Illustration: Shutterstock
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The War of the Curls

In Israel, female politicians, models, and celebrities are pressured to straighten their hair. But a curly haired rebellion is taking root.

Flora Tsapovsky
December 02, 2019
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

Walk down the streets of Tel Aviv or Haifa, and you’ll see many women with naturally curly hair. But turn on Israeli TV news, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a female anchor who hasn’t pressed her hair flat. And this isn’t just a trend among news anchors. In Israel, female politicians, entrepreneurs, and celebrities who step into the limelight are soon found featuring straight, shiny locks, no matter their hair’s original texture.

Male politicians and celebrities with curly hair exist in Israel, but since they tend to keep their hair short, it’s been less of an issue; women, who more often keep their hair long, are in the eye of this cultural storm. But recently, there’s been a cultural uprising brewing, as curls take center stage in the national conversation.

Four years ago, a tech worker named Orian Paz decided to start a conversation about natural hair, and founded the Facebook community Metultalot (“curly women,” in Hebrew). What happened next exceeded all expectations: currently, the group has 77,500 members, and Paz had since added a website, YouTube channel, and Instagram account to the mix. “Many public figures in Israel are asked to straighten their hair when facing the camera,” said Paz. “And watching them makes curly women feel out of place.”

With daily discussions on anything from self-acceptance and curl maintenance to raising curly daughters, the Facebook group is challenging Israel’s mainstream perception of beautiful hair. Last spring, on March 3 (3/3 reminds her of the shape of curls, Paz says) the group celebrated the second National Curls Day, a holiday Paz invented to bring awareness to her cause. The event included women’s empowerment circles, concerts by curly haired performers, workshops by hairdressers, and a marketplace. “We had amazing feedback—600 women came, and we were entirely booked,” she said, adding that her dream is a large-scale curl festival sometime in the future. Paz points to the fact that the natural hair movement is not unique to Israel. “In the U.S. I see the movement primarily among women of color, who take pride in their heritage and talk about the complex history around hair,” she said. “In Israel, the problem is that hair types vary significantly, and no one is leading a single discussion.”

As a curly haired blonde myself, I watched as Stav Shaffir, my former colleague at a women’s website, rose to fame as a promising young politician, while her fiery, kinky mane was slowly turned into tamed waves. Shelly Yachimovich, a former colleague of Shaffir’s in the Israeli Labor Party, has been public about her transformation from curls to straightened hair, led by TV producers and advisers who pushed her toward a cleaner, more “organized” look. “When I first came on screen with curls, it was an unusual sight, since many female broadcasters were already loyal soldiers in the army of the blow-dry,” Yachimovich said on a TV show in 2014. Eventually, she decided to straighten her hair, “so at least on this topic I don’t evoke controversy.” A genetically curly nation has come to remove curls from the spotlight, providing a hotbed for Paz’s curly rebellion.

Instagram, however, has become a battlefield for natural hair positivity. A couple of social media influencers, Eden Fines and Yulia Plotkin Oz, have emerged on the platform in recent years, sporting voluminous curls. In 2019, two influential models, Daniel Greenberg and Shlomit Malka Levi, had announced a “comeback” to their naturally curly hair, after years of invasive treatments. “My curls aren’t new, what’s new is the fact I started loving them,” Malka Levi wrote in a formative post in August, after an Israeli media outlet ran an online survey asking readers to choose between a curly and a straight look for the supermodel (most voted for the latter). Similarly, the goal of Metultalot’s Instagram page, Paz said, is “to bring back the confidence to curly women, by showing there’s a large community around them.”

But for curly hair to make a comeback, people like Paz have to go beyond social media and get directly into hair salons. “For many years, the straightener and blow-dry industry in Israel has been booming,” said Paz. “These are expensive procedures that put a lot of money in hairdressers’ pockets, so they push women to get in line.” Having recently quit her day job to entirely devote herself to the community and its activities, Paz is hard at work on My Curly Way, her own line of products designed for curly hair, with feedback from her group’s members in mind.

Benyamin (Benon) Toledano, a hairdresser (with curly hair in his pre-shaved-head past) who has years of experience treating curly hair, has always been drawn to the texture. So a few years into his career, he decided to cut back on straightening treatments for curly clients. Instead, for the past 12 years, he’s been running the hair salon Metultalot Shel Benon (Benon’s curly girls) in the suburban town of Ganei Tikva. Clients flock from all over the county. “The Metultalot group has definitely brought a change, a real revolution,” he said. Being one of the few Israeli hairdressers who strongly identify themselves with curly haired clientele, Toledano had seen plenty of sad stories. “Many clients come scarred by previous experiences, in which their hair was mistreated, cut wrong, or someone persuaded them to straighten it,” he said. “For them, embracing curls is almost like coming out of the closet.”

It’s especially hard, added Toledano, given the psychological aspects of having straight or curly hair—so many of them are at play, he’s currently collecting materials to write a book about curls. “There’s a lot of certainty and peace of mind in having straight hair,” he said. “You know exactly how you’ll look like after a shower, in the rain, in London or Jamaica, waking up or going to bed. You don’t need to worry.” Perhaps, in a country ridden with summertime humidity, social and ethnic divides, and an unpredictable political and social climate, going curly is a braver move than it may seem at first. Or, as Malka Levi put it in an Instagram post: “Forgoing curls is just a symptom of something deeper, of our tendency to minimize ourselves, conform, not confront. Set yourself free of all the conditioning that prevents you being your fullest, most wonderful version.” Fittingly, her words were accompanied by a selfie, with a head full of big, rebellious curls.

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.