...skinny hair's in. Michele Kirsch untangles a trend for hair straightening
Women with natural curls often receive backhanded compliments. "Nice hair, is it a perm?" is only a few bad manners away from "nice cleavage, are they implants or does it come with the bra?"

For in the age of skinny hair, who in their right mind would volunteer for curls? They may look good on little girls, okay on your Anita Roddick eco-friendly types, fantastic on Andie McDowell, but on anyone else they're at best untidy and at worst dated.

The perm is dead and hair straightening is all the rage. Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields would look like Harry Enfield's Scousers Glam Sisters if they let their curls out of the closet. Nothing typecasts a girl quite like a head of curls. In her late teens and twenties she is a new age hippie. In her thirties she is too cerebral to bother. In her 40s and 50s she is an ageing hippie. In her 60s she can go for the Miss Havisham look.

No wonder that natural curlies are going straight in droves, opting out of a bad hair life to become slaves to the professionally wielded blow drier, straightening serums, tongs, and most seriously, chemical relaxers.

Though permed curls go in and out of fashion, artificial straightness has come into its own largely through the over exposure of cover girl natural straights, from Patsy Kensit to the Spice Girls. Sure, there are some curlies who just want to experience the impatient flicking of frontal fronds, which always look so cool in a beautiful-when-they're- angry sort of way on straights. Others want to know what it feels like to have a lover run their hands through her hair, knowing there's a chance he'll be able to extract it again. Others, sadly, just want to look like Rachel in Friends. Sarah Simpson, 28, a copywriter, has been unravelling her curls "since straight hair has become fashionable. I was at the hairdresser and there was a copy of Vogue with Patsy Kensit on the cover, and everybody in the salon looked just like that".

What the hairdresser achieves in 15 minutes with an industrial strength blow dryer and a round brush takes Sarah 40 minutes. "Because I've got brown curly hair, my dream is to have long blonde straight hair. The hairdresser straightened it, gave me fronds and highlights and everyone told me how nice it looked." Sounds suspiciously like the Rachel cut. Jennifer Aniston, who plays Rachel, is another closet curly.

Gary France, creative director of the Toni & Guy Academy, says there were so many requests for the Rachel cut last year that "we had to watch the show to see what the fuss was about". He admits that technically it's a good cut but it's "really commercial".

"Last year, we did straight hair all over the head, but now we're looking to straighten hair in areas, keeping root lift so you get that bit of volume, and straightening the middle and end. We're looking at hair with more texture volume and movement."

Though Toni & Guy will chemically relax curly hair if the client wants it, it's not something they advertise. "We prefer to work with the natural texture of the hair".

It's ironic that Europeans are now resorting to the same processes they developed to make Afro-Caribbean hair more European. June Watson, of CJ's Salon in Upper Clapton, London, has been styling Afro-Caribbean hair since the 1960s. "European people made Teda relaxer for anyone's hair. We used it at first and it made black hair semi straight but it only lasted for six weeks. Then there was Magic Hair Straight. We had to check for strength porosity and abrasions on the scalp, because the relaxing agent was sodium hydroxide which burns. We'd have to grease or base the scalp so it wouldn't burn, but now they have products with no lye."

Are there any signs of a return to the Afro or is chemically relaxed hair here to stay? "It will never go out of fashion because it makes our hair so much more manageable," says Watson. "You have to keep up with the times so when someone comes in asking to look like a pop star, you know who they mean."

And the Rachel of the Afro-Caribbean community? "People say they want to look like Diana Ross. We just laugh and say 'great, but have you got the hair for it'."