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Washed Up

Updated: Feb 19

While waiting for my summer photo to be taken on the school field and fiddling with the rainbow sequin headband crowned on my head, I’d faintly sing ‘Part Of Your World’ from “The Little Mermaid” to alleviate the boredom. Even though camera-shyness swirled in my stomach, I hoped that I could be one with the mermaid spirit and feel beautiful — embellished with sparkles and voluminous, swishy hair. That spirit has not aged well.

Like a thin blanket of freshly shed snakeskin, my wet t-shirt clung with uncomfortable proximity to my steaming skin. Crinkles and creases of the shirt coldly folded into the crevices of my body. Patches of water form dark and foggy stains on the cheaply like neglected bread mould. I look down at the watery carnage I created with puddles rippling everywhere below me; the idea of walking onto the dusty carpet with wet feet to grab the freshly washed towel causes an inexplicable amount of dread. My mermaid spirit was tangled, pruny, and washed out. All this mess… just to rinse out coconut oil.

To end an already horrid week, I had the dazzling idea of oiling my hair before a video meeting. With three housemates and one bathroom, the attempt to connect with my Indian heritage through self-care spiralled into a self-crisis. This is a tale of roots and regret.

For those unfamiliar, oiling is the process of massaging an oil (often sunflower, argan, or coconut) into the scalp as a preconditioner. According to a study published in 2003, Aarti S. Rele and R. B. Mohile concluded that in comparison to mineral oils and vegetable oils (such as sunflower oil), coconut oil was ‘superior’ for protecting and minimising hair damage during grooming rituals when used as a preconditioner for undamaged hair, UV-treated or chemically treated hair (:191).

Rele and Mochile argued that, “[t]he ability of coconut oil to penetrate into hair cuticle and cortex seems to be responsible for this effect. Coated on the fiber surface, it can prevent or reduce the amount of water penetrating into the fiber and reduce the swelling. This, in turn, reduces the lifting of the surface cuticle and prevents it from being chipped away during wet combing” (2003: 191).

Not only is oiling a significant part of family upbringing and lifestyles associated with Asian cultures, it has a level of scientific benefit to hair when integrated effectively into contemporary routine. However, this did not grow organically from my family upbringing; I was a rather late bloomer to coating my keratin with copious amounts of coconut oil. Born and raised in South West England by a Devonshire woman with blushing strawberry hair and an Indian man whose hair care routine never went beyond beard shearing like a prize sheep, any resources I had to learn about managing long and unruly Indian hair were limited. As I sat in front of the TV, completing my school work, I witnessed numerous advertisements promising viewers that the magic of sleek and shiny hair could be bought.

Imagine a lustrous flourish of silky and deep chocolate follicles. Imagine witnessing your reflection in the glossy sheen that bounced from root to tip. Imagine a sun-kissed woman emerging from the ocean, flinging her hair back into an archway of dazzling water droplets, welcomed by crawling vines of hypnotic hibiscus. Spritely dolphins springing about in a synchronised dance. The bountiful embrace of sparkling soap bubbles. Ribbons upon ribbons of glistening tendrils caressing the woman’s aura with a beaming, angelic glow — this is the enchanting magic of oiling. Or, you watched Nicole Scherzinger getting sudsy and enthused for Herbal Essences hair products like I did, being told about the bottled joy of sodium lauryl sulfate for £6 as if it was a folktale handed down by oral tradition. As a young TV-head with square eyes and more hair on the floor than tile or carpet, I was sold on this mermaid fantasy. The closest I could ever get to feeling like a discount Scherzinger was oiling. Alas! One unfortunate Sunday was not a Scherzinger day.