet (lots and lots of wet schruncihng with curl refiner, except she does it way better than me on my own). Also on fourth is the Aveda Elements in Balance salon; I haven’t got my hair did there, but I have done other services, and it’s a pretty great place. Plus, I love Aveda products, obs.

  • Terri Kapuscinski

    This was my life! Straight blonde hair until junior high and then it kept getting wavier and wavier and darker and darker and now it’s curl city. No one in my family has curly hair and I had no idea how to handle it. I feel less alone now! I shampoo every other day, but I had no idea about sulfates, I might have to invest in some new shampoo…I’ve also recently fallen in love with Ouidad products, especially the leave in conditioner.

    • Laura Owen

      NO SULFATES. Your life is going to change!

  • Alyssa Marie

    No offense…this is going to be offensive, but I’m gonna type it b|c it really isn’t that bad… but your hair isn’t curly. It doesn’t scratch the surface of curly. It’s wavy; aka straight hair w|flair.

    • Laura Owen

      LOL, not offended at all. I actually agree that my hair is more towards the “wavy” end of the ‘curly hair” spectrum, but that’s kind of my point — I think even if your hair has A LITTLE bit of curl, you’re better off treating it like curly hair. A lot of moderate-curl/wavy haired folks (like me!) started of life with straight hair and don’t realize they could make their life easier with some curly-hair tips. Ps. in my defense, give me enough conditioner and the willpower not to brush my hair when wet, and I can give you corkscrew curls.

  • Christen Parker

    I had horribly thick, frizzy hair starting around 4th grade and was picked on so mercilessly that once I started junior high, I got my parents to buy me a flat iron and straightened it everyday until about my sophmore year of college( I’m a senior now). It took time for me to be comfortable with my curly hair and realize that whole “it makes me special and different” thing my family kept trying to tell me.

    I only was hmy hair with shampoo like once a week, but I condition it everyday and use this stuff called Silk Therapy on it after the shower to keep it moisturized. I’ll have to look into the Aveda stuff, though.

    From one curly headed girl to another, thanks for sharing your story. :)

  • Giavonna Hillman

    I have naturally reaaaaaally curly hair – I used to hate hate hate it, but now I love it. I don’t shampoo everyday either. I do still straighten my hair sometimes though, especially for work (I only work 2 days a week though teehee – hair stylist-) But when I leave it curly, the only tools I take to my hair are my hands and some product. Never brush/comb it when it’s curly, wet or dry, rather just run product throughout my hair evenly and part it off centered and viola! Beautiful curls like that. Not to mention it reduces my prep time in the mornings by a ton! Great article, thanks for sharing 😉

  • Consuelo Valdes

    Great post!!! I think everyone has to go through a phase like this with their hair regardless of the nuances of it. Straight hair is too straight to some, too thin, or too flat and eventually they see the benefits of it. My hair is super puffy, frizzy, and curly, but I’ve just come to terms with it and embraced it. I don’t brush it when it’s dry unless I want to look like Bellatrix (shown in FB photo) and I just let it be it’s kinky curly self :)

  • Rebecca Marie Herman

    i have curly/wavy hair as well. all throughout jr high and highschol i had pixie short hair, we’re talkin’ hallie berry short! and i felt like as it grew i just couldnt handle the curls. now, i LOVE THEM! i live in houston where its beyond humid and ive learned to just let my hair go as is. shampoo every other day or every 2 days and condition with natural conditioner. the only product i really like to use is either a tiny bit of garnier fructis anti frizz serum, kinky curly spiral spritz, or my personal favorite, homemade beach wave spray. (2 cups warm to hot water, 3-5 tablespoons coconut oil, depending on ur preference and hair type, 2 tbls SEA SALT and some natural scents if you prefer. I also added just a touch of curly hair gel and one shot of vodka (to keep fresh and not clump) spritz and go!

  • Rachel Pryse

    Im not sure that you knew this, but having a cute haircut and curly hair and having to wear your hair in a military style bun is completely impossible. I must be cute, I must be cute, I must be cute!

  • Rachel Pryse

    PS my profile pic has me with straight hair. CHI is a wonderful product line

  • Emma Tukdarian

    AMEN Sister! I straighten my hair. But I haven’t in 3 months. It’s pretty curly. The only picture I have of my hair curly it over a year old.

  • Melissa Nyveld

    I had the same life-long experience until I hit college… and sometimes even then I still cared. It wasn’t until I heard a co-worker talking about her young, 10yr old daughter, labouring every morning with a straightening iron that I finally got it. It made me wonder… what are we teaching young women about accepting their own looks and beauty if at ten years old a little girl things she needs to straighten her hair every morning. That was my “come-to-Jesus” moment… since then, I do very little with it, and focus on what matters.

  • Maria Christine Schuld

    I too have naturally curly hair that started to grey when I was 18. Your story sounds so familiar! The key is to find hair care products designed for naturally curly hair. I use products such as leave in conditioners and really mild shampoos. Comb your hair only when it is wet and use a big tooth comb. No blow drying!!

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