Going Curly Is Controversial For Indian Women, But I'm Doing It Anyway

“It’s not necessarily normal to see an Indian-American girl with hair like this in our community.”

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Zarna Surti is the founder and editor-in-chief of Tonal Journal, a new independent print publication celebrating women of color. The following essay has been edited for length and clarity.
Most people I meet think Indian women have naturally straight, shiny hair. I get it, you’ve seen the photos of Bollywood stars, their strands billowing in slow motion across the screen. Maybe you've even purchased Indian hair extensions, or seen long-haired Indian influencers hawking Sugar Bear gummies on Instagram. But a lot of South Asian women have naturally wavy or curly textures — you'd just never know because of how often we flatiron them. I recently went to a bachelorette party where the whole house smelled like burnt hair because all 14 of us spent 45 minutes each in front of the mirror burning our curls into submission.
What my hair looked like before embracing my natural curls.
With such a beautifully extravagant culture, it’s surprising to me how many curly-haired South Asian girls choose not to rock their natural texture. Much of that can be attributed to the Bollywood idols we grew up with, like Karishma Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, who both had light skin and long, straight hair. But more than that, it’s rooted in the ideals in our society that continue to place a higher value on traditionally western features.
As a first generation Indian-American growing up in Nashville, it was important to my parents that we live in a diverse neighborhood where I was exposed to quite a few cultures. My school, on the other hand, was very white and most of the girls had slick straight locks; my peers regularly called me "poofhouse" and "frizz queen."
I spent most of my life trying to make my hair something it wasn’t. But this year, inspired by the natural hair movement and sick of waking up early to fight my hair every single morning, I finally decided to put away my flatiron. The biggest breakthrough for me came from learning how to actually care for my curls; up until this point, every hair tutorial I'd learned was centered on blow-drying it smooth.
I booked an appointment with my hairstylist of three years, Liz Sustaita. I also decided to get a new, copper hue from L.A. colorist Anja Burton. Before we started, they took the time to find out exactly how I wanted my curls to look and feel. When I got to their salon, I hopped into Liz’s chair, and surprisingly enough, she told me she could cut my hair for both curly and straight styling, but to get the precision right, she would be straightening it first. From there, Anja carefully swept on honey and caramel highlights to keep it nice and dark at the root and naturally lighter at the ends. I picked up a DevaCurl starter set, a little Bumble & Bumble BB Curl, and some Ouai Curl Jelly and felt empowered in my new routine.
Photographed by Bukunmi Grace. Styled by Chanel Gibbons.
Photographed by Bukunmi Grace. Styled by Chanel Gibbons.
Vintage top and pants.
To be completely honest, the response has been mixed. You have people in my life, like my boyfriend, who love my curls and prefer my more natural look. Then you have friends who just don’t get why I wouldn’t want perfectly styled, Kardashian-esque hair at all times. My family is supportive, but my mom definitely likes my hair when it’s pulled back into buns and braids — I think it’s a memory of when she used to wear her hair in long braids growing up in India. You also have people who find curly hair “unprofessional." I’m lucky to work in a creative field where natural hair is accepted, but I have many Black and brown friends whose employers have deemed their hair unfit for the workplace. It’s one of the many reasons I created Tonal Journal — I always craved a safe space for women to be exactly who they are.

Every time I got out of the shower and saw my curls bounce to life, something in me became more confident in myself, more rooted in my body, and more liberated than I’d ever felt before.

As I discovered the beauty in my curls, I found myself appreciating other things I had spent years resenting — like the natural curves of my body. Every time I got out of the shower and saw my curls bounce to life, something in me became more confident in myself, more rooted in my body, and more liberated than I’d ever felt before. Will I straighten my hair again? Maybe. But will you see me proudly wearing my natural curls almost every single day? Hell yes.

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