From Ronald McDonald to I'm Lovin' It: A Curly Girls' Guide

In Depth

I am the youngest of five children and have been mostly doted upon since day one. I say mostly because on the day I was born, all four of my siblings were mortified by my appearance. Mor.ti.fied. It was my hair: thick and black, sticking up in every direction, untamable. So disturbed were they that they begged—BEGGED!—my mom to get a preemie hat from the hospital to cover me up on the way home. She obliged. From there, my hair grew into tendrils, longer but similarly unmanageable. I had a complex about my curls for a long time, but I wasn’t the only little girl who hated her curls.

This is my friend and hair stylist extraordinaire, Fatima Rantissi. We recently commiserated about our hair histories: her thick, medium-textured ginger curls were the cause of much strife, with trips to the salon leaving her in tears over cuts and styles that closely resembled Ronald McDonald, Orphan Annie, and/or “a curly mullet”— her words, of course. My fine hair with its soft ringlets was also perplexing for most stylists throughout early life leading to many terrible cuts, including Hairpocalypse 2004, which resulted in a tear-stained picture of Meg Ryan that I’d taken to my stylist as inspiration.

But here’s the thing: we both really love our hair now. Once we got our routines down the “Curls are hard!” complaint vanished. Fatima always looks put together, which she attributes to her curls. Even if it’s messy, with tendrils and spirals falling out of ponytails and braids, it looks like more effort was put into it. We have different types of hair, but have individually found that using the right products and tricks makes our hair look more “done” (prettier? more special?) than a lot of straight hair does on an average day.

For consistently good curls, and seriously DO NOT FUCK WITH THIS, start with a good cut. Sorry for the casual fuck there and INTERNET YELLING, but I need you to understand how important this is. We talked for a looong time about how cut influences hair behavior, so start by finding a stylist who specializes in curly hair. Here’s the thing: people with curly hair can really have any style they want — long, layered, asymmetrical, bob, pixie — IF they’re seeing someone who knows how to sculpt it.

Yelp is a great place to start: look for good reviews that rave about a stylist’s curl experience, and ask for that exact person by name when scheduling — don’t take an alternative. Or, and I think this is better, ask a curly lady with a great cut on the train/ the bus/in line at the pet store who she trusts her locks to. That’s how I found Fatima! People are always happy to share, and chances are the compliment will make them smile.

One important thing: only go to someone who will cut your curly hair when it’s dry. If the stylist walks you to the shampoo sink first, walk yourself right back out the door. This is crucial. You’ll just have to trust us.

As far as styling, we independently developed pretty similar routines even with our different hair textures and lengths. Curls get better the grittier/dirtier they are (to a point, obviously), so neither of us wash our hair every day, but we do bring wetness back onto it to rejuvenate the curl before re-styling. The few times a week I do wash my hair, I tend to stick to moisturizing formulas like this shampoo by L’Oreal and this conditioner by Bumble & Bumble that leaves my hair super soft and amazing smelling. I also do a weekly clarifying shampoo to get product residue out, followed by a deep conditioning treatment. Both Fatima and I love Kevin Murphy’s Hydrating Rinse, and it comes in this formula for light colored hair. (I used it all the time when I was platinum blonde.) She relies on this coordinating shampoo/conditioner from Pureology because they’re are gentle on curls and leave them hydrated. Post-shower, I dry my hair with an ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt: it takes the wetness out but doesn’t frizz it out the way a terry towel does, all while making me feel like the whole relationship wasn’t a waste. Two lousy years at least got me consistently good hair days. Thanks, Brandon!

Next: product. Product doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg, but investing in some high quality products will make a huge difference in how your hair feels and looks. People see your hair every day, and if you’re playing your cards right a lovah is occasionally tugging/running their hands through it, so it might be worth splurging.

Fatima recommends starting with hair oil, whether you dye your hair or not, since curls are naturally drier than other hair types and need the extra hydration and protection an oil provides. (Side note: if you do dye your hair and have noticed your curls have changed texture, fret not! She says it’s just a side-effect of the dye, which breaks down the bond in your curls. I lost my ringlets when I went Pamela blonde, but they’re back in full force.)

Okay, oil: If I’m feeling like a baller I spring for Moroccan oil, because it’s light weight and smells so amazing. Usually, though, it’s six pumps of this one. The bottle lasts forever, and when I keep it away from my roots, it keeps my fine locks soft without looking like a greasy possum; Fatima does a few pumps of this one on her medium, coarser hair. Now, you gotta find something that defines the curl but will keep it soft, so back away from the alcohol-based products, (unless looking like an 80’s hairband music video star is your goal — then by all means, alcohol-based products are your friend). I love, love, love DevaCurl and have used different products in the line depending on if my hair was on the longer side or shorter side. Fatima swears by her main man Kevin Murphy and uses a quarter sized amount in her shoulder- length hair. She recommends working from the ends to the midshaft with whatever product you use, distributing it evenly while staying away from the roots. Neither of us cocktail our products, but rather apply them individually.

As far as drying goes, I rely on a diffuser most days to get me out the door and on-timeish to work. When it’s still wet, I finger twirl certain sections to coax them into drying into the shape I make, and then with the diffuser focus attention on those sections to make them dry that way. Fatima finger twirls too, either a few pieces or whole sections, but air dries her long hair, rustling the roots after it’s dry to break up the curls. She introduced me to this humectant molding paste which I use to piece out individual curls, and which keeps it from getting too frizzy. I finish my product routine with a few quick blasts of this for a little bit of hold, and finally 4-5 sprays of this guy from Kevin Murphy because it smells amazing and looks pretty in my bathroom. I do this every single time my hair goes from wet to dry, and rarely do I walk out the door disappointed with my finished style.

As it stands, I’m growing my hair out from the short pixie into a longer layered style. I LOVED short hair and haven’t had a single problem growing out the pixie that I’ve had in four different colors over the past 18 months. I’m excited for my next style because whatever I do, I know it’ll look good and make me feel awesome. I get consistently good cuts from a bomb stylist and know what kind of products will not only help style my curls, but will maintain my hair’s health. I don’t feel like my hair is hard anymore. Instead, I feel beautiful on a daily basis without the need to cover up my hair.

Nadia Johnson-Lisk is a Pom mom living Minneapolis, who loves makeup and gossiping over cocktails.

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