She founded the Facebook community Indian Curl Pride in 2014, helping women to subvert the internalised beauty ideal of flowing straight locks by flaunting their wavy or coiled strands. And earlier this year, Asha Barrak – known online as Right Ringlets – launched Ash:ba Botanics, the country’s first haircare line dedicated to curly girls. She chats with Joanna Lobo, a fellow CG, about making every day a good hair day. . .
PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHWETA DESAI; STYLING BY SHWETA NAVANDAR
Every morning, a few thousand girls and women across India follow a routine. They undo the ‘pineapple’ or remove the silk cloth wrapped around their heads. With hair flipped over or parted into sections, they spend a few minutes wetting it, raking in products, scrunching and pumping and using the ‘praying hands method’. Once done, the hair is air dried or diffused. Later in the day, another few minutes will be spent scrunching out the ‘cast’.
If half the words above sound unfamiliar, it’s because they are in a language spoken by a select group of people. They’re part of a curly girl’s lifestyle or, if you prefer its official name, the Curly Girl Method or #CGMethod or CGM. But, if you are a curly girl like me, chances are that you practise this routine or some variation of it, daily.
The revolutionary styling method and haircare regimen, for people with either curly or wavy hair and everything in between, was introduced by hairstylist Lorraine Massey in her bestselling book, Curly Girl: The Handbook, in 2002. Now, her techniques have spread across the globe, spawning curly girl communities, curls-only salons and bloggers who share videos, shot in bathrooms, of their CG tips and tricks.
In India, much of the movement can be credited to a determined ex-software engineer, Asha Barrak. Online, she is Right Ringlets and one of the first bloggers to acquaint Indian women with products and styling for curly hair. She created the Facebook group Indian Curl Pride, to bring together a community of curly girls, and this year, she launched the first curly hair brand in India, Ash:ba Botanics. It’s been an impressive journey for a girl who was raised in a household that didn’t use shampoo.
Starting a movement
Every curly girl has a similar story to share, and the hairbrush is the common villain. CGs brush their hair out in an attempt to control the curls; add hair oil to dampen the resultant frizz; or they resort to braids or cropped ‘boy cuts’ because societal standards deem curls to be unruly, informal, uncared for and ugly.
A recent image of all 30 contestants of the Miss India pageant went viral when a user pointed out that the girls looked uncannily alike: thin and fair-skinned with long, sleek straight hair. Models and actresses on magazine covers and other print media flaunt styled, blow-dried hair. Ads for haircare products have women wearing their straight hair with pride, shaking and pulling it to show its sheen or strength.
There are a handful of actresses like Kangana Ranaut, Mithila Palkar, Taapsee Pannu and Sanya Malhotra, who have carried their real-life curls onto the big screen. But, makeovers in movies still usually involve curls getting tamed, because only a woman with straight hair can be a potential life partner. Witches or bhoots (ghosts) are shown with curly or frizzy hair. And in some mainstream representations, curls are linked to perceived character flaws; they symbolise the ‘modern’ women, who is promiscuous, free-spirited and unlikely to obey rules.
This is unfortunately typical for a country like ours, where people’s hair has a propensity to be curly but the existing beauty ideal shuns it.
Thirty-seven-year-old Barrak’s story is inspirational, because she fought back to prove that her curls are her crowning glory. She grew up in a small town, Chhachhrauli, in Haryana. She inherited her father’s curly hair but kept it tied up or cropped short. “We didn’t use oil or even have shampoo in the house. I would use a soap bar to wash my hair, and when it was dry, my father would try to comb it out,” she says with a wry laugh. In school, her hair earned her nicknames like kacchha Maggi. In college, she discovered conditioners. A ponytail (“so my hair would look formal”) saw her through her engineering studies in Delhi, and into her job as a software engineer.
In 2008, a work trip to Chicago opened her eyes to the diversity of curly hair. “Every second person had different kinds of curls, and their hair was defined. They would wear their hair freely, just like that,” she says. Curious, she turned to the internet and chanced upon naturallycurly.com (a website guiding the curly hair movement since 1998). She soon started wearing her hair open, showing off her tight coils. Suddenly, people were stopping her on the street to compliment her and ask whether her hair was salon-treated. “I realised that there are a lot more women like me, unaware of what to do with their curly hair. Especially in India, but there were no curly blogs for them.”
Eventually, Right Ringlets, named for the right way to treat curls, started as a blog in 2014. The first post was about the Curly Girl Method — how to get started, with an accompanying styling routine. The CGM, essentially, is a set of dos, don’ts and ingredients to use or to avoid. Don’t use heat or products with sulphates, non-soluble silicones and drying alcohols, and don’t comb dry hair. Do use protein, humectants and moisturisers, scrunch in products with your fingers to encourage curl patterns, co-wash (with a cleansing conditioner) or use sulphate-free shampoo. Massey’s books saw many women out of the curly-hair closet and introduced a new vocabulary into the language of haircare. Articles, blog posts and even Instagram captions are peppered with phrases like ‘Squish to Condish’, ‘praying-hands method’, ‘gel cast’ or ‘Scrunch-out-the-Crunch (SoTC)’.
And Barrak covered it all. Armed with an iPad, she created videos and tutorials on the different techniques. “Whatever I wrote was based on my experiences. I was comfortable with reading and understanding ingredients and therefore talking about which Indian products are suited for our hair,” she explains. Initially, there wasn’t much feedback. Social media was booming and people weren’t really interested in reading long posts. “I thought about creating a community where people could discuss their hair. It couldn’t only be one-way traffic with just me telling people what to do. I needed others to share their own experiences,” she says, describing her approach. The Facebook group Indian Curl Pride (ICP) launched in February 2015 and grew popular almost overnight. People started reading Barrak’s blog, following her advice and sharing their results and experiments in the group.
