10 Asian American Women On How Their Hair Shapes Their Identity
Plus, the products they swear by.
For Asian American women, hair traditions and superstitions across the continent are a diverse array of rituals, rooted in centuries of culture. If you’re Chinese, you’ve probably heard about how you should never sleep with wet hair — it’s believed in traditional Chinese medicine that if you do, you’ll fall ill. For those of Indian descent, hair oiling is a beloved nighttime self care routine that’s passed down from mother to daughter. In the Philippines, advertisements tout ways to achieve silky straight black hair, the beauty standard of the country. And in South Korea, salons are a way of life, with innovative treatments focused on optimizing scalp health.
But what happens when these cultural traditions interact with Western ones? Identifying as Asian American has always been a balancing act between two very different point of views, especially as hair is one of the many ways we present ourselves to the world. Whether it’s battling stereotypes about what colors, styles, and textures are appropriate to exploring one’s sexuality via experimenting with cuts, there is no one ideal Asian American hair standard, despite the way it’s usually depicted in Western mainstream culture.
Ahead, 10 women across the Asian American diaspora discuss how their cultural identities, family traditions, and desire for authentic self-expression have shaped the way they approach their hair.
Faith Xue, Executive Beauty Director, Bustle Digital Group
Like many Asian women who go platinum blonde, Faith Xue, BDG’s Executive Beauty Director, credits model Soojoo Park for the inspiration. “I was obsessed with how it completely changed her overall vibe and how striking it was. It was head-turning, and I wanted that,” she says. It took years before she could commit to the process, especially as it initially took 10 hours to transform her long black hair to the right icy hue. “I finally found a colorist, Christine Thompson the color director at Spoke & Weal, who I trusted for [the first change] and now I see Reece Walker for maintenance without breakage,” Xue explains.
Xue has kept the color for almost four years and recalls that when she first changed her look, she felt like a completely different person that attracted more attention. “Being a platinum Asian conveyed something about me that was unspoken — maybe that I'm ‘edgy’ or experimental?,” she recalls. Xue views it more as a form of experimentation and also a rebellion against the way Asian women are perceived as a model minority. But it’s also fun. “You can use it as a base to experiment with other colors. Natural blondes and light-haired people get to try other shades so why shouldn't we?,” she says.
In order to maintain her hair, Xue is particular about her products. She starts off with a gentle shampoo like Oribe Alchemy or Colorwow Color Security and then adds K18 as a treatment right out of the shower. She’s also a fan of Christophe Robin’s Baby Blonde conditioner as well as Olaplex’s new hair serum. “My blonde hair feels like part of my identity now, and though I'm not against going back to my natural dark-brown state (I'm sure my scalp would be very grateful for that day) and the upkeep is intense, I don't see it happening anytime soon,” she says.
Rooshy Roy, Founder of Aavrani
Bridgerton introduced a new audience to the Ayurvedic tradition of hair oiling but for Rooshy Roy, the founder of Aavrani, a beauty brand based in Indian beauty rituals, it’s a tradition passed down through her family. “My grandmother took it very seriously and she passed the wisdom down to my mom when she immigrated from Kolkata to Detroit, where I was born and raised,” she says. Growing up, Roy recalls her mother massaging a combination of castor and coconut oils, amla powder, and hibiscus flowers into her scalp hair. They’d place towels on their pillows and let the mixture soak in overnight, before washing it out the next day.
Like many children of immigrants who wanted to fit into mainstream white American culture, Roy abandoned the practice in college, which is why that scene between characters Kate and Edwina is so poignant. “I’ve never seen an Ayurvedic tradition being showcased in media that’s not exclusively for Indians. I can’t imagine the effect it would’ve had on my self-esteem if there were more visibility for me growing up. This kind of representation is what fosters pride in one’s heritage and oneself,” she says.
Representing and sharing her culture is important to Roy, which is why she started her own Indian-inspired beauty brand and also why she’s reinstated many traditions back into her own life. “Beauty emerges more often as a result of practicing wellness rituals. It’s a lifestyle and the basis of Ayurvedic beauty,” she says. To that end, she’s on top of her scalp and hair health by using Mielle Organics scalp oil, Dabur Amla gold hair oil, and Shaz & Kiks scalp and hair pre-wash. When it comes to cutting it, she keeps it low maintenance — she’s had the same style for years and only goes to a salon twice a year, opting for a different one each time. “My philosophy is if I’m taking care of its health, I don’t need to do much more,” she says.
