Free as my hair: Embracing curls for liberty through the natural hair movement

Reclaiming Filipina beauty starts with appreciating naturally curly hair.

Curly hair stands out with its thick and brown locks, cascading down a Filipina’s shoulders. Showing off its texture and spunk symbolizes letting loose, or even protesting. But often, these luscious curls are perceived as dirty and hideous. This stigma surrounds curly-haired women with insecurities as they look into the mirror, tricking them into thinking they do not fit into what society defines as “beautiful”. Thus, women masquerade behind the images of celebrities and models with straight hair and a white complexion. 

Yet, today’s Filipino women are determined to reclaim the beauty of their curly hair. There is more to unravel about the natural hair movement; but while the movement pushes for both men and women to embrace their curls, the unreasonable standards toward a woman’s appearance forms more chains compared to men. But its aim to restore the smeared image of curly hair is a gateway to finally celebrating Filipina beauty.

Rooted in colonial agenda

Mary Salceda (III, BS-PSYC) prides herself in showing off her naturally curly hair. But she, along with many others, struggled to appreciate it growing up. She recalls the first few moments with her curls as “difficult” and “terrible”. Back in sixth grade, Salceda’s hairstylist gave her a perm to accommodate the natural curls peaking on her rebonded hair. 

Soon after, her classmates found out, but the reaction wasn’t what Salceda had hoped for. “Habang nasa assembly line kami [ng classmates ko],…they put so many objects in my hair ta’s tatawanan ako,” she narrates. “They would put pens, coins, [and] at one point, they used a brush…but it got stuck [halfway through]. So they just left it there.” Even when she was comfortable with her curls, a family member offered to rebond her hair again for free, “It really drives home the message na, ‘You don’t look good with your curly hair.’”  

(While my classmates and I were at an assembly line, they put so many objects in my hair and they laughed.)

Cassandra Collins, a nursing student from the University of Cebu, similarly has a love-hate relationship with her luscious locks. She opines, “I used to hate my curly hair when I was younger because of every aunty who told me that if I got a rebond, I would look 100 times better.” These microaggressions continued to her adult years, with some echoing her aunts’ sentiments.

While curly hair is a natural feature among Filipinos, centuries of colonial rule subjugated our appreciation for it. “For instance,” Department of Sociology and Behavioral Sciences Lecturer Dr. Jerome Cleofas begins, “[when] the Spaniards came to us, they [saw] that we [looked] different from them; we [have] curly hair [and] we have dark skin.” This led colonial settlers to equate curly hair with inferiority—becoming a “visual sign” that Spanish forces used to differentiate Filipino natives from themselves. 

Centuries later, this signification still has not been erased in the country. Cleofas describes that prejudice against those who do not abide by beauty standards is linked to creating a “united Filipino identity”. “We kind of [lost] our sense of collective Filipino-ness because we started to see people who do not have those kinds of beauty characteristics, [perceiving Filipino beauty] as different from [the standard],” he furthers. “I think that’s a loss for us.”

Both Cleofas and Salceda agree that this bias has seeped into how the media portrays those with curly hair. “Lagi ako naiinis ‘pag nakikita ko ‘yung mga ads na pinupush na straight hair ‘yung pinakamaganda,” the psychology student rants, alluding to how shampoo and conditioner advertisements depict curliness as undesirable. 

(I always get irritated when ads push for the idea that straight hair is the most attractive.)

These advertisements promote Eurocentric beauty stereotypes: white complexion, blue eyes, the hourglass figure, and straight, blonde hair. Collins asserts that these standards cause insecurities especially among young girls. Similarly, Salceda expresses, “There are Filipinos like me na naturally curly ‘yung buhok nila [like] the Aetas,” who are known for having curly and kinky hair. But the condemnable fact is “pinagtatawanan sila. That’s also tied to racism,” she remarks. These dominant systems pressure women into an abusive self-perception where their inherent features are unsatisfactory.

(There are Filipinos like me with naturally curly hair like the Aetas…but they are made fun of. That’s also tied to racism.) 

Cleofas agrees, “Their aim is to maintain that insecurity, that imagined problem, for companies to sell their beauty products.” This culture of pedestaling Western beauty ideals is institutionalized, thus becoming apparent in everyday life.

‘Beauty’ comes at a price

But colonial rule isn’t solely to blame for this bias toward straight hair; economic layers, which include the issue of financial affordability toward more preferred hair treatments and products, contribute to this as well. 

Class privilege and affordability factor, especially if one can spend money on high-quality salons to request for the trendiest and most “attractive” hairstyles. Cleofas notes that rebonding is preferred because of its accessibility to both “high culture groups” and lower class markets. But “it’s expensive to maintain and it damages the hair in the long run,” Collins further emphasizes. It is a no-win situation for curly-haired girls; regardless of whether they rebond or not, maintaining curly hair is costly.

In Salceda’s case, her routine consists of a myriad of methods just to sustain her curls: using special shampoo and applying curl-friendly gel or coconut oil to make her hair pop. While these products help maintain a healthy head of curls, she acknowledges that she is lucky to afford these products. “Mahal siya,” she notices, “kaya maganda talaga [to] make curly hair products more accessible because…ang dami palang may curly hair dito sa Pilipinas.”

(They’re expensive so I hope people make curly hair products more accessible because there are a lot of curly-haired people in the Philippines.)

The curly streak of progress

One’s hair is truly one’s crowning glory. But when the tiniest prejudices against naturally curly hair continue to persist, then the country has failed to champion appreciation for inherent beauty. Yet, all hope doesn’t seem lost.

For Salceda, an encouraging and nurturing environment is key. “My mom was very supportive of my looks and she validated me so much,” she shares. She hopes that others would eventually realize the natural beauty Filipinos inherently have so we could foster an appreciative atmosphere. As for Collins, self-love is just as important, “I stopped caring about what my aunts or people around me say about my appearance and saw so many beautiful women with natural hair online and in real life.”

The natural hair movement is not only determined to eradicate the negative connotations surrounding curly hair, but it is also a wider pursuit to redefine beauty with diversity and inclusivity. One physical trait is enough to examine the dominant systems that reflect common sources of discrimination. As such, one of the things society must do to move along with change is to invent more varied products. After all, Cleofas comments, “the goal of science is to make life equitable for people.” While there is still a long way to go, the natural hair movement can normalize natural beauty to “make that conversation increase critical mass and move social movements,” he says. 

When these advances are made, there would be “more accessible options for [curly-haired] people especially [for those] with [lesser] resources,” Salceda notes, hoping to eradicate curly hair’s links to class and social discrimination. Finally, Filipino women can reclaim their illustrious curly hair; that’s why, “Lugay mo ‘yan, girl!” she proclaims, “and try your best to take care of it in your way…[because] that’s what makes you unique.” 

(Let your hair down, girl! And try your best to take care of it in your way…[because] that’s what makes you unique.) 

With reports from Angelo Emmanuel Fernandez

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