When I was younger I went to a very affluent, very chichi, and very white elementary school. I was largely surrounded by little girls and boys who summered in Europe and wintered in Aspen. As young as we all were, some had no concept that their monied life experiences were different than mine, a young girl who divided her time between the Bronx and Washington Heights. Others knew exactly how different their experiences were and weren’t shy about rubbing it in just a tad. And while my thoughts on those formative years could span an entire book, there’s just one element I want to focus on now.
Yes, my hair. It’s funny what parts of a person children will focus on. When I was little it didn’t escape my attention that my hair looked different from many of the kids in my class. Mine was distinctly thicker, had a bit more frizz to it and while many of the little girls simply popped out of the bath with fun waves, my hair involved a two-hour marathon of washing, setting and drying and then drying/straightening some more. Oh and let’s not forget how I was very much accustomed to the thick, white schmear of a relaxer every few months (If I recall correctly, I had my first one in kindergarten or first grade). But even though I felt a “Bluest Eye”-esque tinge of envy as the straight, blonde locks of my classmates seemed to epitomize beauty those days, I was a kid and didn’t focus on my differences as strongly. However as I grew older and children got more observant (and thus a little meaner), my self-consciousness about my hair started to rear it’s head.
By those pre-teen years, I was definitely feeling some kind of way about my hair and its inability to cooperate when I needed it most. But then, after spending years in that fancy elementary school, my parents sent me to catholic school in Washington Heights. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who looked like me. Who knew what it was like to spend hours in a Dominican salon on a Sunday afternoon, bachata blaring. There was such a comfort to the shared experience of hair. Yes, I know that might sound a little trivial, but there is no denying that women of color have struggled long and hard when it comes to hair. But at least I had other young ladies who could understand where I was coming from.
From finding products that work well to identifying stylists who know how to treat your hair in a healthy manner, its been a difficult path to beauty equality for women who don’t fit the mainstream mold. Moreover than just finding the tools for the job — to make our beauty regimes as easy as Caucasian women’s — we’ve struggled with how our hair is perceived by our community as well as those outside of it. Terms like “wool,” “nappy,” and “good hair” became a part of the beauty lexicon for women of color, positioning us in a constant battle against our cultural heritage. The idea that having thick, curly hair was unacceptable and that it needed to be tamed spoke volumes about how the minority experience was interpreted and, unfortunately, is sometimes still interpreted today. Any deviation from the perceived norm –hair that doesn’t fit neatly into the beauty box– is wrong and must be fixed. Anything that can’t be solved with mainstream products is wrong. At an impressionable age in my teens and even my early 20s, it was easy to fall into these tropes and to feel that there was something wrong with my brown locks. That because society and beauty culture wasn’t speaking to me that something was wrong.
As time went on, I became incredibly frustrated and disillusioned with the type of hair I have. Being a woman of both Black and Puerto Rican heritage, my hair is a mix of frizzy, curly, thick as all get-out, and temperamental. For so long I struggled with understanding why it wouldn’t behave like everyone else’s. Why going out in the rain or facing crazy humidity was like kryptonite. Why working out or going for a run instantly puffed up my hair into a hot mess. Why washing my hair every other day wasn’t an option because it took so long to dry and manage into a style I felt comfortable leaving the house with. Even when I went off to college, I was still at odds with my tresses. When I met my husband and casually talked about having kids one day, I used to joke about how much I wanted them to have my more olive skin tone, but his straight, easily managed hair.
But then something changed for me.
As I’ve grown older and have more firmly embraced my identity as a woman of color, my hair has played a central role in that. No longer do I feel self-conscious if its been a minute since heat has touched my head. No longer do I feel compelled to get a relaxer every three months (though, I’ll be transparent in saying I haven’t mustered the courage to go relaxer-free just yet). No longer do I wish that my hair would just be like everyone else’s and fall in line with how mainstream culture portrays the hair ideal. No.
To me, my hair is a badge of honor. A clear sign of my cultural heritage and ethnic identity. It’s a way for me to proudly boast of my background as a Boriqua and a black woman in even the most subtle way wherever I go. Whether curly, straight or something in between I’ve learned to see how beautiful my hair is. And in thinking about the day when I might have children, I want them to have a piece of me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea that my kids will be a mini-United Nations, having a very mixed background. However, I also know that there is a chance that if my kids have blonde locks, then I might look a bit more like the babysitter than their mom. And I want them to share in the pride I have for my culture.
After years of wishing these tresses away, I couldn’t think of not having them. My hair is something I cherish and the battle that I waged with it for so many years is one I’m happy I had. It taught me to have a great degree of pride and self-confidence that I take with me wherever I go and in any situation.
In short, I have learned to love my hair