Lydia Monin: How I finally made friends with my curls

As many of us abandon make up and hair styling it’s time to embrace our curls writes Lydia Monin

Lydia and her curls through the years. She has finally made friends with her hair.
Lydia and her curls through the years. She has finally made friends with her hair.

Admit it: when the lockdown came you nervously checked the calendar to work out when the lack of a haircut might turn into a full-blown crisis.

Perhaps you considered panic-buying hair products or planned how to repurpose old scarves if things got really bad.

You probably imagined how, after weeks or even months of isolation, you and your equally shaggy neighbours would finally stumble out onto the street looking like clones of Tom Hanks in Castaway.

But there is an upside to staying at home all day. There’s no need to go through the daily grind of meticulous grooming that seemed so important pre-pandemic. And there’s never been a better time to embrace natural curls.

After her goodnight kiss, my nine-year old daughter likes to pat my curly hair with both hands and watch it bounce back. “It’s sooooo addictive. Weird but cool at the same time!”

Weird but cool pretty much sums up the curly hair paradox. It’s desired by those who don’t have it and hated by those who do.

Throughout history it’s been the hair of gods and goddesses, of heroes and angels but also of the wild, the geeky, the disgraced and the dishevelled. Perming was invented a century and a half ago, yet many of today’s celebrities still straighten their natural curls.

In the morning the rest of the family joins in the hilarity, pointing out that I’ve been well and truly ‘gorillad’, in reference to a 1990s television advertisement (and now YouTube video) for hair gel that reveals why some of us wake up with gravity-defying hair.

While I was asleep a gorilla had dragged me out of bed, mopped the floor with my head, spun me around by the hair, taken me for a drive in an open-top car and then dangled me upside-down over a bridge.

My mother preferred a more literary approach to my hair when I was young, often reciting the poem, "There was a little girl / Who had a little curl / Right in the middle of her forehead / And when she was good / She was very, very good / But when she was bad she was horrid".

The message was confusing. Would my hair control my behaviour? Did having curly hair mean I could never be slightly good or slightly bad? Could I do something bad and blame my hair?

Eventually, it would become clear that it was my hair with the behavioural issues, not me.

Back then I had long, tactile ringlets. Classmates liked to thread their fingers through the middle of the spirals and adults asked whether my hair was permed. It was the ‘80s and curls were in, especially chemically-induced ones.

Even men were doing it - although the ‘poodle perm’ favoured by the likes of English footballer Kevin Keegan is now considered to be one of the worst-ever hairstyles.

Perhaps the look Keegan was going for was just a bit sixteenth century; Michelangelo’s uber-masculine David sports a not dissimilar curly mop.

By high school I’d already had enough of my distinctive hair, so I was booked in for a type of reverse perm: perming solution was combed through my hair to straighten it.

Lydia has waged a war with her curls over the years.
Lydia has waged a war with her curls over the years.

The glamour of the salon experience was matched by the sleek Hollywood-like results - until the first wash at home produced an explosion of frizz. The salon promptly offered to redo my ‘do.

A second tub of chemicals resulted in a permanent dry frazzle for which the only solution was to let it completely grow out.

A period that nicely coincided with the usual teenage angst, railway-track braces and my parents deciding on a whim to take up an offer of a family studio portrait, which was duly framed and put on display.

After it recovered, my hair doubled in volume. There followed, in my university days, a brief flirtation with thinning scissors. It seemed counterintuitive even as the unwanted clippings were falling onto the salon floor.

Lydia said at university she had a 'brief flirtation with thinning scissors.'
Lydia said at university she had a "brief flirtation with thinning scissors."

Surely styling would become even harder if a different mixture of long and short strands were created with each new cut. Sometimes my hair seemed to take on the best shape only at the end of the day, after it had been pulled back for hours by clips or squashed under a hat.

A better cut and the discovery of the ‘scrunch dry’ technique meant that by the time I started working in front of a television camera, the mass of spirals seemed well under control.

A new city meant a new hairdresser and from the outset he’d appeared confident about tackling my tresses. But after a year of six-weekly visits he let slip that when I first walked though the door he was, in fact, terrified.

Retro photos reveal why: the hair to face ratio was around 70:30.

With age, nature’s thinning scissors finally intervened to reduce the volume. The curls relaxed and so did the stylists.

Meanwhile, I constantly refined a trial-and-error search for product. It’s been a global mission; a styling cream discovered in a New York drugstore more than a decade ago is still a regular online purchase.

