In the past two years I’ve fallen in love with my hair. I’ll post pictures and videos of my bouncing curls. I’ll apologize to my friends for maybe appearing shallow but to please indulge me. But it hasn’t always been this way. In the past I regarded my hair as a nuisance. Something that needed taming; kept small.
With the humidity, my hair would become huge. People would say my hair looked like a brillo pad and a rats’ nest. So rather than learn how to properly care for curly hair, mami cut it. I got my hair from her but I have never seen her with her curls. She always kept it super short, and when she lets it grow long, she blows it out.
I hated having short hair and being mistaken for a boy. I already had a bit of a complex regarding how tall I was; I already felt unfeminine. I asked her to stop cutting it. Unsurprisingly, she then constantly took me to the salon to have it chemically straightened. The trips to the salon were brutal. I hated them. The chemicals would burn my scalp and I would cry. The stylist would tell me to stop crying because beauty was pain. I was barely 10. I asked mami why she put me through all that and she’d say that curly hair was a hassle. That’s what my hair was, a “hassle”.
At 13, I stopped the chemical straightening but always had a flat-iron handy. While I hated how much it took to get the curls to cooperate I hated my hair more. I figured the hassle of straightening it was better than the hassle of keeping it natural.
Years of chemicals and heat eventually took its toll and my hair was dry and damaged. That made me hate it even more. So I stopped the heat but didn’t embrace my curls. Instead I hid them. I would keep my hair up in a bun. Again, I didn’t give it much thought why. I just knew that my curls were bad and ugly. I didn’t bother to learn how to care for it either.
In a previous post about colorism in Puerto Rico and racism, I mentioned how my daughter’s curls were scrutinized by my family. They said what they would tell me when I was little. “El pelo no es bueno pero por lo menos no es malo”, (the hair isn’t good but at least it isn’t bad). I hated that they said that but I couldn’t figure out why. Thinking of it now, it’s a bit dehumanizing. Our hair wasn’t good or bad. It occupied some unnamed space which no one liked. Which some hated, it felt like. Back in the States, I still kept hiding my curls. TJ was starting daycare. She started telling me she wished she had straight hair. She said she hated her hair. I loved it, I told her. She had the cutest Shirley Temple curls. She’d cry and ask why she couldn’t have hair like Rapunzel’s. I wanted her to see what I saw but I didn’t know how.
Then when she was about 5, she came home crying once again about her hair. And once again I told her hair was beautiful. She asked me if I could flat-iron it. And I did and I felt like I was betraying some part of myself. Then I realized, just I had internalized my mother’s fat phobia, I had internalized her hatred of curly hair, which frankly comes down to anti-blackness. I tried so hard to make sure TJ was aware of racial inequality and colorism and here I was perpetuating the same bullshit. So, when I chopped off all my hair two years ago and dyed it purple, I decided I would never apply heat to it again.
I looked online for curly hair care tips. I use a wide tooth comb, I dry my hair with a cotton t-shirt, I only use products specifically made for curly hair. In doing all that I discovered my curls are amazing. Before, my curls were damaged so of course they didn’t look very good. But now, my hair is healthier. I get so many compliments. Those are always hard to accept but it does help.
I did for myself but also TJ. I try so hard not to make the same mistakes my mother made. I have days where I hate my body, but I don’t vocalize those thoughts around TJ. When TJ tells me I am beautiful, a compliment which makes me shudder a bit, I smile and say thank you. When she sees me wear make up and asks why I do it, I say because it makes me feel good. It makes me happy. It makes me appreciate and highlight features I think are quite lovely (most days anyway).
Looking back on my childhood and how I hated those dreaded salon visits, I can’t help but laugh at the fact that white women put themselves through similar torturous processes to make their straight and flat hair have bounce and curl. The irony isn’t lost on me. But the flat-iron is.