Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wavy Pride

What defines wavy hair?©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Let’s start with this warning. Lots of us who must go online to learn how to care for our hair encounter a hair typing system. On the surface, it can help us understand what we have. But let me say now that I hate labels and categorizing. Remember the “blue eyes / brown eyes experiment?” Yeah, you get the picture. More on this later. First, some quick and dirty “bioengineering.”©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Hair curls or waves because of the composition of proteins in the cortex of hair fibers and how the strands of proteins are arranged in the hair’s cortex (the mid-portion of the hair strand). There are cells in the cortex of some people’s hair called orthocortical cells, accompanied by paracortical cells, and mesocortical cells. How curly hair will be is determined by the proportion of these cells relative to each other, where they are located in the cortex, and what is the protein composition of the orthocortical cells.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

This image is sourced from this website: "The Structure of Hair,"  Sayed and Askar.

If you have curly (or wavy) hair but you are not of African descent, then you have a thin layer of orthoroctical cells, especially if your hair is also fine (small in diameter). A person with coarse (thick stranded) and very curly hair who is of African descent has far more orthocortical cells in their hair’s cortex, and a person with straight hair has no orthocortical cells.

This seems to be the best-supported hypothesis so far. And certainly a sample which covers a greater breadth of human geography would tell us more.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

So here we have a structural and chemical difference to begin with between straight and curly and wavy hair.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Now throw away any notions about “hair typing” for a moment (if you have even heard of it). It’s best to avoid classification systems which can lead to value judgments and self-comparison to others. That’s just bad for self-confidence. Seriously. Hearing people wonder if their hair is curly enough to be called “curly” or just wavy or is it 2c or 3a, or looking askance at somebody’s self-declaration of their hair type – give me a break. 

Curly hair is an especially robust wave pattern and wavy hair is relaxed wave pattern. It’s all a wave pattern, looser or tighter. You don’t look at the ocean at sunset and think, “Gee, it’s too bad these waves aren’t curly.” The visual difference is the bounce. Even if your wavy hair can make curls and waves that bounce back 2, 3, 4 inches, it still tends to stay near the scalp, waving and/or curling downward in soft waves and spirals. It’s not engineered to bounce more than that. More bounce would mean that those curls would spring outward, not down. So are loose curls really waves? Are tight or spirally waves really curls? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you understand the medium.

Get to know your wavy hair!©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Does your wavy hair have straight ends or ends that flip or curl?
What is your wavelength? The distance from the crest of one wave to the next? Is it different when your hair is styled?
Do your waves have amplitude? Is there much depth in between waves?
Are there areas which wave together next to other areas which also wave together (share a wave pattern)? How many areas like this are there?
How is your hair different in spring, summer, fall, winter?

Visual Aid:
I love visual aids but I don’t draw well with a mouse. So you get some green decorative ribbon. 
On the left, you see what you’d call a curl. It has robust 3-dimensionality which it holds. Next you see a looser wave pattern, nearly smooth on top, curling near the bottom. You’ve seen hair like this! Next to that is a stretched-out curl or a “spiral.” It has a flatter profile in 3-D. If you have wavy hair, you may know this shape well, whether you can coax it out on demand or not. On the right is a lovely (backwards) S-shaped wave. Big and loose and bouncy.
And another: 

Left: curly, next to that, a very loose wave, then the "smooth on top" wave, the loose spiral, and lastly the big, loose S-shaped wave. I like the profile shot because it shows better how these wave patterns "wear" in real life. This set of photos was taken with ribbon of the exact same length. Two were placed higher than the others due to canine interference during photography.

These three are just some forms that wavy hair can take on. There are variations, like wavier on the outer layers  (canopy) of hair and straighter on the underlayers (understorey – borrowing a term from biology/ecology). Or the other way around. Or curly in front and wavy in back (or vice versa). If you have wavy hair, you may have a mix of all these hairs on your head (I do). Then the median takes over.

Curly hair can often be "molded" - you can wrap it around your finger either wet or dry to shape or "set" a curl. Wavy hair rarely does this - the spirals are much softer. If you press a wavy spiral upwards, you might get a coil of an inch in diameter (or more or less) but when you let go, the diameter decreases. Wavy curls don't have the determined springy bounce and preservation of diameter of curly curls. And that's perfectly okay, they have graceful, flowing movement unique to waves. I'm just trying to describe the behavior and motion of the fiber, not put a value on it.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

"Wavy" seem to be a very misunderstood hair texture – often mistaken for un-brushed, unruly “straight” hair or hair which needs to be “fixed” (curled or straightened), leading many wavy-haired people to never learn to make the most of their locks and never allowing them to feel that this important aspect of visual appearance which belongs to them is good enough for public viewing. Your waves and curls are not broken and they don’t need fixing. They just need to be understood, empathized with, given care and encouragement. Hey, don’t we all!

Sources: ‪Chemical and Physical Behavior of Human Hair 4th Ed.
Clarence R. Robbins, Springer Verlag 2002


  1. I love this! The whole bit, but the part that made me laugh out loud was "Two were placed higher than the others due to canine interference during photography.". Hehe...canine interference :)

  2. I like this article! I have EVERY SINGLE type you showed on my head. I have a couple of tight curls at the nape, a couple of loose spirals next to them, hiding under several variations of the waves. The loosest "barely" waves are in the front by my face. It drives me nuts!!! I keep wanting them to be all the same. I'm trying to figure out what to do with them. I'll have to keep reading.

  3. Hello, SunshineMom! If you use Facebook, you might like to check out the Wavy Hair Community - it's a "group" all about wavy hair and what to do with it. The group is private, just message me or one of the Admins if you'd like to join!

  4. Great artical! The last paragraph sums up wavy hair perfectly.