It's time to embrace the curl

01:56, Jun 28 2013
Embracing curly hair
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SOLANGE KNOWLES: And the prize for biggest afro goes to...

The goal was Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997 - it always had been.

There was something about that Titanic hair: the zig-zag part, the flecks of gold, the way the silken wave up front flopped expertly across his brow and caught every bit of light on set.

The obstacle was the mop of curls growing from my own head. The owner of that mop since birth, I was never going to have Leo's locks. But all through my teens I tried.

I flat-ironed it into smooth planes. I wore beanies on hot summer mornings to de-kink it before coating it in goop. Finally, a young hair stylist with a shock of pink hair doused my mop in a Japanese straightening chemical that shrunk the diameter of each hair shaft. She promised I'd emerge from the dome dryer with needle-straight locks - my stubbornly twisty hair proved her a liar.

There are two truths for any bloke with curly hair: one, that they will always have it, and two, they will always hate it. (It's frizzy, it never does what you want it to, it's messy, it's clownish and unprofessional. It will never be Leo's.)

That day in the salon, both truths hit home. It was also the day that I just gave up and let what was happening upstairs just happen. It fuzzed out into a pouf and for the past eight years I've been rocking what a street hawker on Venice Beach once stopped to tell me was "an awesome soft 'fro".


If you're reading this while having to brush stray strands of straight hair from your eyes, you may be wondering: so what? Why does a matter of pure genetics grate on us curly folk so much? But then you'd also be a straight-haired reader in what Rogelio Samson, author of The Curly Hair Book, describes as a world biased in favour of the "straight-haired perspective".

A world where barbers train on straight-haired mannequins, the mad scientist in the movie never cackles from beneath a crew cut, and only four blokes from the 30 hunks on People's three most recent lists of sexiest men alive have a curl in sight.

In this particular world, the curly haired bloke is an oddity. This is true both literally - among those of European ancestry, just 15 per cent of people have curls - and figuratively.

"Longer, curly hair is dirty and it's unkempt - it's like a yard that hasn't been mowed," says Dr Midge Wilson, a professor of psychology at Chicago's DePaul University who has conducted extensive research in the field of "impression formation".

Particularly in a professional workplace: "It's the opposite of 'clean-cut'.

"For women, who have to strive very hard to be taken seriously anyhow, there's a lot of concern about taming their wild, curly hair," says Wilson. "And it's the same for younger men, particularly when trying to establish themselves in a serious career like finance."

Wilson says a mop like my own suggests someone is more likely to be in a creative field - a journalist, say - where curls are more permissible.

Curly hair was at one time the norm, or so some versions of prehistory tell us: the tightly curled locks that allowed air circulation and reduced intense UV radiation for ancient man in Africa only straightened as he moved north, evolving along with pigmentation for the colder climates.

One theory has it that flatter, straighter hair reduced cold airflow to the scalp, warming the head.

Today, we know that curly hair is inherited - in 2009, geneticist Professor Nick Martin, of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, isolated the trichohyalin gene as one that dictates curliness in Europeans - and is the result of a number of microscopic happenings on the scalp: physically, the degree to which a follicle (the sheath from which a hair shaft grows) is hooked; and chemically, the number of connections between sulfur atoms in the hair strands (the more the curlier).

That's a lot for a straightening chemical to overcome.

My hair has long marked me out as "childlike" and that most horrid of things: "cute". I'm pushing 30 and my parents' friends still call me Goldilocks and cop a feel whenever we catch up; after recently meeting a friend's mum, she told her daughter that I would have made an adorable kid ("All those gorgeous curls!").

If life as a ringleted lad has taught me anything it's this: curls don't get the girls, they get the older women.

But Rogelio Samson says they can get both. In his book and on his website, he flings advice out to curly hair sufferers across the planet: don't just buzz your hair off - a buzz cut is like "being mentally castrated" - embrace it.

Find the right "awesome mane" for you. And when you do, the girls will love it: "If you have curly hair that's well looked after, it means that you've taken something that is taken as a liability and made something of it. It shows you have confidence in yourself."

I'm not much for follicularly led motivational talk, but after speaking with Samson I decided to give it a go. I booked an appointment with Tony Vacher of Sterling Hairdressing Parlour & Barber Shop in Sydney's Surry Hills and told him I was after a cut that made the most of my curls.

While there are certain styles you simply can't wear with curly hair, like mohawks, he says it isn't that different.

"You have to understand how curly hair works but you're using the same techniques. The secret is you've got to sneak up on it. You have to build up on the haircut and be prepared to have a little bit of flexibility in the finished result."

Vacher leaves the front of my hair long, the sides cropped close and the crown short so that I can comb the heavily pomaded front across the scalp in a tight wave that crashes on the side with just a lick of curls. Staring in his mirror as he reflects the clean-cut neckline back at me, I realise that yes, this is about as "awesome" as I can look.

As we chat, Vacher says something that curly haired folk normally hate hearing: he envies me my hair.

Growing up in England, Vacher used to watch '70s sitcom Bless This House religiously and developed something of an obsession with British actor Sid James's hair, a silvering wave that sprung backwards from the borders of his receding hairline.

"I used to say to my mum, 'I want hair like that’ " remembers Vacher. He's never been able to get a Sid James cut, he tells me, because his hair is simply too pin-straight. With my waves, he says, it would be a cinch.

It's almost enough to make a curly haired man feel sorry for the straight-haired guy. But only almost.

- Daily Life