There’s a great quote by the film producer Robert Evans (formerly married to Ali MacGraw; brought Chinatown into the world; author of the memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, and the star of its attendant documentary): “If somebody compliments me on my tie, I’ll go home and I’ll shred that tie. I don’t want to make the tie look good—I want the tie to make me look good.” Besides the elegant symmetry of that statement, Evans has shed light on a concept that’s awfully true in style, as it applies both to fashion and beauty: It’s terribly easy to let one great feature overwhelm your presentation. Ever since I first read that quote from Evans in some old magazine somewhere, it’s rattled around in my head as something to take into consideration, a possible ethos.
Because even if I don’t have a really fantastic tie that I could go home and shred, when it comes to beauty, I do have something similar—something that’s the first thing to come into the room: big hair. My Irish/French Canadian heritage means that my naturally wavy-to-curly hair, if given no consideration, can become its own corona around my head (especially in the humidity—a look that’s more Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus or Gaby Hoffman terrorizing Greenpoint on Girls) as opposed to the glamorous Pre-Raphaelite waves that I imagine I have on my best days (like Rose Byrne’s deeply covetable look in the film I Capture the Castle).
I knew I wasn’t treating my hair right when I saw the back of my head in an Instagram picture looking like a big, clumpy mass—a thick square. To mix Hollywood references further, the thing about big hair is that it comes with big responsibility. There’s the easy way out—the blowouts from reputable places that have popped up like weeds, offering a solution to a problem that society made up in the first place. But that's a momentary solution, no matter how long you decide to go before washing your hair. The most viable way to fix the “problem' of curly hair is to take the time and figure out exactly what it needs to look its best. And how it can do so without requiring an hour in front of the mirror each day. It's a challenge, for sure—but a valiant one.
I had this vision in my head that if I just made the rounds and tried out products from places like DevaCurl, Moroccanoil, and all those other lines that are friendly to curls, that the heavens would clear, a choir would sing, and I would find the one product that would make my hair manageable in the span of five minutes. But further research yielded a couple of facts. First off, curly and wavy hair is high maintenance. To get it under control, you could subject it to a series of oils, sea salt hairsprays, and dry shampoos, but first off, you need a happy, healthy head of hair to respond to the products you put in. Making curly, natural hair workable is a question of lifestyle, first and foremost.
The finicky aspects of curly hair come from a constant fight against dryness as your hair’s natural oils have a hard time making it past the first bend in individual strands of hair. As hairstylist Walton Nuñez put it, “curly hair is thirsty hair.” He also made the point that when it comes to “control” and curly hair, it’s a process of figuring out the science of your hair so that the right product provides the correct balance. For Alexandra Roxo, a director and producer (known for her upcoming film Bare with Dianna Agron and the web series Be Here Nowish) based in Brooklyn, gifted with a head of glorious red curls, her routine starts with no shampoo. “I swear by this,” she wrote in an email. “Use a cleansing conditioner or regular conditioner depending on how oily and dirty your hair is. Massage the hell out of your head every time.” If a silk pillowcase is out of your price range, tie your hair up in a silk scarf before bed for a similar cushioning effect.
It took a conversation with Danielle Hartnett, makeup artist for The Karcher in Greenpoint, before I really understood how to go about making my curly hair passable in the depths of a humid summer. “I let the air tell me what to do,” Hartnett said. In more concrete terms: A curly hair routine has to change with the weather. In the winter, she uses a curl-enhancing shampoo. And when summer comes around, she goes on the side of something that’s smoothing to weigh it down and tame the frizz.
Over and over, my fellow “wild-haired' women (and the hairdressers who help them) hit on two points: moisture (the essence of wetness) and something to keep the wave in tune. Moroccanoil was named over and over again, and Italian natural beauty brand Davines came up repeatedly as well. Davines' OI Absolute Beautifying Potion can be put on the ends of hair whether it’s wet or dry. Personally, I've had bad experiments with too much coconut and argan oil in the past (using those products made my hair greasy—a virtual Don Draper drooping with too much Brylcreem). Yet after talking to a some people about how to actually do my hair, I felt more confident taking it from wet to dry. I tried DevaCurl’s Styling Cream in the middle of a sticky heat wave, rubbing it in my hands and scrunching it through my hair. It set my hair nicely, and after it dried, I used R+CO’s Tinsel Smoothing Oil to tame down any frizz around my hairline. I'd gotten used to uncontrollable hair during the thick heat of summer—the sort of hair that announced itself the minute I came in a room—so I had very little faith that this routine would have any positive effect. I worked for hours, ignoring what my hair looked like, until I got a glimpse of myself in the bathroom. My hair—so stubbornly a cloud, so wild that I had just been pulling it back—had something like style. Waves and curls, it was manageable with no frizz. It came down softly around my head as if I had slept in pin curls. I looked just a little bit better than I normally did, and it only took 10 minutes. It was just a matter of listening to the air and letting that drive what I did with my hair.
Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She's the co-author of young adult superhero trilogy, The Misshapes , under the pseudonym Alex Flynn.
Image via Getty.
Twins and entrepreneurs Carlissa and Laken King write about their relationship with natural hair and want to hear your thoughts on the topic, too.