Curly hair makes a comeback: How the pandemic has led women to embrace their natural texture

More specialist salons and businesses have sprung up to help shun the 'straight is beautiful' misconception

Doaa Garwish, founder of The Hair Addict in Cairo, says she grew up watching shows and commercials where the lead actress always had slick straight hair, while characters with frizzy, curly hair were made fun of.
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The Curl Therapy salon closed its doors only weeks after launching last March. It was the best thing that could have happened to its founders, mother-daughter duo Mony Rahman and Sara Adel.

“We like to think that the world going on lockdown and people staying in prompted more women to begin embracing their natural hair,” says Rahman. “When we opened again, the world, more than ever before, was ready for us.”

The Dubai salon, after all, was launched with the intention of being “a safe space where any trauma from society’s toxic beauty standards can be healed”. The Jumeirah Village Circle salon offers natural treatments and cut and colour services for women with curly hair, with a focus on helping reverse heat damage and repair split ends.

“A common misconception about curly hair is that it’s strictly a specific ethnic texture, but in reality, there are curly haired girls everywhere, from Asia, Africa, Europe, etc,” says Adel.

Most of what we hear revolves around how curly hair is unprofessional in the workplace, inappropriate at weddings, and unkempt in a school setting

The natural hair movement

Demands for inclusivity have rocked the beauty world in the past few years, and those in the industry say the time is ripe for initiatives celebrating naturally textured, curly and kinky hair. A huge segment, they believe, remains largely under-served by the mainstream beauty market, which tends to promote treatments that straighten the hair, conforming to western beauty norms.

Many black women wear their textured hair in weaves and cornrows that, says Kayleigh Benoit, founder of inclusive fitness headwear brand Bind London, serve as “protective” styles.

“This means we don't really need to touch or manage our hair for a number of weeks, sometimes months. Minimal manipulation of our hair with a protective style is a great way to maintain it, especially during dry winter months,” she explains.

Kayleigh Benoit created sweat-wicking headbands, wraps and hijabs so women can exercise without having to worry about frizzing. Courtesy Bind London
Kayleigh Benoit created sweat-wicking headbands, wraps and hijabs so women can exercise without having to worry about frizzing. Courtesy Bind London

Treatments that change the texture or the nature of the hair, on the other hand, use chemicals that harm the scalp and hair, and make it more prone to dryness, breakage, frizz and split ends, says French entrepreneur Rym Yessad, who founded in Dubai to provide clean and natural products for women with curly hair.

“The issue with these treatments is that they begin a vicious cycle, as the hair is never really repaired after that,” she says. “Even worse, a lot of women decide to do these treatments for their daughters, sometimes at a very young age.”

Combatting the negative effects of chemicals and boosting self-confidence also drives Doaa Gawish, founder of Cairo’s The Hair Addict, which stocks natural and vegan hair products and tools.

"Our message is to always remind women to stand their natural ground. They need to be reminded that they are beautiful the way they are, and that taking care of their beauty through natural and sustainable methods will do their hair and self-esteem a big favour," she says.

Straight hair sets a dangerous standard

Unfortunately, textured hair has rarely been pictured favourably in the mainstream. “You would never find an actress on TV or in a commercial without slick straight hair, and only the characters that are meant to be ‘ugly’ or made fun of are the ones who show up with frizzy, curly hair,” Gawish says.

We spent our years manipulating the texture of our hair to be something it is not. We must do better for those who will grow up watching us

Rahman adds that curly hair is often treated as a “problem”, to which the only solutions are flat-irons, straighteners and keratin treatments. “It’s alarming to see how misrepresented curly hair can be. Most of what we hear revolves around how curly hair is unprofessional in the workplace, inappropriate at weddings and events, unruly, messy and unkempt in a school setting and, I’m sad to say, ‘unappealing’ altogether,” she says.

Benoit first transitioned to wearing her hair from straight to natural in 2018, around the time the blockbuster film Black Panther was released, a movie praised for its celebration of "blackness".

“It was very empowering – a part of me felt that the natural hair movement became diluted in the curly hair movement,” she says. “It is a very special moment when a woman embraces her Afro-textured hair, when the media have fed us a narrative for so long that long straight hair is a preferred beauty standard.”

Increasing demand for inclusive hair concepts

With the natural hair movement gaining headway across the globe, the Middle East market is now brimming with options, from sustainable products to tech innovations – such as The Hair Addict’s newly launched Infusion Hood (a collapsible cap with minimal heat to be used with conditioning treatments).

According to the 2018 TextureTrends Consumer Insights Report, women with textured hair spend more annually on products than those with straight hair. It also found that women with textured hair are more likely to seek products formulated with natural ingredients.

“The demand currently far exceeds the supply, due to the relatively quick shift of the masses from getting their hair permed, to wanting specialised natural hair products,” says Gawish

Yessad says that until recently, sourcing natural hair products for curly hair meant paying exorbitant shipping costs to import them from abroad. She cites silk pillowcases as an example, explaining that silk helps moisturise natural hair and prevents breakage and frizz. “The only options we had in the UAE were very costly, more than Dh250 for one pillowcase,” she says, adding that offers products more than 30 per cent below the market price.

Business opportunities beyond beauty

Benoit, meanwhile, noticed a gap in the fitness accessories market, after learning that 45 per cent of black women in the UK avoid exercise because of their hair.

“Due to the beautiful kinks and coils we have, it requires a different level of attention compared to straight hair to ensure it is properly hydrated and moisturised. Quick wash and gos in the shower for others are whole wash days for us,” she explains.

For Bind London, she created a range of athleisure headbands, bandana scarves, head wraps, hijabs and durags targeted at women with diverse hair types. "All items are sweat-wicking, odour-absorbing, and abrasion resistant. I wanted to get that sweet balance of functional and fashionable," she tells The National while on a trip to Dubai to discuss strategy and stockists for her business.

Setting a good example 

The solution to enacting further change in the beauty industry lies in activism. “We need to teach the new generation to be proud, loud and bold,” says Yessad.

Rahman adds: “We owe it to the youth of this generation, who have proven to be extremely vocal and powerful when it comes to challenging and demanding their rights, and it is undeniable that many brands have taken initiative to listen, understand and create positive change.

“Many of us grew up watching advertisements, media and pop-culture segments that claimed that beauty lies in a certain type of hair and, as vulnerable children, we believed it,” she says. “We spent our years manipulating the texture of our hair to be something it is not. We must do better for those who will grow up watching us.”