To most women, the fashionable return of natural, kinky, curly and wavy hair is about as welcome as the revival of the miniskirt. After decades of teasing, blow-drying, processing and yanking our hair straight, suddenly we are being asked to get back to nature. How many women reading this story even know what their original hair looks like anymore? About the only time we catch ourselves un-styled is when we’re soaking wet on a beach or in a maternity ward far from a comforting stash of products and a powerful blow-dryer.
While straight hair may confer authority and respectability, it also signals a great loss of originality, sensuality and, simply put, fun. Like natural beauty of any kind, natural hair takes a little work. But once you find the best way to style and nourish your true locks you may never want a boring blow-out again. In pursuit of my original kink, I began uptown in Manhattan and worked my way downtown—sniffing out as many miracle products as I could fit into a canvas tote along the way…
Gil Ferrer—the French celebrity hairstylist whose salon tends Candace Bushnell’s blondeness and keeps Meg Ryan artfully tousled—is adamant about nourishing hair. For summer, he suggests a deep-heat moisture treatment once a month to protect the follicles and keep the scalp stimulated. “A sealed cuticle,” he explains, “means less frizz, more shine and greater tenacity in the face of everyday breakage.” Ferrer sells old-fashioned heating caps and suggests an even simpler home treatment: Slather your hair with a deep conditioner, cover it with plastic wrap and then top everything with hot towels. “Do it while you drink your coffee,” he suggests. “Pop some damp towels in the microwave and keep the hair warm consistently for 12 minutes, and conditioning becomes a healthy habit.”
Known for his specialists, Ferrer had me consult his trichologist and then get a custom cut based on the natural fall of my mixed-up mane. Trichology is the science of the hair and scalp, a relatively new study introduced to America in 1977. Christopher Mackin leads the field, jumping jets to go settle Nicole Kidman’s or Julia Roberts’ tresses as well as passing on critical advice to mere mortals. As Mackin exfoliates, clarifies and moisturizes the scalp, he also educates. “Wash your scalp using gentle circular motions with the balls of your fingers to awaken the scalp” he urges, “and blot your hair dry between shampoo and conditioner so that the nourishment can penetrate the hair shaft.”
Mackin stresses a diet rich in fish, fresh veggies and dairy and recommends a thorough brushing of the hair to stimulate the scalp just before bedtime. “Oxygen carried through the blood stimulates the scalp” he says. Glamour, the natural kind, starts at the root.
When Vincent “The Master from Brazil” cuts my hair he snips it completely dry, following the natural shape. Afterwards, he flipped my mane from side to side with a technique the Gil Ferrer Salon calls “the tossed salad”, which feels a bit like aerobics for hair. Suddenly the locks are aloft, not frozen or tortured into place, and a razored feather cut releases the curl. Four fabulous hours later, I am the natural hair woman. More Sonia Braga, less Peter Frampton. Kinky, glossy and moisturized, it does seem a little excessive to spend this much time getting back to nature, yet education is what allows a lady to make the best of her God-given locks. It was comforting to know that simple things like eating well and brushing thoroughly can improve my hair’s condition, especially in such a product-driven era. In my case, stubborn frizz just needed some gentle layering and my naturally-flat roots needed the aerating upward motions of Vincent, Brazilian lord of the hair salad.
Heading downtown to Lorraine Massey (author of Curly Girl, through Workman publishing), co-owner of the Devachan salon in Soho and inventor of a range of fabulous curl-inducing shampoos, I enriched my natural hair knowledge. Relaxed and down-to-earth, Massey’s solutions for dry and damaged hair can be as simple as diluting shampoo with spring water, abandoning shampoo altogether (she uses only conditioner on her ringlets) or making an avocado-based natural smoothie and letting it soak into the tips for 20 minutes.
Hair, Massey believes, needs to be retrained back into its natural curls, especially if it has been regularly straightened through styling or products. Letting African-American hair grow kinky (and smoothing it with the help of extra conditioner) and allowing corkscrew curls a slight halo of frizz are both central to her mantra. When my hair was returned to its natural fold of waves and curls, I no longer feared rain (the great curl machine) or “bed head”. In fact, I jumped out of bed keen to see where the day and the kink would take me! Her specially formulated non-detergent shampoos were also complimentary to hair that had been confused and weighed down by too many styling aids.
Enlightened by scalp science, heat treatments, curl care and gentler products, I realized that wearing hair natural is an artful mix of the right cut, the right formulas and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Find your balance and bounce back. Here’s how:
Natural styling secrets
1. If you don’t have the time let the sun dry your hair naturally, then buy a diffuser. Once you discover just how much curl your hair has, decide how to wear it. Curls can be stretched into fat waves using foam rollers or a wide-toothed comb, or tightened with finger waves and a spritz of setting lotion.
2. For hair that is flat on top and curly on the bottom, twist at the roots, spray with rose or lavender water and apply tight pin curls for about half an hour. Finger-style to keep the curls elevated.
3. Try the no-touchy method: Finger-smooth wet hair and then sleep on it, or wear it in the sun. Frizzing happens when hair gets mauled.
4. Use the weekend to experiment with natural setting techniques and homemade treatments. Pad around the house in pin curls, long tiny braids (for pre-Raphaelite crimping) or goopy olive oil on your split ends for damage control. Wild, sexy hair might be the result.
5. Wear an up-do at work that unfurls into slinky long looks for night. Coil two sides into loose bunches and pin, or wear a chignon that allows less pressure to fall on the crown of the head. Tight ponytails have been know to create temporary pattern baldness in women, so loosen up.
Natural care know-how
1. Use radically less shampoo or water it down with spring water. Choose shampoos with very low detergent levels or none at all.
2. Cutting off an inch or two every six weeks keeps hair healthy. No matter how gentle you are with hair, the tips get brittle. Trimming is a smart move, not a sacrifice.
3. Rinse beach or pool hair with a bottle of club soda after your swim, and choose leave-in conditioners with built-in sunscreens.