Science nerd, editor, writer. Formerly poofy-haired, on a hair journey.
Hair, identity, science, soul
When we chose the name for this blog, we had a vague idea that we wanted to offer guidance, companionship, and signposts for others who have struggled as we have. Hair and discovery of self is a journey that can be both practical and spiritual, and the image that came into our heads was that of the locals who help mountain climbers summit Mount Everest.
These locals have a very specific identity. The Sherpa are not some concept of generic mountain “guides,” they are an ancient ethnic community of around 150,000 people who live in the shadow of Mount Everest. Members of this community risk their lives to provide expertise to travelers looking for their own brand of enlightenment and challenge on the world’s highest mountain.
We don’t want to diminish these people or appropriate something that doesn’t belong to us. For this reason, we’re changing our name. Note that the URL of this site will be changing, and we’ll redirect for a period of time.
Before we do that, however, we wanted to be transparent about our thought process, acknowledge our blind spots, and apologize for insensitivity. We want this to be a blog of inclusivity and exploration of identity in all its forms. To do that, we have to listen, be aware of our areas of privilege, and adjust.
More soon, and thanks so much for joining in our journey, which is very much a human one.
–Meredith and Laura
I really need to pee. I’m in a restaurant with a friend, and the restroom is single-occupancy. My friend has left the house with wet hair. She looks somewhat like me but has curls that are different than mine, more self-directed and less fragile to care. She wants to diffuse her hair in the bathroom, because she doesn’t like how her hair looks now, quite wet.
She agrees to let me pop in first before she sets up. But she’s uncomfortable with the way she’s looking. Other people might stare, they might notice her hair looking terrible! So she races into the bathroom ahead of me. I’m left pounding on the door, begging her to let me in. She opens the door a crack and tells me she’ll be out when she’s done, she CAN’T be seen as she currently is.
We learn from Carl Jung that people in dreams are aspects of ourselves. From my own patterns, I know that I can get caught feeling “wrong” or “ugly,” or like I don’t know how to behave like a “kind” person. If I perceive other people reflecting a warm and flattering view of me, I’m ELATED. That shows me I’m really on the right track. If I perceive them reflecting a negative view, I’m crushed, because they know better than me. They are seeing the true lack within. I try to adapt, because both that crushing and shameful feeling and that void where I just don’t know feel so terrible. The elation is so much better! Enough of it surely will lead to confidence and not having to look outside for the boost!
The pain is real for both these aspects of me. Except it’s not that simple. Pain exists to signal peril to self, so we can make adjustments: pull our hand out of the fire, relieve our bladder to cleanse toxins or avoid infection. The pain of that feeling of shame and wrongness is conditioning to avoid something else. Because the pain isn’t what it appears, the solution is also not a solution. But the soothing feels real, and the behavior becomes a reward circuit.
Image comes at the expense of needs. If we’re invested in looking a certain way, if the only way we can feel good about ourselves is if we see approval reflected around us, it harms us. We lose track of our actual needs, we do things that harm us, and we’re more likely to ignore our self-preserving pain signals.
Understanding this has been pretty groundbreaking for me, because so many habits sound like: “oh, that’s nice.” I should drink more water and do kind things for myself like exercise and eat well. Yes, my bad habits aren’t helpful; at best they are kind of neutral, though, right? But even things that seem harmless can have real downsides for me and for others.
The real solution, I have found, isn’t willpower, bumper stickers, and mantras, it is compassion. I admit to myself that, yes, sometimes I am NOT kind. Sometimes I appear aloof, because my internal world is pretty compelling and focusing out requires effort. These aren’t things to bathe in shame over, they are just a part of being human. Perfection isn’t possible, for anyone. I try to adjust and do better and assume everyone around me is doing something similar, which helps me extend compassion to them, too.
My hair, that site of vulnerability, where people can form opinions and react: I learn to enjoy it, in every single form it presents, good days, bad days, frizz, and popping curls. The result of doing this is not that I “accept” myself and then secretly discover that I am the swan: my hair is or becomes objectively awesomely curly, the hair that other people wish they had. The result is that my hair is so cool to me that other people having opinions are just… other people having opinions. Often, these opinions are about their own issues and have nothing to do with me.
