A Short Cut to Self-Love
When I was four years old, I had a big head of curls. My curls were not kind, friendly, demure or polite. Instead, I lived with a comb-breaking, self-righteous, stubborn, tangled web.
My mom would summon me every week to wash it, and every week I stomped and wailed and whined. And every week there were knots. Miles of them. Knots that took hours to come apart. It was a painful and grueling process. As time went on, I grew to strongly dislike my hair. It upset me how difficult it was. I disliked its bold and unique personality that relentlessly defied me.
As a Latina, especially an Afro-Latina, I felt pressured to fit in with the women in my community. Dominican and Puerto Rican women are powerhouses. We’re taught to cook, we’re taught to take care of our families, and we’re taught to put lots of effort into our hair – the mark of our beauty. Our hair is an extension of our conformity. I coveted girls with naturally long, pin-straight hair. It conveyed success and belonging. It was beautiful.
Within my community, there is surmounted pressure in fitting into euro-centric beauty standards; which I was far from meeting. I didn’t look like the rest of my family. They are lighter skinned, paired with long, thick waves that frame their soft features and decorate their shoulder blades. They look like what people expect Latinas to look like. My darker skin and tight curls led my silent resistance.
“She just has bad hair,” members of my community would say, nonchalantly. “She’ll have to straighten it.”
It wasn’t an insult, it was just a fact. Coarse curls must be tamed or hidden. After many hair consultations, we decided to relax, or chemically straighten my hair when I was six years old. I never saw my natural curls again after that. I did everything I could to repress my “bad hair” in search for “beauty.”
My new straight hair brought its own set of challenges, but I was content with our dysfunctional relationship at the time. My straight hair was a diva, a helpless damsel in distress. After a wash, she demanded hours in rollers so that she could dry “just right” and then an additional hour to pin-straighten her tresses. I had to reapply the chemicals every two months to keep her straight. Sometimes I curled her ends to appease her, and she looked great. She took so much of my money and time, but I didn’t mind. She made me shine.
By the time I was in high school, the pressure to conform took a heavier toll. Other girls commented on my soft, straight mane. “I love your shiny, salon-commercial hair, Natalia.” “You look so beautiful today.” “Your features look so great with straight hair,” they would say. I loved the comments. I loved the praise. But it wasn’t me. It was unbeknownst to them, but they were marveling at fabricated beauty, a part of me that I’d created solely to please them.
After years of succumbing to my straight tresses, I started to realize I’d become detached from my own potential for beauty. I was convinced my natural crown would not deem me worthy of it, and I continued to keep it hidden.
I’ve always had vivid memories of going to the beauty salon every couple of months with a bag full of books to read. I dedicated so much time to looking beautiful in a way that would never connect with me. The realization that I needed to reclaim my own beauty had been growing. Not just for vanity’s sake, but for my own self-care and acceptance.
Once my college years beckoned, I had less time to tame the mane. During this time, the natural curl movement began to grow, and I felt tempted to join. My beauty standards were evolving, but I feared change. What if my curls look awful? I thought. What if I never learn to love them?
As years passed, I chipped away at my fears, and surrounded myself with curlfriends who affirmed and empowered me to reclaim my hair. Three years later, I found myself at a beauty salon once more, this time not to straighten my hair, but to cut it.
“Are you sure you’re ready to chop it all off?” the hairstylist asked me.
I’ve been ready for years, I thought. “Yes,” I answered. She smiled and grabbed the first chunk of hair.
She chopped it off.
I watched as my first clump of straight ends danced their way to the ground.
I was captured by the moment, the humble beginnings of self-love. It came unannounced in the middle of the day. It showed up when I’d given up on asking it to come. The tale of my mane is a love story. It’s tempered with years of history and self-understanding, ending with a declaration of the love I have built for my natural self.
I looked back up to the mirror facing me. “Your curls are so beautiful,” the hairstylist said. And they were.