Finding a hairdresser who understands naturally curly hair

So I wrote a piece on hair for NOW magazine. Here’s a longer, unedited version with more personal reminiscing.

I remember the first time I really thought about my hair. I was eight years old and spending the weekend with my grandmother. She sat on her bed and I sat on the carpet in front of her as she brushed my hair.

“You’re lucky you have good hair,” she said. I didn’t have the chance to respond– the conversation was derailed by the discovery of lice. Granny was half Black, half Portuguese. I knew what she meant by “good hair” because I used to watch as she relaxed her hair every few weeks and as I got older, I’d help Granny with the relaxing (and colouring).

Monday mornings at school were de facto hair days. All of us would have our hair up because we went to a catholic school. The South Asian girls would have sleek, shiny braids that had a whiff of coconut oil (long before the beauty industry declared it trendy) and the black girls would have their hair in braids, cornrows, puffs or relaxed.

Chris Rock’s Good Hair exposed the business and politics behind hair, specifically black hair. It’s a million-dollar industry with massive trade shows. Yet, in the fairly diverse city of Toronto, it’s still difficult to find a salon that can cut so-called ethnic hair.

Me with straight hair. I get it blown straight once a year. While I like it, it's not me.

Me with straight hair. I get it blown straight once a year. While I like it, it’s not me.

Hair ranges from straight to very curly – and this is due to the shape of the follicle. If you look at a cross-section of straight hair, the follicle is round. Curly hair has a flatter follicle and wavy hair has a more oval-shaped follicle. Curly hair also is drier. The oil from the scalp has further to travel, making its way down the loops and curves of curly hair versus straight. That often means that curly hair is more prone to breakage.

The loops, waves and curl also means that this hair doesn’t lie flat. It takes a stylist experienced in curly/ethnic hair to actually cut said hair. Otherwise you end up with a stylist who reassures you that she can cut naturally curly hair and promises to give you that JLo look (the pre-straightened and lightened look). I remember thinking “What JLo look? I don’t want to look like a flygirl,” and spending a year growing out my overly-thinned curls.

Journalist Diane Campbell knows this first hand. “After a salon hair-straightening experience that resulted in damage that lasted months, I was very wary about straightening or chemically altering my hair,” she says. “I decided to go natural around age 22, but I actually didn’t start wearing my hair in my current natural style until about three years ago at age 34.”

Campbell was never a fan of relaxed hair. As she says, “I just found it to be too much of a chore – washing my hair, putting it in rollers, sitting under a dryer. Even the day-to-day routine of figuring what to do, I just couldn’t handle it. I also wore my hair in a relaxed style years before the Internet, YouTube and how-to videos, and I didn’t have other female relatives or family friends to turn to. So I never really mastered how to do my own hair. I often ended up pulling it back in a scrunchy, with the tiniest bun known to man, and a limp little curl in the front.”

Women straighten their hair for many reasons – the women in their life do it, it’s easier to manage, society says straight hair is more acceptable. For stylist Tricia Hall, her natural hair was straightened because her mother used to do it. She went natural in high school. ”I kind of discovered my natural curl pattern by accident when I went too long without getting it relaxed. I didn’t go to anyone; I just grew it out myself.”

Finding a hairstylist who knows how to work with ethnic hair still relies on word of mouth. Recommendations are traded on Twitter and Facebook. Salons are also reviewed on, the grandmother of curly hair sites that houses recommendations for stylists that cater to curly and curly ethnic hair.

Sometimes you just have to stop people on the street and ask where they go. I had a stylist who knew how to cut my hairs and when he told me

Diane (left) and me rocking our curls in the rain. No frizz, shockingly.

Diane (left) and me rocking our curls in the rain. No frizz, shockingly.

he was moving to London to be with his love, I congratulated him but internally I was wailing, “NO! My hair! Who’ll cut my hair?” It took a while to find Michael, my current hair stylist at Earth Salon in Yorkville and I found him by approaching a woman at Burger King, asking her then researching him on the web.

Once you decide on a salon, always book a informational appointment and come armed with questions like Campbell did when she tried Curl Ambassadors: “Could they trim my hair? How would they go about it? If I wanted to wear my hair in a natural style other than my everyday wash-and-go, what kind of styles could they suggest? If I needed my hair pressed straight for a special occasion, could they handle that?”

A knowledgeable stylist should take the time to listen to you concerns, be ready with multiple solutions and offer an at-home regimen to maintain your mane between appointments.

Still, finding a stylist who works is a difficult task. Hall still hasn’t found one she likes and insists it’s not as easy as walking into a “black salon,” because even they don’t know how to handle all types of black hair.

As for me, I experimented for a year with a flat iron, achieving swingy, straight, shiny hair. I also suffered a lot of damage and had to cut off six inches of hair, which had turned into a dry rat’s nest of split ends. I immediately retired my flat iron and have embraced my curls and my stylist ever since.

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