My friend in this dream has resilient hair. It will take its shape and look perfectly fine in no time. The people she feels silently judging her are enjoying their meals and their own company. A key part of my loop up there is the word “perceived.” Maybe the approval is a reflection from something else. Maybe the disapproval is a glimpse into someone else’s shame.
SHE should be enjoying her own experiences. She is more than the image, and what she gains by risking infection is.… nothing except a bit of respite from the voices in her head.
It has taken me a long time to figure out what my hair needs—it is sensitive and easily thwarted. When thwarted, it has a pretty impressive range of expression. The part that’s un-thwartable is: TWIST.
This looks weird. It also leaves you asea while problem-solving on the Internet and makes curly experts roll their eyes at you and think you are manipulating, trying to be something you’re not. If your curl is loose, it is wavy, 2-dimensional; if it’s tighter, it’s curly, 3-dimensional. Wavy hair is something to be “accepted.” Instead of seeing the problem in front of them and getting curious, they get defensive about boundaries and want to puncture delusion.
I just figured this out, because it didn’t occur to me at the time that I might present something these curl experts hadn’t seen before. They certainly didn’t help me be realistic about what was right in front of me. I mean, what was my takeaway supposed to be? “What AM I?” “This is so ugly and hopeless,” “Should I just give up?”
Staring into the world of Other involves finding or not finding your tribe. If there is no tribe, or no guide, you can give up, you can try to adapt to where everyone else thinks you fit, or you can dig into yourself and try to find internal signals. It is HARD to do that last thing. It has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
It’s one thing to look in a mirror and decide to like who you are and what you have. It’s another to stare at shifting sand and try to do the same thing. Let alone have patience while you try and fail amid that… amorphousness. Does it work? I don’t know, depends on what it’s supposed to look like.
Emotionally, committing to and labeling what you see in the moment is like falling in love and getting your heart broken. Or it’s like settling for the nice-enough guy, then having HIM leave you too. It’s not a hierarchy of curls or a contest, but the numbers on curl type go up! More is better! Improvement equals more curl! The social media influencers succeed, and you are aspiring and failing, or you are trying to accommodate yourself to “reality.” It’s all fleeting and illusory.
So I stopped using labels and scales. My curl is loose and has moods. That’s it. Sometimes it twists like vines or it flops once or twice and calls it a day. Sometimes it spins on a long axis like someone wrapped it around a pencil or a wire. Sometimes it shrinks up into fatter curls. Sometimes it whirls into giant funnels. It’s pretty amazing, honestly: it does things you couldn’t replicate with tools if you tried.
It’s not a problem to solve, even if sussing out what supports versus impedes it over time is a challenge, and the totality of it on any given day isn’t necessarily “pretty” or “polished.”
I like to think about my younger self, who spent quality time in rollers, sprayed the ever-loving hell out of the resulting configuration, only to have it fall completely straight within about a half hour.
She would be FASCINATED and so excited by what I have going on now. So I try to see things through her eyes.
They find me in the strangest places: ringing up my purchases at Sephora, at my cat’s vet, in the bathroom at work, at my dentist’s office. They ask me what I do, and they are never satisfied with vague answers: “Product!” or “Conditioner! Tons!” To a one, they have smooth hair, but it’s not straight hair. People with straight hair always ask me what I use to make it look “like that”—twist around your fingers, a curling iron, or what? The straighteners know, though. Sometimes they pull their hair out of ponytails to show me and explain their frustrations.
But you don’t just pivot to curls after frying your hair regularly. Hair has memory, for a while, then it forgets. They are asking for the One Weird Trick to wearing their hair curly, and what I have to offer is a dissertation.