One of the early members was Swati Garg, a strategy lead at a media agency in Delhi. She chanced upon the group when researching how to care for coloured curly hair. Garg’s story is familiar — her mother didn’t know what to do with her daughter’s hair and so, cut it short. Though Garg did eventually grow out and colour her hair, she didn’t know how to handle it. The group introduced her to the movement, and she was soon sharing her own experiments, techniques and advice. Her hair is now “curlier than ever before.” She tells me, “I’ve told all my curly-haired friends about the group because it’s so useful. Asha has been helpful through the process. She taught me the value of reading ingredients, so I now know whether a product is CG-friendly or not”.
In the beginning (for three years), Barrak replied to every post and comment. It helped that everyone in the group had similar experiences — keeping their hair concealed, straightening it, being teased because of it, struggling with frizz and humidity, and equating straight hair with beauty. “I’ve been through the same journey, so I understand their confusion. Everyone has the same story.”
I do too. I inherited my curly hair from my mother. I had a boy cut while in convent school because they told you to either braid your hair or keep its length above the collar. Throughout my school and college life, I struggled with taming my hair and often wished it was straight like the girls in the commercials. I was called ‘Maggi noodles’ and ‘banyan tree’. As an adult, I grew out my hair and left it loose but still couldn’t care for it properly. Last year, a friend introduced me to ICP and Right Ringlets. I felt like my whole hair life had been a lie, and I had to unlearn a lot of things. As a newbie starting out on the CG method, it was overwhelming to learn how to read ingredient labels and to style, what products to use and new techniques. But through it all, the community was a support.
Beyond Facebook, there’s a big curly blogging/influencer community on Instagram that shares wash-day and styling routines, coiling techniques, DIY protein treatments, advice on figuring out your curl type, the different kinds of water and their effects on hair, hairstyles and, of course, products. It’s an abundance of information.
“Too much information is not good. My advice is simple — first understand how to style your hair and then move on to products and other techniques,” Barrak says. On her part, she only uses shampoo, conditioner (regular and leave-in) and gel, and, sometimes, a masque. She doesn’t use any heat on her hair, and a diffuser surfaces once every few months — now more so after she moved to London with her family. She doesn’t believe in promoting products; she has never done it. It’s an ironic twist of fate that she is now selling her own. “Over the years, I have gotten so many queries about which Indian products to use. There are a few, but they’re quite basic and not completely dedicated to curly hair. I had time on my hands and like paying attention to ingredients, so I thought of formulating my own products,” she says.
Ash:ba Botanics calls itself India’s first curly haircare brand. It launched with a leave-in conditioner and a gel, which are vegan, cruelty-free and free of sulphates, parabens and drying alcohols, among other harmful chemicals. Barrak has formulators and cosmetologists but chooses the ingredients herself. Research took her three years and a heavy investment, and she did the trials on her own hair.
Garg, who has used both, calls the leave-in a “curl enhancer” and the gel a “curl bomb”. I have used both, and I have to agree with her — the products smell great, feel good and give noticeable results.
Barrak didn’t do any marketing; she simply announced the launch on social media and, within weeks, her limited stock was sold out. “The feedback has been very good. Beyond the bloggers, ordinary women are using it and responding positively. I feel satisfied that I am doing something good. I am not just selling products, I am making an impact,” she says.
The way ahead
The community in India may be small, but it is getting bigger and more vocal. In terms of numbers, ICP is 37,000 members strong and growing. There are curl meet-ups held in different cities. The CG bloggers and influencers have followers that run into thousands. There are sites dedicated to curl-friendly products, Indian and international. Curly hair is even making it into memes, posters and cartoons. A recent favourite of mine is the image of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being handed a poster that read ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ — all the women holding the sign had curly hair.
It’s a start, but Barrak is well aware it can take years to erase the social conditioning. She believes that the way forward is through salons. “They are a big obstacle. We need to get stylists educated about curly hair — how to treat it, what cuts can enhance curls and so on,” she says. Salons, she adds, will help take the CGM to smaller towns and villages like her hometown. “Women frequent them for their grooming requirements. It’s the only place they can go to and talk to people about their curly hair. The information they get has to be solid,” she says.
Ask Avani Yashwin of Mumbai’s Happy in the Head and she will tell you the difference that a good stylist can make to hair. Yashwin is a favourite with curly-haired girls in the city. The biggest change, she says, has to be the mindset and the obsession for straight hair. “People are in denial. They refuse to accept that the waves and slight curls are their natural hair and either blame the weather, humidity and products, or demand the hair be treated to get rid of it,” she says.
She cites a personal example. “When I was in a hair academy, I made my mother grow out her hair so I could practise cuts on it. It’s when I realised she had this beautiful curly hair but had kept it hidden because of work and because she didn’t have the time to look after it. I felt bad that her hair had been tortured all her life,” she says. Cutting her mother’s hair made her realise and respect the diversity of natural hair, and through her salon, she is working on getting people to embrace their natural hair too. “People think that the CG method is difficult and time consuming but it really isn’t. After you start this journey and realise your hair’s true potential, it will change your life.”
It is safe to say that empowering women to free their curls can alter their outlooks. Barrak echoes Yashwin’s point, “Your hair is a big part of your personality. Once you see that your natural hair can be beautiful, your confidence just shoots up. You are a completely different person.”