A Brief History of Curl-Defining Substances I Have Put In My Hair

1990: I start using hair gel, still trying to perfect my irritatingly soft curls, an impossible task in the year-round humidity of South Florida. I favor a brand called Stiff Stuff. My resulting hair crunches like dry leaves.
Publish date:
May 11, 2012
shoppables, hair, nostalgia, 80s, 90s

Self-portrait with hair products.

1987: At ten years old, I stop limiting my haircare to angrily raking a brush over my head and calling it done, and start exploring styling products. Soon I discover something called “Pumping Curls” from L’Oreal’s ubiquitous Studio Line. I have no idea who Mondrian is, but the colorblocking on the bottle design appeals to me. One afternoon, in the seclusion of my bathroom, I spray approximately one third of a bottle on my hair and scrunch like a maniac. My irritatingly unmanageable frizzy hair resolves itself into shining, spiraling curls.

I stare at myself in the mirror in disbelief. I have HAIR.

1989: I become obsessed with chemical straightening. My mother is the keeper of all major cosmetic decisions, and is also the veteran of a thousand tightly coiled 80s spiral perms. She says no. "Women pay hundreds of dollars for hair like yours!"

Later I change tactics and start asking for a perm, to “define the curls,” because some adult friend of my dad’s suggested it. Mom is unyielding. I buy a crimping iron, and a set of Conair Hot Sticks. (“Like a perm, but it’s not!”)

1990: My friends are fashioning their straight hair into bulletproof “pouf” shapes with liberal applications of Aqua Net. My curly hair resists the pouf and inevitably collapses within an hour, no matter how much hairspray I use. I keep trying, nevertheless. Somehow it continues to elude me that my fluffy spirally hair is incredibly fashionable.

I start using hair gel, still trying to perfect my irritatingly soft curls, an impossible task in the year-round humidity of South Florida. I favor a brand called Stiff Stuff. My resulting hair crunches like dry leaves.

1991: I discover Aussie Sprunch Spray. My hair now appears to be made of fiberglass.

Also around this time, I bring home a huge tub of hair gel from the store. My father’s then-girlfriend laughs uproariously, telling me I’ve bought a hair product for Black women and that I can’t use it. Because I am 14 and stupid, I sadly throw the product away, unopened, too embarrassed to return it.

1995-1999: I devise a routine in which I condition my hair twice, not rinsing the second time, and then saturate my curls in big handfuls of Finesse gel. I go through a whole jumbo-size tube every week. My curls no longer crunch as they once did, but they don’t always resist exploding into a parched frizz either. I have a series of terrible cuts from hairstylists who claim to understand my bizarre (even by curly-hair standards) hair better than I do, and who then seem annoyed with me when their efforts fail. I feel like crap about this.

My natural hair, once so envied, is going waaaaay out of style. I experience a growing number of people randomly asking me if I’ve ever straightened it, or done a blowout or whatever. Have I even thought about it? They ask all the time. They really want to see me with straight hair. This starts to piss me off. I never straighten it.

2000-2004: My hair grows out, to my mid-back. I am using more gel than ever, having moved to Suave because it’s cheap. I have all but given up on trying to control my hair, occasionally going a year or more without having it cut, since odds are good the stylist will screw it up anyway. The only thing keeping me from looking like a sister-wife is my insistence upon dying it a vivid and unnatural burgundy-red.

2005-2010: I impulsively buy a tube of Burt’s Bees Avocado Butter Pre-Shampoo Hair Treatment. It turns out my hair likes oil. Huh. I start using it as a leave-in conditioner. My hair seems happier. I start experimenting with other natural hair products. I get addicted to Lush’s Jungle as both a conditioner and a styler, but after a year or two the formula changes and it no longer works as well.

I try DevaCurl products, which are very expensive and work less well on me than the cheap drugstore crap. I mourn. Why is this so freaking difficult?

2011: I start buying products from the “ethnic” hair section at the drugstore. I still feel sort of weird and appropriative and uncomfortable, remembering my dad’s ex-girlfriend’s mockery all those years ago. But by now I’m pretty sure there’s nothing wrong with my damn hair. My hair is fine. It doesn’t need to be chemically messed with, it doesn’t need to be heated and flattened, and it doesn’t need to be coated in plastic to look okay. It’s messy, and uncool, and occassionally a pain in the ass. But it’s the only hair I’ve got, and I’m going to love it.

2012: I really like my hair.

So there.