The cult of curly hair

Haircuts are horrible, horrible things.  I’ve never actually seen the film Georgy Girl, but the opening sequence where Lynn Redgrave runs down the street to wash out her new hairdo says it all.

Hair is so tied up with your identity that any kind of change feels dramatic, and such an intimate part of you that letting a stranger touch it, never mind cut half of it off, demands nerves of steel.  Halfway through a cut I generally look down to find my hands clenched in fists.

Anyway, it strikes me it’s all worse when you have curly hair.  Since it’s the thing people always notice about you, it becomes far more intrinsic to your self-image and the way people relate to you than it would otherwise be.  At the same time, a huge proportion of hairdressers are clueless or terrified in the face of a head of curly hair.  Sample comments are: ‘God… it’s so… er… thick…’ ‘How do you normally dry it?’  ‘It’s so… er… curly…’ ‘Shall I just let you dry it yourself?  I’ll just charge you for a wet cut.’  ‘There’s so… much of it…’ ‘Shall I just blow-dry it straight?’ ‘Next time, can you tell us how much hair you have on the phone so we can make a longer appointment?  I’m going to be running late all day now.’  And it’s true: it is thick, it is curly, and there is a bit of a knack to drying it.  But it’s rather dispiriting when  you feel you have a better idea of what to do with your hair than the person you’re paying to cut it.

The other thing is that the whole atmosphere of a hairdresser’s is horrific.  Everyone in there is waxed, plucked, shaped, plumped, coloured and polished to within an inch of their life.  I often think they must be biting their tongues not to say to me, with my complexion looking at its worst above the standard black gown: never mind your hair, what is WRONG with your skin?  And your nails?  How can you leave the house LOOKING like that?  I’m fine with the natural unruliness of my hair. And the rest of me.  But I think it’s disturbing for these people.

All of which is a long prelude to telling you why I have joined a curly hair cult, and never mind if it is unnecessary, pointlessly expensive or just too damn time-consuming.  At last, I have a hairdresser who actually has advice to give.  She doesn’t want to blow-dry my hair straight (something that sends M into a blind panic), she asks me how I want to deal with the ringlety bit by my right temple that only M and my mother have ever previously commented on, and she has a range of strategies which, as she puts it, are all about getting the moisture into my hair and keeping it there.

I am speaking of Sara, junior stylist at Cally’s Curls & Co.

OK. So I am a little uncomfortable about giving my business to a company whose mascot is the Queen.  But this is such a nice place that I’m prepared to overlook it.  And, you know, actually the unlikelihood of the Queen as beauty model speaks very well to the atmosphere of the place, whose slogan is ‘can you see the real me’?  This version of Elizabeth Windsor seems to be a woman with a life to get on with who needs her curly hair cut in a workable style.

It doesn’t feel at all overdone, polished or intimidating.  There is cool (but not worryingly cool) pop and rock music playing, there are bowls of Reese’s Cups to snack on, the furnishings are vintage and comfy rather than aspirational and slick, the staff look normal and individual rather than plastic and uniformed, and I was not the first customer to get out her knitting while waiting for my hair to dry on Wednesday.  Get this: they have magazines that are not about hair or fashion, almost as if there might be more to your life than your appearance.  And the owner, Cally, has the funniest conversation ever.

Cally’s Curls employs this American curly hair cutting system called Devachan, whereby they cut your hair twice (for reasons I don’t fully grasp) and only when it’s dry (because that’s the only way to take account of the curl, especially since different sections of your hair curl to different extents).

In between the two cuts, the first time I visited,  I got a full lecture and demonstration on how I should be caring for my hair, all aimed at avoiding dryness and frizz.  I was torn between wanting to believe and feeling like the old sceptic I am.  And here is that elusive expatty bit of the post: one of my beliefs about America is that rampant capitalism dictates that there is a product for everything, a service for everything, a niche for everything.  So one must wonder whether there is a need for a special curly-haired salon, cut, shampoo or other product.  Does the product generate the need or vice versa?  Anyway, back in September a month of lake wind, air-conditioning and dubious shampoos had frazzled my hair to the point where I was willing to listen to anything.

So here are the DevaCurl principles as explained to me by Sara:

  • wash your hair with shampoo that does not lather, because lather is very drying.  DevaCurl no-poo feels like conditioner, and you just work it into your scalp and then rinse it out.
  • Don’t let brushes, combs or towels anywhere near your hair, because they just break it and rough up the cuticle.  Pull out tangles with your fingers and squeeze out water with your hands, or a paper towel, or an old t-shirt.
  • Drench your hair in ArcanGel, when it’s wet, smoothe it through, arrange it a bit, then leave it to dry or diffuse it and it will dry in lovely defined curls.  This product, supposedly, is much better for your hair than serum like Frizz Ease.  You must not touch it at all while it dries, and then you run your fingers through to stop it being crunchy, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been gelled at all.
  • You can put in clips to get a bit of lift at the roots.
  • And you can dry it with this weirdo diffuser, the devafuser, which looks like a green hand.
  • Try not to wash it more than once every three days.
  • Condition, condition, condition.

So I went for the first time back in September and let myself be persuaded into buying gel and no-poo. I’ve just been again, and I have all the zeal of the new convert.  The cut is a better shape and the hair is in much better condition than before.  And I have a hairdresser who has intelligent-sounding things to say about the curl pattern of my hair, who talks about how we can fill out a couple of gaps in the volume by waiting for bits of hair to grow (rather than gaping in horror at how much of it there is), and who gives me a hug when I leave the shop.  I may even be calling in in January for a craft night, without having my hair cut at all.

Curls and Company is a new salon, a 5 minute walk from Howard on the red line.  It’s kind of an unpromising area, and I think it’s taking them a while to build up their customer base, so if you are a mophead headswell curlyhead in Chicago, head on down.  They do normal haircuts too for the square and straight-haired.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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2 Responses to The cult of curly hair

  1. That sounds brilliant! If I a) still had curly hair and b) were in Chicago, I’d be there like a shot.

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