Tuesday, June 6, 2017
(actual picture of my hair care products)
I have big and curly hair. In its natural state, it's poofy, full of twists and spirals and personality. It doesn't care what I want it to do, and its number one enemy is the slightest bit of humidity. To maintain my hair when it's natural, I use no less than 6 products. I have butters, creams, oils , mousses, gels, sprays- you name it. On a perfect morning, I can style it just right, with the help of these products and a few prayers for good measure.
But I remember the first time a straightening iron made its way through my curls. I remember feeling the heat when it got close to my scalp, and flinching anytime it lingered for too long. I remember that I couldn't stop running my fingers through my hair, because now it was sleek and soft and easy to wear. I remember when the kids at school (mostly the boys) said that they liked my hair better this way, that I was more noticeable this way, that I was prettier this way.
Somewhere into High School, I refused to be seen with curly hair. I owned more than one straightening iron, and had to get frequent hair trims just to keep my ends neat. The first boyfriend that I ever had admitted that he preferred my straight hair because it was "neater" than my natural hair. It hurt my feelings, but I couldn't properly identify why at the time, so I brushed it off.
At the hair salon, all the women that came in would ask to have their hair straightened. This would be despite the fact that nearly all of the regular customers were Latina, and we had all kinds of hair textures which strayed from the pushed norm. Girls as young as four were getting blowouts, so as not to be seen with "messy" hair. The Eurocentric beauty standards were so strong that they seeped into the salons and souls of my people. Our shame was so deep that no one seemed phased enough to question the situation.
I had been straightening my hair so often that I sometimes found myself forgetting that it wasn't natural. Then one day, I just didn't have the time to do it, and people who interacted with me had mixed reactions. They asked me questions like "Can I touch it?", "Are you making a statement?", "Your hair is curly? Wait, what are you?". I also received compliments- some of which were on my bravery. These remarks struck something within me, and I found myself having to do a bit of soul searching. Why would someone suggest that wearing my hair in its natural state was brave? Why do people suddenly become curious about my ethnicity?
I started viewing the hair salon with a bit of skepticism. There wasn't a single woman there who didn't get her hair straightened. It was as if our real hair was a secret. I suddenly became very defensive of my curly hair, and started wearing it more regularly. It made me look more like my mother and father, who both have natural curls in their hair. I began feeling more proud of my Puerto Rican & Guatemalan roots, and researching why on Earth more women weren't comfortable with their natural hair. As you probably guessed, I found that the answer was lying in one thing: racism.
Woah, woah, relax. It's just hair, right? Well, sure, that's easy to say if you've never had someone tell you that your natural hair is problematic. The reality is that across much of the media, there is an aggressive favorability toward "white" features. On most magazine covers, you can bet to find a model or celebrity sporting that silky, straight hair that billions around the world can't relate to. Furthermore, have you ever noticed the segregation of beauty aisles? It's a real thing, I swear. In many stores, hair products that usually cater to white femmes will have their products in a different section, and often with more variety. Some stores I have been to will go as far as to label one section "ethnic products", or some variation of that phrase to make sure there's no confusion. *heavy eye-roll*
Pretty much every hair commercial on television features some sensual visuals of a model shampooing or styling their oh-so-sexy smooth/straight hair. Buy our shampoo! You'll feel things you never felt before! You'll feel pretty! You'll feel white. I've been seduced by them all, honestly. It's hard not to feel that way. Did you know that in most places, it's perfectly legal to require certain hairstyles in the workplace? This means it's perfectly acceptable to discriminate against individuals with braids, locs, twists, big curls, and anything seen as "distracting" or unprofessional. As you might have guessed, this puts so many Black & Latinx people at an even further risk for racial mistreatment from their employer (We can go into that on another post). Styling hair can be expensive as all hell, and time consuming. For businesses to be allowed to reject people's natural hair as a policy is blatant racism, and that's that.
I'm going to take a moment to catch my breath (I sometimes get angry just writing about these things) and take an opportunity to say: whether you wear your hair natural or you don't is your business, and you should never feel bad either way. Shaming anyone for their hair is a real problem, and it doesn't help anyone's cause. You do you, you wear your hair how you want to, not how you feel you should. It's not worth the stress.
Nowadays, I alternate between having my hair done and keeping it natural. It depends what I'm feeling, and I try to just focus on loving the way I look, regardless of what other people have to say on it. There's so much more I feel like could be said on this topic, but right now I was just giving you my evening thoughts. Perhaps I'll have more to say on it later. We'll see.
Stay happy. Stay free. Stay woke.