MINNEAPOLIS - With a head full of blond curls, Kristy Wilson, 34, was "a complete anomaly" in her hometown of Menomonie, Wis. "Everyone had long, Scandinavian, blowing-in-the-wind hair."
Trips to the salon were a trial. "All the stylists would swarm around me and talk about my hair," she said. "It was like I wasn't even there."
She inherited her curls from her father, who managed his mane with a close crop. Her mother had zero experience with textured hair. That led Wilson to an early adolescence of crying over wide-bristled brushes and desperate rinsing in the kitchen sink.
Like some other women with curls, Wilson stopped going to salons altogether; they only left her hair looking worse. Instead she determined that she would master her own hair, hunting for how-to tips on www.naturallycurly.com, loading up on Dep gel and L.A. Looks mousse. Eventually, she took to containing her gravity-defying locks with elaborate braids.
Wilson grew up to become a hairstylist with a mission: helping other women with curls care for, accept, and even love their hair in its natural state.
"Traditional styling methods have failed curly people," she said with a hint of religious zeal.
In August, Wilson took her crusade a step further: She and another local stylist, Rosie Jablonsky, opened a specialty salon in Minneapolis called Uptown Curl.
The world has known a few pioneering hair stylists. Vidal Sassoon mastered the geometric wedge cut. Lorraine Massey, author of the 2001 book Curly Girl, is well on her way to achieving guru status for women with natural curls.
In 1996, Massey founded the curly-oriented Devachan Salon in New York City, where she counseled clients to stop shampooing (it dehydrates thirsty curls) and stopped cutting curly hair while wet, clipping only when the hair is dry and fully shaped.
A dry cut "is more like hedging a bush," explained Wilson, a Massey follower. Hair is left in its natural state and shaped curl by curl with scissors. Thinning shears are a big no-no for stylists in the Massey tradition, even for women with pillowy, thick hair. The shears cause fraying along the edges of a hedgelike mass of hair.
Massey went on to launch the Deva Curl line of curly-hair products and started offering educational workshops for stylists.
At Uptown Curl, the stylists are loath to do blowouts, even when specifically requested. They keep a jar of curls on hand to showcase various textures. "The different kinds of curls are so beautiful," said Wilson, plucking a delicate coil from the jar and proffering it in her palm.
Reclaiming the beauty of curls in a world of ubiquitous Pantene Pro-V ads hasn't been easy for women of any race. For black women with curly hair, the first step is embracing their natural texture.
"I had relaxers since childhood," said Jan Tyson Roberts, a clinical psychologist who recently had her curls washed and set at Uptown Curl. "It was kind of a self-discovery thing. I wanted to know what my hair looked like."
She came to eschew relaxers, which may contain harsh chemicals and require time-consuming maintenance. "I just got tired of fighting with my hair every six weeks," she said. "Every six weeks my real edges would start to show and I would try to lay them down."
In the largely straight-haired Midwest, white women with curls often have been saddled with such nicknames as "Ronald McDonald" or "Lion Girl." Many came to hate their hair and went to extremes to straighten it.
"It's a curly epidemic, this kind of self-loathing," Wilson said. "For us, this is about so much more than just hair."