Moonlynn Tsai, Restaurateur and Co-Founder of Heart of Dinner
When Moonlynn Tsai, restaurateur and co-founder of Heart of Dinner, a charity organization fighting food insecurity among Asian elders, was first exploring her sexuality, she learned how hair affected the way she was perceived. “I’d frequent women's bars in West Hollywood in my early 20s when I had straight black mid-length hair and presented femme. I remember being told that the space wasn’t for straight women and I should go somewhere else, which hurt a lot,” she recalls. To fit into her new environment, Tsai decided to ask her stylist to give her an undercut and discovered how much she loved it. “I suppose it was a rite of passage but I did enjoy it, it was so easy to maintain that I kept it for a decade after,” she says.
In 2020, Tsai decided to try to grow her hair out. “It took me about five months! Normally I’ve never had the discipline to wait it out since my hair grows sideways and sticks out,” she says of her current style, which she’s still unsure about. “I’m going to give it a couple months and if it’s still not working, I’ll cut it again.” Tsai’s flexibility with her hair started in college, which she describes as a period of discovery and experimentation. Since those days she’s done everything from dyeing her hair every color of the rainbow (except green) to cutting it short to keeping it long. “I’ve never been tied to any one style. A haircut is a form of artistic expression so my favorite thing to do is that I give absolutely no direction aside from you can do whatever you want. I love seeing the different creativity at the end of each session,” Tsai says.
For now, maintenance is fairly simple, especially since she’s busy running two businesses. Tsai alternates between using Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal shampoo and 2Note Hudson shampoo and conditioner every two to three times a week. “I love 2Note and their founders. Their Opus 5 is a handmade concoction of eucalyptus, clary sage, and peppermint that smells and feels heavenly,” she says. And when she wants to add texture she’ll go for R+Co Freeway Defining Spray Gel.
Yin Chang, Co-Founder of Heart of Dinner and Actor
As a teen Yin Chang was embarrassed about her naturally wavy hair. “My mom has natural tight coils while my dad’s is straight. I noticed all the popular Asian Americans had straight, glossy styles, while mine would air dry into what looked like tumbleweeds,” she recalls. Chang would sneak behind her mother’s back to flatiron her hair but as she grew up, she embraced its texture. “I finally realized that we as Asian Americans exist in multitudes, including our own natural hair. Instead of feeling ashamed and shying away from my natural waves, I started to embrace them by following my mom’s footsteps of air-drying, and using a curling iron to define the waves even more,” she says.
Chang’s current hair was a self care moment inspired by the work she’d been doing as a co-founder of Heart of Dinner. “I’d been putting my head down constantly and it had been wearing me down mentally, emotionally, physically. This red was the last color I dyed my hair in late 2019, during a time that I had been going through a bit and it reminded me of the spirit of a phoenix. It was a full circle moment for me to try it again for that same reason, and this time to do it on the heels of Lunar New Year to also symbolize the celebration of my heritage and carry it proudly,” she says of the hue.
When asked if Chang ever worries that her colorful hair falls into the “rebellious Asian girl trope,” she counters that hair and representation shouldn’t be so limiting and simplistic. “What we do with our body is our agency. We should have complete artistic freedom to navigate and explore, especially since there’s such limited complex and holistic portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream media that box us into certain stereotypes. It hinders agency.”
Some of her favorites for maintaining her red, wavy hair include Oribe dry texturizing spray for lift and texture, Prose shampoo, and Moroccan Oil treatment for the ends of her hair.
Kristina Rodulfo, Beauty Content Creator
If you’ve ever watched former beauty director turned content creator Kristina Rodulfo’s videos, you might have caught a glimpse of her mom while chatting all things beauty. And while Rodulfo may not have any rituals passed down through the generations, she’s proud of her Filipina heritage and seeks out stylists who understand her hair. “I don't have a "go-to" for cuts, but I do get my hair colored every four to six months and see Lucille Javier at Mark Ryan Salon. She's also Filipina and has a lot of other Asian clients, so I've always trusted her with my hair. It can be tricky when it comes to color and naturally dark hair, so I found it valuable to have a colorist I could relate to,” she says.
Currently Rodulfo’s hair is a deep brown but in the past she’s had everything from pink to silver to peach. “People kept telling me I was ruining my hair but it felt like I was unlocking a more creative side to myself,” she says of the colors. In the context of beauty standards, these comments make sense, “In the Philippines it’s really common for people to have hair like mine — long, shiny, and black. If you look at any hair commercial there, it’s considered ideal,” Rudolfo adds. But she feels like that’s not an inclusive way of looking at Asian hair. “There's a lot of unlearning to do when it comes to stereotypes of Asian women, in general, but particularly around how we look. We don't all have fair skin, black straight hair, monolids, or petite frames. There is such a wide spectrum of features to be embraced.”
