I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my hair.
It’s curly and wild and frizz prone and I nine times out of ten I look like Monica Gellar when she went to Barbados. Except my hair is not a result of the humidity, although that doesn’t help, my hair is the combination of my Polynesian and Mediterranean genes - which means I have thick curly hair and a lot of it. In fact, when I was seven-years-old a hairdresser told me that I had six times the amount of hair as a “normal” person.
It’s the kind of hair that attracts the questions “how hard is it to brush?” or “how often do you wash it?” or “how long does it take to straighten?” as if I keep a logbook on my hair hygiene and maintenance. It’s the kind of hair that as soon as I put on a headscarf I receive comments about how “ethnic” I look. Growing up people would tell me that women would pay hundreds of dollars to get their hair permed like mine and, I would tell them that I would give it to them for free.
I had become self-conscious about how big my hair was and so, over the years I tried all sorts of methods and products to “control” it. In hindsight, the time I cut the front really short was a mistake because that tuft of hair took forever to grow back. When I tried corn-rows and all over braids I was told by my school to take them out because it didn’t fit within the school’s uniform guidelines (which is so incredibly problematic it deserves its own post). There isn’t an oil, leave in conditioner or home remedy I haven’t tried in an attempt to tame my hair; and, let me tell you that beer smell took forever to get out.
I just wanted straight hair.
I wanted straight hair that would swoosh from side to side when I put it up in a high ponytail. I wanted straight hair that wouldn’t grow in volume during the day and hinder my ability to walk through a doorway. I wanted straight hair so I could try out the suggested hairstyles in the Cosmopolitan and Cleo beauty sections. Most of all, I wanted straight hair so I could be pretty.
In my head, my prettiness was determined by what was on my head and guys wouldn’t find me attractive unless my hair was straight - straight was the hairway to heaven. I acknowlege how crazy this thinking is but, it’s not just me. Last year, Angolan model Maria Borges made headlines and history when she walked the Victoria’s Secret runway with her natural afro hair and not the typical straight with a barrel curl extension typical of VS models. Borges was praised for “breaking barriers” and admitted that she was nervous when she first asked her agent’s permission to wear her natural hair. She was commended for being “brave”. If a Victoria’s Secret model spent years feeling she needed straight hair to be considered pretty, what chance did I have?
So, as a teenager I started straightening my hair or, “beating it into submission” as I like to call it. It started with the family’s Sunbeam clothes iron which miraculously didn’t end with third degree burns to my face but, did involve a lot of neck stiffness from all the head contortions required when straightening your hair with a household appliance. Luckily, for my hair and the house smoke alarm my first hair straightener came soon after. What a game changer. I remember walking to down the street, shoulders back and chest out, proudly admiring my swooshing ponytail in any surface that gave a reflection. The barrage of compliments telling me how pretty I looked with straight hair just reinforced my thinking. I was never going back.
For the next ten plus years there wasn’t a party, date, birthday, wedding, job interview, special occasion, dinner, sporting event, movie or weekend outing I went to without straightening my hair first. I once straightened my hair to go for a walk in the rain because, I reasoned at least I would look pretty when I was first picked up. Idiot.
Not to mention that it takes me hours to straighten my hair so, I’ve probably spent six months of my life with the straightener in my hand.
However, last year whilst listening to Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” I realised the damage I was doing, and I’m not just talking about the split ends. I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking my worth was tied to the way my hair looked and, the only thing I had to show for it was the permanent scars on my arms from the straightener burns. I needed to change my thinking.
The first time I went out with my natural hair I did it on purpose but, told people I just couldn’t be bothered doing my hair before they had even asked. To be honest, no one cared. In fact, that night I received compliments about how pretty I looked. I had spent the day anxious in my decision not straighten my hair and I thought I was making a stand about preconceived beauty notions and was having this great self defining moment but, the reality is it’s just hair. I mean, no I don’t want strangers coming up to me and touching my hair but, how I see myself shouldn’t be through a hair prism.
It’s taken literally decades but, I’m finally releasing myself from the pressure that straight hair equals pretty hair. Now, I straighten my hair when I want to rather than feeling like I have to. In fact, it’s been quite interesting getting to know my curly hair again and while most times I just throw it up into a high bun I do feel like a thick curly weight has been lifted off my shoulders.