The Princess Diaries came out when I was seven years old. Along with every other girl my age, I took notes as Mia Thermopolis proceeded through makeshift princess academy, just in case I was ever called upon to rule a country one day. All it took was a few shopping trips, dancing lessons, and waxes for Mia to be poised on the threshold between Goofball to Refined Princess.
There was just one problem that stood between Mia and royalty. It was a problem that I, young, naive, and with big curly hair myself, hadn’t known was a problem yet. The only thing lying between Princess Mia and societal acceptance was her curly, albeit pyramid-shaped, locks that so mimicked my own.
In a scene right out of every curly girl’s nightmare, Princess Mia’s judgmental stylist sizes her up like she’s a puzzle to be solved with patience and pulls on a flat iron. And then, a few yanks and swooshes of the straightener later, it’s the moment of the Big Reveal. Two panels of curly-haired Mia are separated to reveal a glossy, demure, and smiling princess, as if royalty can emerge only when bushy hair is shed.
And what else could the seven-year-old in front of the TV take away from this incident but that princesses must have straight hair?
As I got older, I realised Mia Thermopolis wasn’t the only girl to succumb to prevailing standards of hair beauty. The list of stars with tamed manes goes on and on: Nicole Kidman, Andie McDowell, Keri Russell, and Julia Roberts, to name a few.
Like Mia, I, too, spent years trying to coax the bigness into leaving my hair. I, too, went to salons where the Big Reveal was touted as an occasion for celebration. Stylists applied heat to my curls until my hair flowed dead to my shoulders, then swirled me around so I could get a glimpse of a new me who would last until my next shower. I knew I would receive many more compliments that week. I knew I’d feel a bit more like royalty.
But now, older, wiser, and more suspicious of blowouts, I wished that seven-year-old with sitting in front of the TV had some curly-haired heroines.
I wish that seven-year-old had Merida, maybe, whose floppy red curls don’t stop her from being a master archer and saving her mother from eternal bear-dom.
Or River Song from Doctor Who, the Doctor’s only intellectual equal, who can wield a gun as well as she can spit out a stellar comeback.
Or Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, whose curly hair becomes an iconic accessory. Or Elaine from Seinfeld, whose big hair was just a big part of her. Or Bow from Black-ish, who doesn’t change an inch of her natural hair.
Amidst a sea of glossiness and carefully coiffed beach waves, these characters’ coils stood out. They're remembered for their hair just as much as they're remembered for their warmth, wit, and bravery. That's because as any curly girl can confirm, hair’s a part of identity.
But with curly hair also comes a choice: to straighten, or to lean in to the curls? With such little representation in the media while I was growing up, choosing curly was difficult. Heroines like these would've helped me on my way.
So, to Princess Mia, and to every actress whose once-curly hair hangs limp on their shoulders: I understand why you did it! I just hope the rest of us don’t have to straighten our hair to be taken seriously, to leap to leap out of sidekick-dom, to become princesses too.