Saturday, October 17, 2009

I attended a conference about the social implications of hair - needless to say, I thought about it for a while.

Long hair was precious when I was young. From the bushy afro of my baby pictures grew a mane that writhed down my back and looped itself over my sloping shoulders. I was a tomboyish child who let leaves get stuck in my curls and let the dark black color of it bake in the summer sun. My hair was always frizzy, never flat.
For a child not indoctrinated into a love affair with dolls, brushing my hair was tantamount to the impossible. My knots had to be combed or cut out by force – first by my blond aunt who was a hairdresser and who sent suggestive combs back with me after each visit. On those occasions, I would squirm in the chair and bite my lip as the scissors came near my ears. Later, my mom tried to tame the beast in our dining room chairs that squeaked as she wrenched holes in my head laying out remonstrations. At that point, I realized that I had to take this into my own hands.
I refused my mother and asked for my dad’s stylist, who plunged me into the shortest haircut I’d had since 6th grade – I was then a junior in high school. With hair around my ears, I no longer was loathe to comb it, which used to take hours and was extremely frustrating.
Indeed, he attacked my curly hair and gave it style – though I had never coveted the time spent by my peers on “hair-epy,” I could now see that their locks were easier tamed than mine because of the constant war they had waged. With short hair, my image became younger (not exactly the best thing for a 16-year-old girl) and my face appeared rounder. But the trials of short curly black hair remained. There was no way to get it off your neck with a ponytail holder, my afro began to rise again in class photos, and I began to judge whether I was taken seriously with a spunky cut that frizzed out in all directions. The melody of regret arose.
But I had never enjoyed the process of growing it back out – why my hair was neither “here” nor “there” represented the times I was most prone to insecurity. So I kept cutting until I reached the wall.
The first time I straightened my hair was in senior year. I sat, trembling, in the salon chair and waited with trepidation. But after the ordeal of burning follicles and half my hair falling to the floor (or at least what looked like it), I peeked at the strange new face and… it looked good. It was long and soft; it wafted like all the natural straight hair that had been prized for centuries before. Needless to say that when I tried to go for this look at home, my head turned into a half-wavy rat’s nest, but there’s no need to talk about that. But straight hair felt like a betrayal.
As a darling child, the older women would lust after my natural curls – even as I screamed at cutting out the knots as if I were an unruly cat, I remembered their praise. With straight hair, I just wasn’t accurate. I looked more doll-like and ultra-femme than my nature warranted. But the compliments rolled in from peers: I was a beauty conformist.
It makes me wonder whether people enjoy conformity so much that, even when it is out of place, they applaud. I had (and still have) a very staunch response to hair dye (an emphatic “NO!”) because it screams out that plasticity is the way to go. I can’t abide by it. I wouldn’t be myself as a blond, brunette, or blue-headed person. Even though, I must admit, the last one has come to mind.
When I discovered conditioner washing, I thought it was a revolution for curly-haired girls (but it turns out I just came late to the party). No shampoo equals no frizz? Something led me to try it and I fell in love. There was no longer an excuse for me to twist up my curls or pick at them for hours with a fine-tooth comb that made it bubble up like a beehive. I felt unique.
These “hair revelations” led me down a lot of paths: the weird unkempt girl and the jungle child were there, but so were the poised femme and the secure experimenter. Hair never felt important in a larger context, but looking at all the time I spent wrestling with it says that may not be all true. Self-image is inextricably linked to hair in a way that you never thought possible.

What are your hair stories?

You might also be interested in opinion pieces like Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors, Single Sex Education for Women and Girls, and The South Asian Question in a New York Minute.
More writing and stories are also available for your reading pleasure.
You can also check out some more posts featuring my photography.