I’m not much of a summer person. I prefer the cold winter months; complete with lots of snow and a bitter chill in the air. I always thought people looked better with more clothes on. Plus, I can walk around the block and won’t reach my front steps drenched in sweat. I was the blessed with the gift of large sweat glands. During the hottest months, I always have a freckling of water droplets on my nose and gallons of water pooling up in each bra cup. It’s especially hard to bike anywhere and keep my hair straight- as soon as my roots make contact with water, they tense up and begin to curl. Summertime is the three-month span I make amends with my fro and decide to wear my hair natural, pulling it back into a ponytail or a French braid.
My hair has always been an issue with me. When I was in second grade, I trimmed my bangs with a pair of safety scissors and stuffed tuffs of hair between the sofa cushions. My mom found out and took me to the salon to even my masterpiece out. The hairdresser chopped off most of my hair, resulting in me looking like a boy. This confused a lot of people. It didn’t help that I was a bit of a tomboy growing up. I remember a gaggle of pre-teen girls chasing me around at the roller skating rink, trying to kiss me, “the really cute boy.” As I hiked with my parents in the mountains, I smiled and said “hello” to a nice couple walking by. They beamed and told my dad that he had a lovely son.
A few days ago, I biked to my boyfriend’s house and caught a glimpse of myself in his bathroom mirror. I thought I looked terrible, sweaty with mascara raccoon eyes and curly hair. We were supposed to go out to dinner but I lost my appetite. I couldn’t be seen outside. I started to cry. The boyfriend was sweet and asked what was wrong. I told him that I felt ugly, that I hated my hair, that I’d feel prettier if I was white and had naturally straight hair. He comforted me and told me that I was the most beautiful girl in the world and he loved my curls.
When I was living in New York, a Black woman on the subway told me that I had “good hair.” At the time, I could afford to splurge on expensive keratin treatments that kept my hair smooth and straight for months, even during the humid summers. I thanked her and we exchanged hair secrets. At the end of the day, me and my roommate, Jivana, talked what is meant to have “good hair.” She asked me if I watched the Chris Rock documentary, “Good Hair” and we sat down together to watch clips of the film on YouTube. I sat there with eager eyes, my mouth open wide, learning why “good hair” is so desired in different ethnic communities. In the Black community, many feel that women with lighter complexions and softer, more subdued curl patterns of hair are given partiality over women who have darker complexions and “kinker” hair. This ideal steams back to the time of slavery; the slaves with lighter skin and smoother hair were invited in the work in their master’s homes and were sometimes treated better. They looked closer to their Caucasian bosses. Those with kinky curls were considered undesirable.
With my short hair during my youth, I never felt pretty. Even in high school during my prime ponytail years, I felt like I had a mop on my head. It really wasn’t until I started getting my hair professionally blown out and straighten a few years ago that I felt really beautiful. Straighten, my hair falls past my shoulders in layered waves, like a dark ocean. While curly, it’s unmanageable and often sticks up unless I pin it down with a bobby pin. I look like a Fraggle when I first wake up in the morning. I’ve always wished that it was simple just to run a brush through my mane, getting out all the tangles. I slept over at a friend’s house and watched her get ready in the morning, combing her blonde hair with ease- so jealous!
It’s easy to blame something huge and intangible like society for the reason I felt so ugly all those years, why I hate my curly hair now, why is it so desirable to have straight, easy-to-brush hair; why can’t people accept the locks they have now and just wear their hair curly (I can picture it now- curly hair gracing every page of “Vogue” and “Elle” magazines- yay!). What would it take to win this cultural acceptance?
In 2006, India.Arie released “I Am Not My Hair,” a song that promotes self-acceptance and hushes negative attitudes about other’s appearances (I love the version featuring P!nk). I jog listening to that song, reminding myself that even though I’m sweaty and look out of breath to others, I’m taking care of my body. I want to feel the same way about my hair. I know that there are moments when I take my time to preen and primp myself and I look ideal. But most of the time, it’s easier and less time-consuming to walk out of the house with a ponytail, no make-up and sweatpants. I know I don’t look like a fashion model but I still have errands to run, plenty to do. At the supermarket, in the cereal aisle, I listen to the whispers of another woman, noting that my ponytail is sticking straight up and out. It’s those times that I wish I could show that woman that I’m more than my sweats and inverted hair. I may look ridiculous but my appearance ultimately doesn’t truly matter- I’m a remarkably strong and smart person inside of my skin.
I think about my sisters- one lives in Washington DC, studying for her last year of law school. Her Facebook pictures show a multitude of hair styles but now, she chooses to wear her hair curly most of the time. She looks fabulous and sophisticated, ready to take on the court room. I wish that I could be confident like that. She knows it’s too hot (and damaging) to straighten her hair in the middle of the summer, especially when living in such a humid city. My youngest sister is six- and she rocks her hair (she’s dances to that Willow Smith tune, “Whip My Hair,” whipping her head back and forth). Her curly ponytail is sassy and adorable- plus JT knows she’s smart and awesome at karate. They know that their hair doesn’t define them. These ladies in my life are my inspiration to own what I have. For that, I should be grateful- I have thick hair that I can wear any way I want it. Even though it’s greying and my curls can be sometimes out of control, I know that I’m more than my mane.