Still, for them and for me, there’s the lure. Let’s marvel whence I came:
I have finally arrived: I’m some kind of expert. Like all those social media gurus I followed and copied, I’ve got something (sometimes) that others want to replicate. It’s a form of power to be on the other side, but it’s also an illusion. Tomorrow’s another story even if today looks nice, for one thing. For another, there are no shortcuts, no one deals with what you do, not completely. And experts make you stop paying attention to yourself and start paying attention to them. THEN you start missing what’s right in front of you.
My answer for the straighteners: two-and-a-half years of trial and error with a zillion products. And it’s still really weird until it all grows out. You will want to set your hair on fire at regular intervals. The goal is: better than it was before, incrementally.
Your hair’s behavior and needs will be a code you need to crack. Think of it like a small child who can’t articulate—you learn to read subtle signals with practice. Your hair needs hydration/moisture, which can be a strange concept if you aren’t used to how flexible your hair needs to be to hold its curl. Learn what “enough” looks like, what “not enough” looks like, and what “too much” looks like. Protein is the corrective to moisture excess. Use the minimum, figure out what rotation and form works for you. Finally, find products and techniques you like.
DO NOT find an expert whose hair seems in some fashion to be like yours and decide categorical rules based on how their hair behaves, or how “fine hair” behaves, or how “coarse hair” behaves. If, for example, their hair gets soft and limp when it has too much moisture, and your hair gets soft and limp when it has too much protein (both possible), you can get stuck in an extended doubling-down cycle solving the wrong problem. (Ask me how I know.)
And if you go to a curl stylist, know that unless they are extremely gifted or have a lot of experience, they are likely working from care templates and broad rules. If you fit their template, you might be fine! If you don’t, you may be in for frustration. It’s not about you; you are the expert of your hair.
It’s a pain in the ass, but it does get easier once your hair learns (or relearns) what it does. And getting consistent results that get a little better over time is incredibly exciting—even less-good results are kind of interesting if you are getting to know your freaky hair for the first time.
I hate my hair and how it always looks like shit. My team’s project manager is a Jill of All Trades. She is competent and confident. I trust her. She says she wants to cut it for me, so I agree.
It’s a surprise: she works her magic on me in a dark, windowless office. When she is done, she takes me to the bathroom and points me in front of the mirror. I see my hair is shaved, with a puff of blond scrub on the top of my head, pinhead style.
The severity suits my rage, and the carnival freakness of it is a perfect reflection of how I feel inside.
This is a dream. In waking life, my body is like an unruly child: disobedient, willful, purposefully aggravating. It doesn’t want to get in line and yield to who is boss here. An array of symptoms and annoyances sprout and overlap, crowding each other.
Though I have agreed to take it on this journey, my hair is one more needy toddler—the sort that melts down at grocery stores and doesn’t want the offered snack. I want it to SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! I have given it what it wants: I am no longer flat ironing it and blow drying it. Sometimes I brush it out, trying to make it as puffy and large and ugly as I can. Or, not able to look at it another second, I’d furiously scrub and rewash it late at night, for the umpteenth time, resetting, trying to undo, trying to redo, trying to like what I see.
We are the sort of people who don’t talk about things. It is a kind of politeness not to make trouble. Be quiet until you can’t be anymore, then be loud and unpleasant. Imagine me, tiny. My pet rabbit has just been gutted by another animal. I found him, hollowed out and stiff. Later, we visit relatives. I’m weeping, weeping, weeping. I can’t figure out why no one is reacting. But it turns out my parents have put out advanced word. I want someone to notice.
Mirrors and reflections by other people show you how far out of spec you are—carnival freak? Or just ugly? I google wave/curl categories trying to find someone who looks like me. No one looks like me. No one comments on my hair.
I found all the Youtubers I could. Wavy. Check. Fine. Check. Fine, wavy hair is supposed to be “easy.” It can be beachy! It holds curl! It’s easy to straighten! Mine was none of these things, but OK. I tried not to weigh it down, so I bought detanglers. And because fine hair LOOOOOVES protein, I used a lot. I used it until my hair got straight and floated away from my head like a balloon. Then I used less.