Rodulfo also makes it a point to maintain hair health. Two years ago she started experiencing thinning around her temples so she started using Harklinikken's shampoo, conditioner, and treatment to help with thickness. After washing, she’ll opt for a microfiber hair towel, which is lightweight and tugs less, before combing with a detangler like Tangleteezer. She’s also a fan of adding treatments to her damp hair like the Ceremonia Guava Rescue Spray (which is also a heat and UV Protectant) or a couple drops of the Sol ee Janeiro Brazilian Glossy™ Nourishing Anti-Frizz Hair Oil on her ends.
Christine Chang, Co-Founder of Glow Recipe
Like Rodulfo, Christine Chang, co-founder of Glow Recipe, finds that a stylist that shares her cultural background makes for the best experience. “I go to Brandon Shin, who I found through friends. He understands how my heavy, straight hair falls and cuts it so that it feels light and fluffy. We’ll talk in Korean, especially about trends since they do a lot of K-Pop artists,” she says. For Chang, a cut means more than just shaping her hair, it’s about fostering a sense of community.
Korean hair salons, much like K-beauty, are full of innovative treatments. “It's a whole experience. I go to Caradi in Seoul, which actually has a small kitchen in the same building. I’ll order my favorite comfort food like kimbap or dukbokki before chatting with the hairdresser to get my cut, treatments, and blowout,” she says, adding that the big trend of the moment is scalp care. “My friends will go monthly for clarifying or moisturizing treatments as well as massages. They’ll also look at your scalp with cameras, to make sure it's as healthy as possible,” Chang says.
And while digital perms and magic straight treatments are the norm there, Chang stays away from any chemical add-ons. “As a child my mom used to perm my hair, which is also what she does with her hair. It’s the classic “success perm” that she’s had for decades. I looked so silly that I stay away from those now. I’ve also gotten the magic perms, which are like keratin press treatments, in the past. It left some damage on my hair so now I try to keep my care simple,” she says of her current routine. Chang’s a fan of Briogeo Rice Water Protein Treatment to help tone and nourish the skin after cleansing. Her other favorite is Fable & Mane Brush since it feels really gentle on the scalp.
Sarah Lee, Co-Founder Glow Recipe
As the other co-founder of Glow Recipe, it’s no surprise that Sarah Lee incorporates K-beauty into her hair routine as well. When she’s in Korea she’s a fan of hitting up the salons for a scalp scaling treatment, which is similar to a facial, except it’s for the skin on her head. “You start with a steaming session to help soften the scalp, followed by an exfoliation, and finishing with a wash and a head massage. The belief is that having a cleansed, detoxified, healthy scalp will strengthen hair strands. It’s the same philosophy as having a great canvas before applying any makeup,” she says.
Lee also continues traditions from her mom to help keep her hair soft and smooth, even when she’s not able to go to the salons in Korea. “One tip I learned from my mom, that I still use today, is a vinegar treatment rinse. As I have dry, very textured hair, my mom used to treat it with a rice wine vinegar rinse before conditioning. This not only helped to soften my strands but also gave me deep scalp cleanse,” she says of the memory. These days Lee has switched from a DIY home treatment to using DPHue’s ACV hair rinse but the idea remains the same.
Growing up in Korea and Hong Kong. Lee’s dry, textured hair always made her feel like an outsider. “Everyone had straight hair so as a teenager, I’d save up my allowance for straightening treatments at the salon or spend hours getting ready attempting to achieve silky smooth locks,” she recalls. Now she’s learned to love her hair and a recent move to Miami has helped. “I met an amazing hairstylist, Emiliano De Pasqual of Atma Beauty Salon and he’s helped tame my frizz while keeping it voluminous, and low maintenance for that just-got-out-of-bed look,” Lee explains.
It also helps to use the right products. Like how Lee approaches skin care, she’s also particular about what she puts in her hair as well as her routine. She starts by shampooing with sulfate-free shampoos like L’oreal Paris EverPure Bond Strengthening Shampoo to help minimize frizz and preserve her highlights before using a hair mask like Fable & Mane’s HoliRoots Hair Mask or Briogeo’s Don’t Despair Repair. “I use a deep conditioner after every hair wash, and give myself a scalp massage for at least 5 minutes,” Lee says of her routine. To finish, she’ll alternate between JVN Hair Oil Shine Drops and Fable & Mane’s Hair HoliRoots Hair Oil Mist for added shine.
Lulu Yao Gioiello, Creative Director and Founder of Far Near Media
While Lulu Yao Gioiello, a creative director and the founder of Far Near Media, a cross-cultural book series on Asia, might not have grown up around her mom, she still serves as hair inspiration. “My mom’s pretty untraditional. Every time I see her she's done something different — sometimes it's long and straight, and then she'll shave it all off. I've seen it red and permed during an Anna Sui phase, and currently it's like Tin Tin's buzz cut with the cowlick at the front. I always admired her experimental relationship to hair,” she says.