Chunks of the dictionary have been harnessed to remind the curly-haired that we don’t so much climb out of bed as climb into a circus ring with a lion.

We must “fight”, “combat”, “tame” and “eliminate” any “nightmarish” frizz. That accomplished, we need to “control”, “define” , “destress” and “hydrate” our locks.

“A man on the moon. Stay-on lipstick. Fat-free ice cream. At one time all these things seemed impossible…,” reads a tube of jelly that promises soft, crunch-free curls that - wait for it - also hold their shape. If he’d had to battle curly hair, Neil Armstrong would surely have appreciated the difficulty of this feat.

Recently I offered a mistake purchase to my sister. She refused without even trying it - not because it was a cast-off but because she doesn’t currently use any styling product at all.

Surrounded by weekly deep-conditioning masks, leave-in conditioners, styling creams and serums it’s easy to forget that the straight-haired aren’t necessarily enslaved to a collection of tubes and tubs.

Buying shampoo from the supermarket was once thought to be little better than using dishwashing liquid - and particularly bad for curly hair, which tends to be dry.

But first came the salon-branded ranges and then the supermarket shelves started to reflect the increasing global demand for products that are better for us and for the planet.

A long list of “free from” ingredients on its label doesn’t necessarily mean that a shampoo is natural and healthier rather than a clever marketing technique.

But common sense suggests that avoiding things like sulphates (harsh foaming agents that can strip natural oils from the scalp and hair) is a good idea.

It’s even possible to avoid traditional shampoos altogether. The ‘no-poo’ technique involves ‘washing’ with alternatives from conditioner to a combination of natural products to just plain water, while shampoo bars - if nothing else - help to reduce plastic waste.

But speaking from personal experience, one person’s holy grail is another person’s never-to-be-tried-again-disaster.

Two of my best weapons in the war against frizz are, however, undeniably pure: water and silk.

A spray bottle of water dampens frizz and a cold water rinse adds shine. The latter is best attempted in warmer weather and only if the shower has a detachable nozzle so that the head can be isolated before the chilly procedure begins.

The best softener is free - rainwater. The next time you see a curly person walking in a downpour carrying a bucket, you know why.

A silk pillowcase works on my hair while I’m asleep - but in a good way. The texture of the fabric causes less friction, reducing the chances of waking up with comedy hair.

Magazines and newspapers are peppered with stories of celebrities bravely going au naturel on the follicle front. One British media personality described how she finally decided to go with curls when she could no longer face blow-drying her hair straight for 45 minutes at three in the morning for a breakfast television appearance.

A few hours a week becomes a few days a year and a couple of months over a decade. Of all the things we could be doing during our relatively brief existence on the planet, flattening curls with hot air seems pretty pointless.

There’s even been talk of a ‘new wave’ of perming - as seen on a number of Hollywood actors and on recent fashion show runways. But we’re talking loose curls on longer hair. Think Botticelli-like waves, not poodles.

One of the best ways to style curly hair is to curl it. Ironically, twirling tendrils of hair around my finger was something I’d already mastered as a child. Back then it was absent-minded fiddling - and socially unacceptable behaviour at the dinner table.

In the salon it’s the ‘twist dry’ technique.

I’ve finally made friends with my hair. On the understanding l’ll never be completely in control. A significant amount of readjustment is required after ruffling of any sort. Humidity and rain are best avoided and high winds must be avoided at all cost.

Lydia said she has finally made friends with her hair but on the understanding that she will never be completely in control.
Lydia said she has finally made friends with her hair but on the understanding that she will never be completely in control.

Hat hair is inevitable and the dreaded triangle could emerge if a trim is overdue.

Despite this - or maybe because I now have years of wisdom to pass on - there’s an inescapable tinge of excitement whenever a few spirally tendrils escape from my six year old daughter’s ponytail. As if her genes haven’t quite decided what to do yet.

With this article in mind, I asked my hairdresser how many of her curly-haired clients still routinely straighten their hair. She tentatively suggested that more people seem comfortable showcasing their natural curls these days.

“Of course they still have to have right kind of hair to start with, the right cut and the right product.” So a curly revolution isn’t imminent, then.

Perhaps because I’d distracted her with my probing undercover research, she cut one curl at the front a tiny bit too short. Now when I’m not looking, it jumps. Right into the middle of my forehead.

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