I didn’t actually study the hair of some of these people whose techniques I was turning into my bible. Did it even look good? I just obediently followed. My hair bent and was large, kind of. It dried in a snap! It looked wildly different from day to day. Finally it took on a crunchy, product-y sheen.
I don’t know how I realized something was wrong, but finally I did. What I thought was “normal,” was me punishing my hair. Then punishing it some more for being frustrating. So I stopped.
I’m learning, and it is learning. It has never—not once in the entirety of my life—been able to express its true nature. Listening to it and supporting it is the least I can do.
My uncle and my grandfather, both dead, have been in my dreams lately. They show up at parties or hover in the corner of my living room.
In one dream, my grandfather shows me pictures of women that I know: every one has a single whirl of hair on the side of her head—I recognize the shape from my early days trying to wear my hair natural, when my hair was trying to curl from the root and sometimes managed to take the rest of the damaged clump along.
In another dream, my uncle appears, and I notice his hair has a strange texture—kinky.
In yet another, at my grandfather’s direction, I am digging through my own hair, uncovering objects under frizz—family photos.
The meaning comes in flashes in some cases and is more muddled in others. The good girls with curls are versions of me—achieving, driving themselves into the ground. Their curls in real life smoothed out to please but visible if you know what to look for.
Others are more cryptic. They show me the thing buried, what’s mine and theirs to carry but not original to any of us. Whether it’s a gift, a hidden shame, or something else, is unclear.
My great grandmother had extremely curly hair. In pictures, it is hard to tell its exact shape—it is large, contained under hats, but burgeoning out the sides. My mother notes often how strange it is how no one managed to get that hair.
I never met my great grandmother. She died at 27, of tuberculosis. I don’t know how she felt about her hair. Her son, my grandfather, had smooth hair that practically stood up straight around his head.
I’ve read that curly hair is incompletely dominant. That is, it expresses if it is present, but it blends with the straight gene to give the range of wave. In Mendelian genetic terms, if my great grandmother had curly hair, she had alleles “CC,” one from each parent. So my grandfather’s alleles were probably “Cs,” wavy.
I’ve studied my mother’s childhood pictures—siblings in matching outfits, the hairstyles a freeze-frame of time. My mother has razor-straight bangs, around which the rest of her hair curls, soft and shiny. My aunt has lighter hair, frizzy and poking out of pigtails. My uncle’s hair is buzz-cut, so it’s hard to tell what it might look like if it were allowed to move in its own directions.
“You’re too young to be washing your own hair,” my grandmother says, while furiously shampooing after my prior efforts failed to meet with her approval. I am 10.
This memory pops into my head regularly over the intervening years. I absorbed my hair’s weirdness, pathologized it, then blamed myself for being too lazy or too incompetent to deal with it well enough.
My mother’s hair in the photo, short always, with bangs. Mine long and constantly tangled. Hair is the porous membrane between self and other when we’re young. Whose identity are we reflecting? Whose needs and wants win?
It can be manipulated to mask its nature, it can be abused, it can be ignored. But its essence remains.
The thing about curly hair is that every person’s is unique—pattern, texture, and density interplay to create an individual expression. Some people just are, unalterable, to joy or despair, or maybe ambivalence. Other people seem distorted or uncategorizable.
There is nature, but there is also nurturing and patience required sometimes to see the cohesive whole. There is always a cohesive whole. Mine clicks into focus a little more every day. It is beautiful and has its own logic and symmetry. I’m only sad that it took me this long to discover.
We all know (or are learning) that wavy and curly hair is drier than hair that is straight. That straight hair gets natural oil all the way down the shaft, whereas hair with bends or twists can’t get the same benefits.
And we spend time thinking about our own curl patterns, or at least I do. I spent a lifetime with poofy hair and am in the process of letting my hair figure out what it wants to be. Tight dreadlock-style twists, rolls at my roots, s-waves that end in scythe-like hooks are separating from my hair’s undifferentiated fine bulk, finding friends with the same inclination. Two-dimensional patterns become three.
It’s physics, a balance in time and space. And physicists have actually studied it.
