- Edition 7, Chapter 2 -
as told to Alexander Brebner
Sylvia Kerali founded the website Curls Understood as a way to deliver “inspiration and information to the curly, natural hair community with a special focus on new naturals.” Her own natural hair journey started twenty years ago when the challenge was finding curl community, whereas today, “There’s lots of information out there but how do you know where to start? Or more importantly, what’s credible?”
Hairstory: Your website is called Curls Understood. How are curls commonly misunderstood?
Sylvia: That is a great question. Curls Understood is really talking about the individual understanding of one’s own hair. So even within black culture there’s an assumption that just because another black person may be doing your hair – whether a hairdresser or your mom – they know what they’re doing; my mom didn’t really know how to take care of my hair. Everybody’s curls are so different that there can be confusion and misunderstanding even within our own community, which has been the case for a long time. It’s only in the last ten years that this education has really come about; we’re teaching ourselves and people outside the community how to look after our hair.
Curls Understood really speaks to an individual coming to the site to learn what’s best for them – maybe for their kids too – and understanding how hair is wet versus dry, fine, medium, coarse, and learning the terminology. So I think there are a lot of things that can be misunderstood. I am trying to get people to understand what’s unique about their hair and then embrace it.
You use the term, “new naturals.” Does that mean people who are new to being natural or the natural movement being new?
Mel, who you just spoke to, cut all her hair off. She was curly before, but it was very damaged, so she did what we call a ‘big chop.’ You just hit the reset button and start again. That could be a new natural. Maybe you’ve always had chemicals in your hair and you’ve decided to stop, and let what comes from your head grow, and embrace that. It could be kids; it’s anybody who’s taking a serious and new approach to their hair care regimen. So if you haven’t done that before you’re technically a new natural. So my site gives five basic steps to start your new natural hair journey.
What is your personal story becoming natural, or were you always natural?
I was always natural. I have a younger sister and a brother, and with my mom having two girls, and taking care of her own hair, it was a lot. So we put our hair in braids, adding extensions to make it longer. But we never had chemical processing; every two months she would take the braids out and put them back in so they were fresh and neat. So when she said, “Okay you’re old enough to start looking after your own hair,” we didn’t really know what to do.
So I have put relaxers in my hair, and color, but I always grew it out. 99% of the time my hair has been natural, but I didn’t know how to properly take care of it. I didn’t have a standard regimen. I was haphazardly doing whatever, and as a result my hair would break, and wouldn’t get past a certain length. So I thought, “Let me go to the internet and see if there’s any information out there on how I can stop this breakage, and make my hair fuller.”
This was before YouTube or Facebook even existed, and there was this small but very dedicated group of black women on a specific forum teaching each other how to look after their hair. That’s when my natural hair journey started, and I learned the language and the basic techniques. I thought I couldn’t use products that a white person can use, but you can; you just have to learn to read the labels and pick the ones that work for you. So I started ten years ago on YouTube and kept building on it. I think you always have to be learning, but just knowing that I wasn’t doing it alone was very comforting, and that’s why I started my site.
What’s your attitude towards people who chemically straighten?
I think to each their own; I don’t believe that chemically straightening isn’t healthy, but at the same time, I can’t imagine that doing it for long periods of time is ever gonna be a good thing. What I love about curly hair is it’s versatile. If I want to wear my hair straight I can; I don’t need to put chemicals in it. In certain places in the South, curly hair is still not seen as polished, kids are going to school and being told that their hair isn’t done, or that they can’t wear certain styles. If you’re relaxing your hair because it’s easier for you, and it’s just your preference, that’s fine. But if you’re doing it because you think there’s something wrong with your hair, I think that’s an issue. So hopefully the curly community is teaching people to be more loving of their own hair.
Tell us about how you found us, and what your Hairstory experience was like.
I had a friend, Ava Rainn, who did her Hairstory, and I saw her posting on social media. I think I even featured it on my site. That’s how I started following you. And then I decided to reach out to you and see if Curls Understood and Hairstory could partner. Eli [Hairstory CEO] was in Washington, DC where I was based; we met for a little while, he sent me the products and I tried New Wash and I thought it was fantastic. If I had to explain it to other curly girls, it’s co-wash 2.0, better than anything you’ve used because it leaves your hair super-soft and you can detangle as you’re putting it in, so it’s pretty perfect.
I use Hair Balm like a leave-in conditioner. For every style I put it in to keep me going for three or four days, then maybe I’ll style it again for another three days. Hair Balm leaves my hair really, really soft, which is great, really great; it doesn’t have that crunchy feeling. Curly girls really hate crunch.
I worked with Remy, and she was fantastic, really good with curly hair, and she actually taught me a couple things that I didn’t know. I usually do what’s called a two-strand twist whenever I style my hair, taking sections, splitting them in two and wrapping them around each other. But she actually took two sections, wrapped them individually, and then coiled them around each other, which is a technique I had never tried before, and it definitely helped elongate my hair, because a lot of curly hair shrinks. She did smaller sections than I would usually; when someone else is doing your hair they can take their time, and I’m usually rushing, so it was nice to get that extra definition.
New Wash and Hair Balm are enough to give my hair the volume and definition that I want. Remy used a diffuser to dry it, and then untwisted it, and shaped and styled it. And then Clara did a fantastic job with my makeup, talking about how I want to be represented. Everybody wanted me to feel like myself, and enhance what I have. So it’s been a really great experience, even sitting around and eating lunch together – a really nice family to be around.
So do you think that the future is bright for curly people? Do you see momentum?
Definitely. I think when the spotlight on curly hair began people thought it was a phase, but now people realize that it’s how our hair grows and it’s not gonna change. What you’re seeing now is that curly women who joined the community ten years ago are having kids, so they’re passing on that knowledge. Growing up different is always going to be challenging, but I think kids are growing up with a language, and seeing other people embracing curl is going to make things easier for them. I think for the next generation, the future for curly hair is perfect.
Editor’s Note: What motivates us, and what became clear quite quickly is the absurd number of hair products that people have been led to believe they need. While we applaud the increasing acceptance of curl as something to wear proudly, we’re irate about the hype of the most curl-friendly product companies have created, and how much time and money women like Sylvia will never get back!