How My Obsession With Keratin Treatments Cost Me My Hair Identity

Photographed by Anna Jay.
When I was younger, my hair was my pride and joy.
Thick, curly, and frizzy in places, the dark-brown, waist-length mane that earned me the family nickname of "little lion" set me apart from my peers at my primary school in Essex, where, as a Greek Cypriot, I was a minority. At the playground, I'd free my hair from the vice-like plastic headband my mum made me wear to "tame" the unruly strands. I'd refuse to tie it up during PE, and I adored all the compliments from the lunch ladies, who told me I was lucky to have "such lush tresses."
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That's why it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the obsession with straightening my hair began. Perhaps it was when one of my classmates told me my hair was "too fat and frizzy to play Rachel" while we impersonated S Club 7 during recess, or when my first boyfriend told me exactly what he thought of my natural texture: "I much prefer it straight. You look really wild and sassy when it's curly." Sick and tired of my relentless moaning, my mum reached out to her hairdresser friends for a discount on a pair of ghd straighteners. When I unwrapped them on Christmas Day, so began what would become a daily 40-minute transformation. (Yep, I have that much hair.)
When I got my first job as a beauty writer, I discovered smoothing treatments, and found that the keratin-infused types were the best for my hair. The clever technique harnesses the protein keratin, as well as amino acids, to "disrupt" the hair's natural curl pattern, making hair a little straighter in the process. Anything that promised manageable lengths without subjecting them to 230-degree heat every morning and less of a production when washing and styling, as well as shampoo-ad shine, was convincing. Soon, booking the appointment to have every curl and wave expertly ironed away became as commonplace as a monthly leg wax. I couldn't get enough of the laminated look.
Truthfully, smoothing techniques such as keratin treatments and Brazilian blow-dries are great. Formulas have come a long way since the formaldehyde-packed types that would burn your scalp and suffocate you in the salon chair. I've had the privilege of trying many over the years and I have very few negative things to say about them — apart from the fact that they're pretty time-consuming and leave a slight metallic smell which lingers even after the first few washes. Both of these I could live with.
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Courtesy of Jacqueline Kilikita.
However, while I gave up hours and hours to sit in a salon chair, a natural hair movement had been brewing on social media. On Instagram especially, women were starting to use the #naturalhairmovement hashtag to show off their natural texture in all its curly, kinky, and wavy glory — and it flipped a switch in me. It made me miss the curls that did their own thing, the sheer weight of my hair.
Suddenly, I no longer saw those natural features as flaws — and if I'm being honest, I felt a bit silly. I was embarrassed by how easily I'd conformed to cookie-cutter "prettiness" ideals that favored well-behaved, sleek, shiny lengths over my unpredictable but nonetheless beautiful curls that had a mind of their own. I'm not alone in lamenting the loss of my hair identity after overdoing it with straightening treatments: A quick Google search will fetch hundreds of Quora and Reddit threads from women who regret their own, reporting that their once voluminous hair is now "limp," "lifeless," and "boring."
So I cancelled my next treatment and waited for my hair to return to normal. Four months passed and my hair was still as poker straight as the day I'd walked out of the salon. Eight months later, it was no different. Worried I'd changed the nature of my hair forever, I consulted a hairstylist friend, who told me it would simply be a waiting game. Typically, the majority of straightening and smoothing treatments can last anywhere between one and four months — depending on the formula — before the effects begin to wear off, but hair washing and styling habits mean this can vary.
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Not long ago, I interviewed Mark Woolley, celebrity hairdresser and founder of Electric Hairdressing, about the pros and cons of sulfates in shampoo. While he warned those who have had keratin hair treatments to stay away from the surfactant ingredients because they're known to break down the chemicals and undo the effects, it gave me the idea to do the complete opposite. Thankfully, my scalp isn't sensitive, so I ditched my natural, sulfate-free shampoo, and I've noticed a positive difference. Letting my hair air-dry with the help of OUAI's Air Dry Foam also helps encourage movement and shape, as does scrunching my hair into a diffuser when blow-drying.
It's been nearly a year since my last keratin treatment, and only now is my hair slowly but surely beginning to assume its original shape. If I've learned anything, it's that my hair and my ethnic identity go hand in hand, and that ironing out its curls, waves, and frizz means losing a part of me. Embracing my natural hair feels even more important in an industry that still puts straight, sleek, "flawless" hair on a pedestal. Smoothing treatments? I'm finally done with them.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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