Physicists have never had very good computer models to represent how a curled strand of a flexible material behaves, which is one of the reasons the characters in computer animated cartoons tend to have straight hair. (Kudos to Pixar for giving it a go in Brave). But there’s more than cartoonery at stake in this particular curling event; industrial manufacturers are affected too.
Weight is the main issue, because the longer the hair, the greater the burden on the end. Shorter curly hair can move in its own directions, but with the addition of weight the system of movement becomes more complex, a “3D global helix,” in physics-speak.
And every person with curly hair has a different underlying pattern and structure, all those variables we try to control for as we find our perfect regimen and product combos—thickness, density, the pliability of each strand and its weight.
The researchers reduced all of these variables to algorithms, created models, and found they could predict the behavior of any type of strand, from the range of human hair properties to industrial metal.
Sure, all this helps in industrial design and engineering. But it also helps us understand the dizzying complexity of our own daily physics experiments. On any given day, we are wrestling to predict and control for the behavior of a “complex, chaotic system” that keep teams of physicists and computer models churning to get ahead of.
I don’t know about you, but for me, that puts bad hair days into a bit of perspective. It also makes me feel like I’m not doing too badly as I work through my hair’s identity issues.
Please identify and sort yourself. Climb into the appropriate box. If you feel things are a bit off in one box, and you think you might try the other—don’t! Stay where you are. It’s easier for everyone else.
What I’m comfortable with: books, ideas, pretty things that exist in the world separate from me. What I’m not comfortable with: anything to do with my body.
Bodies are awkward, they exist where other people can see and form opinions. And they change suddenly. Puberty, for example. Embrace it, and you are a giant slut. Do you know how your breasts look in that sweater??! Hide. And get reminders that you are visible: grabbing hands, snapping bra straps.
Disguise and blend. Be special, be just like everyone else.
I move to California and suddenly my hair is doing things beyond its usual poof at the bottom and vague frizz. Shapes in the back, curl at the bottom. Usually my hair is shorter to deal with the poof, but I am jobless and saving money. I wear a lot of half ponytails and scrunch scrunch scrunch. I twist the front, and it flops like a dense, dead fish.
I research and land on the Curly Girl Method. My hair looks really dumb when I start, dented and frizzy, with some twists. I’m applying products with the fury and skill of a toddler finger painting. My stylist and I develop a wary relationship, with competing expertise and a hint of defensiveness.
“Seventy percent of people have wavy or curly hair.” Whatever muse I am following, most people just straighten and get on with life. Or they straighten, then curl for smooth symmetry. Waves are cool, if they are in fashion, and only a certain way. Only those poor souls who have no choice wear their hair “natural.”
Years of treating my hair like it was straight, ironing it until it sizzled. Because and until it didn’t want to curl, and it didn’t want to straighten. I can see why my stylist is defensive, as my roots sprout curl in my straight sections.
My new salon I have chosen because they emphasize individuality. My stylist puts charts in front of me and asks me to put myself in a category. I point and can tell by her expression I’ve chosen wrong. We are talking about what we have in front of us, not what I think my hair is trying to express, not what I’ve noticed as the evolution of strands over time. It’s only recently that my hair has a persistent pattern when wet.
She has the kind of hair that doesn’t allow the luxury of a straighten. She is the one who gives me the 70% figure. I understand what she must be thinking. She has this burden and gift, and here I am pretending I am like her. She gamely sculpts my hair into their signature “beachy waves” look that I wash as soon as I get home.
Every day, I conjure, and things look just a little bit different but not quite what they might be.
Even still, I feel defensive and want to justify. List my pain points, cite my reasons, as though I need an iron-clad case and appropriate texture baseline. Like everyone else, I want a way to live with what I have.
There’s no map. You find your way by trusting your instincts and seeking out some wise souls who have traveled a similar path.
We created Curl Sherpa because we love talking about our hair, not only the similarities, but the differences. The differences both highlight individuality and conversely create a commonality or universality, which makes the process that much more fun. We hope you think so, too. Welcome.
Laura and Meredith