When I hear or read of a kulot’s journey with their hair, it’s filled with some discomfort. Everyone has their own unique experience, but some instances get repeated. The teasing starts young and continues to adulthood, from family, friends, schoolmates, to co-workers. The frustration is felt in the act of hiding their hair in a bun or through regular straightening treatments. The envy is driven by noticing those with straight hair not having to constantly worry about the state of their hair 24/7. The confusion comes from hair commercials and the media putting you in the before photo or not showing your hair type at all. The alienation is when you try to buy shampoo but only see products for ‘silky, smooth hair.’ But that frustration builds, cracks, and the journey to self-acceptance starts to flow out.
Pardon the drama. You can argue that it’s just hair, but hair plays a symbolic, social, or spiritual role in many cultures. It is tied to one’s lifestyle, is a signifier of gender, and a form of self or group expression. Heck, even going without hair gives a statement.
As someone who grew up in the Philippines, having curly hair was a nuisance. Straight hair was, and still is, the standard of beauty. Starting as a child, there were a lot of shameful feelings from having curly hair that I didn’t know what to do with. You see, there was little to no mention of how to care for curly hair. Conversations about curly hair started and ended with a list of adjectives like messy, unruly, dirty, and just too much. I’ve had my hair compared to a taong grasa (homeless) and a bruha (witch). Others have heard ‘Kapag kulot, salot’ (If it’s curly, it’s cursed), which no one really believes anyway, but why is this still being said? And let’s not forget our continued microaggression towards Indigenous peoples such as comparing curly hair with disdain to that of the Aetas. Yeah, full stop, that needs to end.
Hearing how troublesome these words are, you can start to see why it isn’t just hair. It would be amiss to separate my physical self from my identity, but I still wished for it. There were many days I wished I didn’t have to think about it, honestly. But after going through relaxing and keratin treatments, I realized it was pointless to change my natural hair if I was still unhappy at the end of the day. So one day, I cut it off to a bob with blunt scissors around my late teens, much to my mom’s confusion. I knew it would take a long time to transition years worth of treatments to see the hair that was actually underneath. At 20 years old, TWENTY, I finally found a hairdresser who had experience with curly hair. It might be surprising to those that know me now to hear that I hated my hair, but it took years of unlearning and care to get here- just another shame building from Filipino society I had to destroy.
Caption: Embracing poofier hair in high humidity!
There is much to be said about the frustration of curly hair, but there are just as many things to be happy about. Everything about curly hair care I know now I learned online, and I owe this journey to Black women and the folks up at /r/curly hair on Reddit, who were already in conversation about hair acceptance and identity that us Asians have the words for now. The significance of natural hair in Black culture today is seen through centuries of slavery and oppression, the Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s, and the Natural Hair movement ushered through social media. While us Filipinos don’t have a similar turbulent history with our hair, our recent acceptance may be in thanks to the folks who made the Curly Girl Method by Lorraine Massey famous, and especially Black women who paved the way. Our acceptance of curly hair goes beyond being against Filipino society’s standards of beauty; it’s fully decolonizing our narrow perception of hair.
There is a reason I say acceptance because it is easy to look at the beauty of curly hair and love it. Still, we must accept everything that goes with it: like how it’ll poof when it rains, that you can’t 100% escape frizz, and that you still look and are unabashedly Filipino even if you don’t have sleek straight hair.
Curly hair acceptance in the Philippines has gotten a lot better since I left. I’d like to believe my generation had an awakening around the same time and reversed our perception of curly hair from a curse to acceptance. Knowledge and access to it truly is power. Just this past year alone, I’ve seen so many Filipinos online sharing their hair care routine all over social media, something I wish I had when I was younger. I remember fondly having to fumble around Watsons and grocery stores just finding ANY hair product with no harsh ingredients; now it’s great knowing the younger generation has tools to start with. While curly hair is still relatively rare in Philippine media, we come together through online communities like Curly Girl Philippines where you can find Filipinas of every background embracing their hair. I am happy to see acceptance is being encouraged in the community. In my own life, I see this with my younger sisters, who never had to straighten their hair as much as I did. Another great example is Myrza Nortez bringing this knowledge to young members of the Dumagat tribe in Aurora, who were amazed that their hair could curl this naturally, beautifully. I know; I’m still pinching myself about mine, too.
Obviously, I can’t end this essay without sharing what I’ve learned these past years! For anyone out there looking for some curly hair advice, here are some tips:
- Don’t be like me and be careful with piling the oils and butters. (My kinky-haired hairdresser said it’s too thick for my curly-wurly hair type. It can do more harm than good over time)
- With that being said, know what works for your hair.
- Sometimes the technique is better than the product!
- Your routine will change over time, as you do.
- And most of all, be patient, mga friends!
About the Author:
Unna Regino is a Filipino graphic designer born and raised in the Philippines and now based in Tiohtià:ke. They are heavily invested in the importance of intersectionality in design; by ways of addressing design that neglects certain minority groups, or used simply as an added support for these groups through any graphic design needs. Their evolving journey as a Filipino immigrant designer has taught them the value of creating designs that evoke, narrate, and speculate not for, but with people.