It’s not a surprise then that Gioiello’s current mullet is equally as unconventional — a mix of two styles she’s had in the past. Growing up she had a bowl cut that she hated so she rebelled with a waist-length ponytail that she had until she was about 20 years old. A stylist cut it off without her permission which triggered her desire to experiment. “I’ve had a Faye Wong-inspired pixie and then Masami Hosono at Vacancy Project helped me go shorter. During [quarantine] I decided I wanted a little bit of both, and now have a really long mullet. I want to see how long it can get in the back so I can wear it in braids,” she says of her hair, which requires little maintenance besides using her favorite Vanicream Free & Clear shampoo and conditioner as well as a John Masters hair mask treatment once a week.
Having a unique cut feels most authentic to Gioiello. “I've always felt in between masculine and feminine, and I found that I used to attract people I wasn't interested in when I had long hair, and I lost that attention once I changed my look. Sometimes I get misgendered in public spaces but in some ways I prefer that to getting unwanted male attention in bars or walking down the street,” she says, recalling a time in Japan when this happened. “This man in Tokyo came up to me once and asked me, ‘man or woman?’ and I responded, ‘I don't know, who am I?’ I think I like the fluidity my hair and physical features allot me,” Gioiello adds.
Connecting Eastern and Western points of view is a key part of Gioiello’s work. “We did a short film on Asian hair for our second issue,” she says of the almost three-minute clip that highlights how culture interacts with hair. “If you actually spend time in Asia or with Asian people, you realize not everyone falls into the ‘long silk hair’ category. I'm seeing the most innovative and fun hair coloring techniques coming out of China and Japan,” she explains.
Maryah Ananda, Model & Chef
With a Lao-American mother and Afro-French father, model and chef Maryah Ananda incorporates both of her cultures into her work. She shares dishes she’s learned from her grandmother like Som Phak Kahd and proudly highlights her hair’s natural texture in her modeling images. “I love to exude confidence and beauty that’s grounded in my roots. Sometimes when planning for an event I think, This outfit would look so hot with some Senegalese twists. It's getting warm now and I love to wear my hair big during the summer. Something about a ‘fro and a slip dress resonates with me,” she explains.
Accepting her natural texture took time though. Growing up in South Florida, Ananda was bullied in middle school. “I remember when I was in middle school some kids would throw small paper balls in my hair because it would stick. We’re villainized for what is natural to us. I used to straighten my hair all the time, to the point where half of my head used to be straight because of the damage,” she recalls, noting how she internalized the fetishization of silky, straight strands as a teen. But she credits her mom and grandmother for their unconditional love. “My mom would give me braids with beads, bow knockers and use pink hair lotion. My edges were pounding from the tightness of all that! My grandma would brush my hair and put it in a ponytail, so I definitely felt cared for,” Ananda says.
Like Roy, Ananda is a fan of Shaz & Kiks scalp and hair pre-wash but she also cites Prose Curl cream and Miss Jessie’s Multicultural Curls as favorites for keeping everything healthy and moisturized. “I think more curly headed people are embracing their natural hair now more than ever and it feels incredible to see people rock it. I'm excited to see all the texture this summer!” she says.
Lindsay Arakawa, Artist
When artist Lindsay Arakawa lived in New York City, she dyed her hair every color of the rainbow, but once she moved to Japan in 2018, she found herself toning down her look. “When I first got to Tokyo, I changed my hair from blue to black for a more natural look. I was so worried about standing out that I went with the safest route, but every time I looked in the mirror I would feel so conflicted because it never felt right,” she says. But after a month, Arakawa decided to be true to herself and went to the oversea salon in Aoyama to get her hair back to its original playful hues.
Her latest color is inspired by her new home city. “I was on my way to get my hair done at a salon called Fleuri in Daikanyama and initially I wanted to dye my hair pink. But the train I was on is called the Yamanote Line, which is a bright green color. I thought that would be more fun and it was a spur of the moment decision,” Arakawa explains.
Relocating to a different country does require some other adjustments as well. Since Arakawa has to bleach her hair so often, she had to find new Japanese brands since the ones she used to rely on in New York weren’t available. “I stopped shampooing and now only use conditioner on a daily basis. I try to use products that help with all of the damage,” she says. Her current favorites include The Public Organic Treatment in the shower and a mix of Milbon Repair for Fine Hair, La Sana Hair Essense, and Matomage Hair Styling Stick for after.
And while acclimating and finding new products might have taken some trial and error, Arakawa notes that Japanese salons have made her feel more comfortable. “It was always a struggle in the States to find a stylist who knew how to cut and style Asian hair, so being here definitely helps me feel more comfortable. Tipping culture also isn't a thing here, so my appointments end up being pretty affordable for the amount of time that I'll spend sitting in the chair, which is usually around six hours,” she says.