Photo: Tamas Pap/Unsplash
- Extensive research has demonstrated that there are a number of factors, including genes, cells in the hair follicles and chemical bonding in the hair fibres, that decide hair shape.
- Some developmental genes have also been implicated in shaping hair strand curls – which means curl shape and pattern are determined (to some extent) even before you’re born.
- Yet stereotypes about the desirability of straight hair and the dubiety of characters of those with curly hair persist, in advertisements and in cinema.
- Understanding the science behind curly hair could help normalise it, liberate it from unhelpful myths, and help us move away from Eurocentric beauty standards.
Bengaluru: In a salon running a campaign for their hair care, a curly-haired girl is crying that her hair is ruined because of “two kg frizz”. Enter a hairdresser, who with her magical hands transforms the girl’s luscious, curly hair into poker-straight hair, and the girl is happy with this miraculous transformation.
This was an advertisement by Lakmé, a leading salon chain in the country in India, released a few weeks ago. After major backlash on social media for glorifying straight hair over curly hair, Lakmé took the ad down.
But such idolisation of straight hair and condemnation of curly hair has been happening in the mainstream media since time immemorial, and not as obviously as it is today.
Imagine a horror-comedy movie with female identical twins as the leads. One of the twins is a ghost while the other is an ideal, virtuous daughter-in-law in a typical Indian joint family. How do we differentiate between the evil twin and the good twin? Well, obviously, the evil twin is the one with unkempt curly hair, while the good twin has long, silky and straight hair. This is part of the plot of the recently released Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2.
This stereotype isn’t limited to Indian popular culture. Remember Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies? Deranged, wild and evil, she was portrayed with unkempt curly hair. In Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis, the main character, undergoes a magical transformation where her frizzy curly hair becomes straight when she finds out that she’s the heir to a throne.
Today, we know the science behind curly, wavy and kinky hair. Extensive research has demonstrated that there are a number of factors, including genes, cells in the hair follicles and chemical bonding in the hair fibres, that decide hair shape. Some developmental genes have also been implicated in shaping hair strand curls – which means curl shape and pattern are determined (to some extent) even before you’re born, and aren’t entirely in your control.
So why are there stereotypes against naturally curly hair? Why is it that people who are unruly and rebellious are shown with curly unkempt hair while the disciplined, the virtuous and the righteous all feature poker-straight hair?
Some of these stereotypes are deep-rooted in systemic racism. In the 15th and 16th centuries, hair and hairstyles were very important for Black people. Not just an aspect of beauty – hair was a part of one’s identity, as one’s tribe, social status and religion could be identified from the hairdo. They would use special combs and oils to do their hair in the most elaborate styles, often taking days to come up with intricate and ornamented designs.
These habits underwent a drastic change with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Slave-owners and -traders cut off their prisoners’ hair in an attempt to erase their sense of culture and identity. When their hair grew back, the prisoners neither had the time nor the resources to tend to it. Without their herbs, butters and oils, the people resorted to bacon grease, butter and kerosene. It was under slavery that stereotypes about Black hair were constructed. To have the curly, wavy, kinky hair typical of Black people was to have the ‘dirty’ hair of slaves.
Slavery began to be abolished in the 19th century – but many Black people felt the need to blend in with the White population, which was still mostly racist. Through advertisements, the mainstream media convinced them that they could get ahead if they changed their hair to be more pleasing by straightening it.
Some Black people, especially women, responded with extreme measures, often using intensive methods to chemically straighten their hair. It wasn’t uncommon for them to apply chemical mixtures like soft paraffin or lye mixed with potato on their hair, and comb it with a stove-heated iron comb to give it a silkier appearance.
When the civil rights and Black pride movements erupted in the 1960s and 1970s in the US, Black people revisited their roots and the Afro became the style of choice. In the 1980s, Black people also started filing discrimination lawsuits over grooming policies at work. As of July 2022, 18 states in the US had prohibited discrimination based on hairstyle and texture.
In spite of this, a study published in 2020 found that bias against Black women with natural hair limited their recruitment because employers (of all ethnicities, but most of whom were White), found Black people’s hair to be “unprofessional”. While about 60% of the European population, 53% of the Asian population, and almost 100% of the African population has either curly or wavy hair, societies at large have considered straight hair to be ‘ideal’.
Both in the US and in India, students sporting natural curly hair have also been bullied in school. A whopping 86% of Black teens who experienced discrimination in the US have said they experience hair-based discrimination by the age of 12. The bullying could start with seemingly innocent name-calling but could eventually demolish the self-esteem of their peers with ‘unusual’ hair and traumatise them. The singer Peter Andre recently told Times of India that he still struggles to embrace his naturally curly hair because of racist bullying in school.
All this discrimination, in spite of abundant research revealing the little control we have over the way our hair looks. Hair grows from our scalp out of tiny structures called hair follicles. They are like microscopic pockets and from the centre of which the hair fibre emerges. The hair follicles contain different types of cells. Some of them divide rapidly and are known to be the driving force for hair growth.
This zone of actively dividing cells is arranged in a symmetrical pattern for people with straight hair and in an asymmetric manner around for people with curly hair.
But what determines whether a follicle is asymmetric? Using genome-wide searches, researchers have uncovered evidence that genes that control various processes during development of the embryo (i.e. developmental genes) are partly responsible.
Curly hair follicle compartments also express many proteins in hair fiber in asymmetric fashion. One of these proteins is a type of keratin – a protein with molecules that can form strong chemical bonds with similar molecules in other keratin. These bonds are more common in curly hair, because the follicle’s shape and angles allow different regions of the hair to come closer.
Understanding the science behind curly hair could help normalise such hair and liberate it from unhelpful myths and taboo – and help us move away from Eurocentric beauty standards. The stigma and stereotypes can be traced back to slavery and racism but advertisement campaigns like the one by Lakmé and the depiction in films of curly-haired people as being unruly keep them alive for no discernible reason.
Seeing celebrities sport their natural hair will be a step forward in the right direction.
Sneha Khedkar is pursuing a PhD in biological sciences at the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Bengaluru.