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The Elements: Making the Most of Natural Hair

Whether we like it or not, hair is important. At a technical conference recently no less than three acquaintances said to me, “I saw your HAIR and knew it was you.” And my hair isn’t that remarkable.

It’s easy to be tempted by dramatic hair transformations. Dyed hair! Pink hair! Retro hair! Perms! And the Interweb is full of sites full of people obsessing about changed, transformed, scuplted hair. When we go to the hairdresser, the magazines are full of extensively sculpted dyed heads of hair.  But there are a lot of reasons to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and consider what you can do with your natural hair. Maybe you’re just paying attention to your hair again after being busy (a geologist friend of mine kept her hair in a braid for field work and got a cut when she returned to university teaching.)  Or your formerly-dyed-and-sculpted hair needs a break for a while. Or you want to look good without spending a fortune.

I see lots of maximum length Pre-Raphaelite hair amongst my friends who bellydance and enjoy the Society for Creative Anachronism and the like. It draws a lot of attention and admiration. There is a Long Hair Community that discusses every aspect of maximum length long hair in detail. If hair is grown to its maximum length, personally, I prefer it with trimmed ends. If you’re growing your hair out, braid it to sleep, and pin it up to travel or exercise – this helps avoid breakage. Trim it two or three times a year until it gets where you’re going.

The transition from Pre-Raphaelite hair or blunt-cut long hair to shaped hair can be intimidating. Some women find that, as their hair changes color or texture, or they change their personal style, they want more structure to their hair. I met an author who had a beautiful shaped haircut that made an impression on me. Then, my hair suddenly got curlier and went into an untamed “pyramid shape” when it got humid. I went shaped to tame this tendency.

Look at this Victorian hair brooch! All the different hair colors say to me, "EVERYBODY DIED"

Victorian hair jewelry

For your first shaped cut, if your personal style is to wash-and-go (mine is!) tell your hairdresser this.  Be firm about length. The more pictures you bring, the better. Grab some of the extra cut-off hair and put it in an envelope in case you want to try a dye later – this hair can be used as a tester. Or for making your own Victorian hair jewelry! You could use jewelry resin and those pendants…but I digress. Once you have your cut, go home, and wash it yourself, don’t panic. I and others have found that it takes a month or two to re-learn our hair after a shaped cut.

Curly hair, I’m learning, is different. For “curly girls” of all backgrounds, here is your site with forums, Naturally Curly. In the USA there are specialist salons for long hair and for curly hair. Curly hair salons and curly hair techniques are catching on in Australia and NZ, too. Google “curly salon” in your area and see what’s up.

To pamper your hair and have it look its best without using 73 million products:

  • Cold water rinses reduce frizz and increase shine. They cost you nothing except that moment of “augh” in the shower.
  • Sleep on clean pillowcases in a slightly cool room. The pillowcase one is a repeat from the face care post, but it also helps keep your hair cleaner.
  • If you have a fringe/bangs, maintain them.
  • Invest in quality combs. Speert handmade acetate combs are smooth and gentle compared to most regular drugstore combs, and they’re less pricey than the top-line Mason Pearson combs.
  • Try organic/plant-based shampoos and conditioners.
  • Try to avoid lots of blow-drying, and only use a straightener if your hair is thick.
  • Dry shampoo is great. It’s a spray powder that you spray in and comb out of your hair, and by the time you’re done, your hair is less greasy, but you didn’t have to wash it. I find that it works best on hair that has been blow dried, but it’s still worth it on air-dried hair. Batiste has brunette and black hair dry shampoo. Fudge dry shampoo is good for lighter shades & not as scented as Batiste.

For fancier/”done” hair when your hair is on the natural/long side:

  • A simple blow-out (a session with a blow-dryer that either straightens your hair or creates shaped curl) is a good way to look polished. It’s doable at home if you’ve invested in one of those Speert combs, or a flat brush. These instructions are good – you can skip the velcro rollers.
  • The rippling wavy-curl effect we see in magazines and nightclubs comes from that contradictory device, the hair straightener with a curling edge. Sample instructions are here. Be advised that a lot of the time, the hair you see curled and waved in magazines is hair extensions.
  • If you can’t do a thing with that hair straightener or curling iron, the new generation of hot rollers and steam rollers does amazing things with even difficult to curl hair.

Random advice:

  • You can walk out on a hairdresser – I did it once when I felt we were communicating badly. I felt awful, but I did it.
  • Some hair reacts poorly to petroleum derived sodium laureth sulfate in shampoos (it doesn’t cause cancer but it beats up finer hair) and silicone products in conditioners (dimethicone, anything with -methicone as a suffix). Other hair loves silicones. You won’t know until you try, but be warned, some find silicone hair products drying/coating when used over the longer term. Pantene hair products are packed with silicone. And read the ingredients on a lot of those “Moroccan Oil” products being sold right now – a lot of them get more of a punch from silicone products than from argan oil!
  • Some hair also reacts poorly to…dieting. There’s a discussion on this at the Long Hair board. At one point, I lost 15 pounds, and I went to my hairdresser, proud of myself.  The hairdresser ignored my body and said, “What have you done to your hair? Have you been sick?” So if you’re restricting your food intake, keep an eye on your nutrition, ensuring that you get enough protein and fat. If you aren’t happy with your hair overall, or you are fighting thinning hair, add a skin-hair-nails vitamin to your routine.

All this bossy advice! And most of it is what I’ve gleaned managing my own difficult hair. Dear reader, your own hair, I am certain, is lovely.  If you want to take it up to the next level of maintenance (coloring, perming, styling), go for it. And if you want give your follicles a chance to shine on their own, I encourage you.