For this month’s “Hair Story” we caught up with model/actress, Malliha Ahmad for a journey through her experiences with her billowing tresses; a subject of people’s fascination over the years, and how she’s come to embrace herself as beautiful both inside and out.
getting to the root of it
I’m originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My mother is Black and my father, Pakistani.
Milwaukee is a very conservative and reserved place. It’s very cookie cutter, meaning going out with my hair wild and in an afro was looked at as extremely different and I’d get a lot of stares and glares from people just wondering “why is her hair like that?” or “why isn’t it tamed? It looks wild.” You can get a complex living in a place that’s not as diverse and is a bit more segregated because people aren’t as welcoming when it comes to things that are different from what they typically see.
While living there, I tried to tame my hair by putting a lot of mousse in it because I didn’t want it to be extremely big and wild because I didn’t have the time to have people staring at me and looking at me weird.
In middle school I remember I cut it into a very short bob. I cut my hair short because I was going through a phase. ..I told my mom I wanted to cut it; she agreed that since I was young and [it] would grow back really fast. So I cut it and when it grew back, I started to straighten it, I guess because I was going through an identity crisis. When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I started to straighten my hair more consistently to the point where you would hardly ever see it curly. And that was just how I wore my hair.
I think my identity crisis also had to do with my mixed heritage (my mother being Black and my father Pakistani). Growing up, my grandparents were Muslim and although I wasn’t raised religious, when going to the mosque with them, people would look at me at the mosque (which was predominantly Pakistani women) and would make little jokes about my hair and ask me, “Why is it so big?” Sometimes people would say things like, “Well there’s no way she can be part Pakistani because her hair is like that,” or “You don’t look like us.” I remember thinking, how can they tell me that I’m not something that I actually am because of my hair? So growing up, I was like, what do I do? As a result, of course I tried to conform. I tried to appease other people just so I didn’t have to answer any questions. And because I didn’t want to go through that, I would straighten it.
As time went on, I decided that I would wear it curly because 1.) it takes too much time to straighten it and 2.) I was putting a lot of strain and heat on my hair on a consistent basis. I decided to just embrace my natural hair as opposed to try to hide my curls. This was when I was around 17 or 18 years old. By age 18 I lived on my own so I was starting to see things differently and make adult decisions. Because I wasn’t living at home anymore, a lot of things hit me. I thought, why do I need to conform to anything? I need to just be myself and accept the fact that my hair is different and it’s beautiful. So it was more of an internal thing in order to come to that decision.
I started modeling for commercial print campaigns when I moved to New York, and I’ve been doing it for a little over three and a half years. I would either get booked because of my hair, or I would not book a job because of my hair. Often times, it’s the latter but it goes beyond my hair. It’s more about the fact that I look ethnic and casting agents don’t know where to place me. I’ve been told several times that I’m not African and I’m not Russian, so there really isn’t a convenient box to fit me in. The industry is a very racist one. You’re not flipping through pages of magazines and seeing pictures of people like me or other women of color. You don’t see a lot of that in magazines but it’s an ongoing effort, which to me is sad. The modeling industry should be diverse and it’s just sad that it’s not. I’ve had to go through a lot of obstacles, trials and tribulations in the industry, mainly because of a lack of showing diversity, but through it all, the industry has come to accept me and appreciate my hair. They want it big they want it wild and that’s how they like it.
The industry’s acceptance of me is bitter sweet, because I’ve out grown it. I realize now, that I don’t want to be in an industry that’s pretentious, very me-centered, and selfish. To consistently have to subject myself to go into a casting or meet fashion people and all they’re doing is sizing me up, that’s not the energy that I want. At the end of the day, I know that I’m beautiful inside and out and I don’t have to be told I’m too short or maybe I’m too ethnic. So I think modeling has sort of run its course, and because I do enjoy photo shoots, I now only do it as a hobby but it’s not something that I’m not actively pursuing. I’m done!
hair care routine
Honestly, I’m such a care-free individual that my hair routine is the most simple hair routine ever.
I’ve been shampoo-free now for about 6 or 7 months. I tried the suds-free and non-sulfate shampoos and I didn’t like the way it made my hair feel. It felt like there was still some type of chemical in it because there weren’t any suds. So I kind of bounced around to different shampoos and I tried a lot of different products, a lot of which were being sent to me for free. I started to notice that the shampoos I was using were stripping my hair completely of the natural oils that it produces. I realized that wasn’t working for me and decided to step into the zone of no shampoos and going the method of really just detangling it using a conditioner and going through my hair with my hand.
Sometimes, I braid my hair at night so that it’s easier to comb through in the shower. I typically use a natural conditioner from the Lush product line, and after applying the conditioner on my hair and comb through it. I then let it air dry (I don’t even use a towel). I noticed since I stopped towel drying it, it’s just kind of a bit more happy in that state.
I’m a person that likes to give so I want to travel and find a way to make a difference as opposed to being in engulfed in this fashion world. The fashion world doesn’t do anything to nourish me or nourish my spirit on any level, so I’m excited to either teach abroad, travel in general, start a non-profit or become involved with a non-profit organization.
I also plan on cutting off all my hair and capture the experience on video. I would then like to donate my hair to a young girl or woman that may have alopecia or is dealing with cancer. Someone that I know would appreciate it although I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate my hair, at the end of the day, it’s just hair and it will grow back. I don’t have a set date just yet for the big chop, or how I’m going to go about doing it, but I do know that I want to donate it.
UPDATE: Since this interview, Malliha went through with her plan and cut off all her locks, and still looks gorgeous as ever!
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Malliha has been featured in top commercial print campaigns for GUESS Brand Jeans and also took part in the highly talked about “You can Touch My Hair” exhibit and short film presented by un-ruly.com.