Curly hair is a family trait that has been passed down through the generations. But it hasn’t been a favorite in my family.
My maternal grandparents both had curly hair. I often wondered why they married each other knowing that their eleven children, including my mom, were destined to also have curly hair. She passed this trait down to my sister and me, leaving my brothers unaffected by this curse.
Yes, curse. Growing up Mexican-American in Los Angeles, curly hair was frequently viewed as a less than desirable characteristic. Even though we hate to admit it, we all tend to look up to the European standard of beauty; you know, the standards exhibited all over magazines and in the media. These images tell girls everywhere that light skin and straight hair is prettier. Whether fate or karma, as I grew up, my hair became even curlier. I remember wishing something would happen that could make it stop.
Nobody actually told me that my hair was ugly, but they didn’t have to. I grew up listening to my aunt and my mom talk about the latest hair relaxers. They discussed how these products were worth it even though they damaged your hair, leaving it burned and broken. This was a small price to pay, it seemed; anything was worth the straight hair, even having a burning scalp or smelling like ammonia for days. I learned that curly hair was ugly by watching people trying to get rid of their curls.
No one spoke of the more serious dangers such as cancer, cognitive disorders and blindness due to the chemical straighteners, or how flat irons can, over time, take a real toll on hair quality. These were likened to mere myths. I couldn’t wait to grow older so that I could be allowed to use relaxers as well. I imagined myself with straight hair; I dreamed about the happiness that it would bring, as if straight hair could solve my problems and make everything better.
A Not-So-Pretty History
The struggle women face with curly hair had deep roots. Many people with curly hair experience greater judgment for their looks by employers than those with straight hair. This may seem crazy, but it's justified in the name of professionalism; somehow, somewhere, curly and/or big hair was deemed unprofessional by the powers that be. We see this when men whose cultures accept longer hair are told to cut their hair in Western office environments, or when both men and women are told they can't wear their unruly hair down because it is seen as unprofessional. Many black and some Latina women opt to wear wigs rather than deal with others' judgment of their natural hair or risk being viewed as unprofessional in a job they need to keep.
In Mexico, the words pelo chino refers to "curly hair." The word chino/china comes from cochino/cochina, which means "pig" in Spanish—or refers to a very dirty person. In the caste system, chinos were the natives that mixed with the African slaves and had curly hair. They were considered to be tainted by African blood. While the United States doesn't have an explicit "caste system" as has existed in Latin America, class and status have always been a part of our cultural fabric.
Chino/china is still the term used in Mexico to refer to someone with curly hair, even though most people are not aware of how the word originated, including myself until recently. This tells you a lot about the longstanding disdain toward curls in Latin American culture, imposed originally by white Spanish settlers. This is all to say that people with curly hair were at the bottom of the beauty-standard pyramid, and they've stayed there for the most part.
A Twist of Fate
From a young age I tried to navigate the world of beauty. When I was old enough, I began to use relaxers. The best result the product gave me was hair like dreadlocks, while the worst made it look like wires. My hair was so badly burnt that it would break and fall out, and in some instances, it would stretch out like gum. These results definitely did not bring happiness, nor did they make everything better.
Undeterred, I ditched the relaxers and bought an exceptional flat iron. Surely this would bring me the happiness I desired, I thought. Flat ironing my hair usually took 1-2 hours. It did not bring happiness either; instead, it ate up a lot of my time and still damaged my hair. But in my view, damaged hair was still better than curly hair.
In 2012, when my sister gave birth to my niece Naia, I realized I was fighting not only a losing battle, but also an unhealthy one.
We were all worried about what type of hair Naia would have. Since both my sister and her husband have curly hair, it seemed inevitable that Naia would inherit the trait.“Pobresita,” (poor little girl) we thought. But then Naia was born, and something changed. Somehow I couldn’t see this sweet, innocent girl as anything but beautiful. I didn’t want her to grow up with the curse I had, but this time it wasn’t the curly hair curse I was thinking of, it was the passed-down belief that I was ugly, all due to a stubborn natural trait.
As Naia’s hair grew and her curls became well defined her hair was perfect. I saw that she was perfect the way she is, and I realized that we must not pass this self-hatred down to her—that a child should never feel that she is inadequate because of the texture of her hair.
Naia’s birth has taught me that it is never too late to begin a new narrative that celebrates beauty. And there’s no better time than now to practice love and self-acceptance for generations to come.
I last straightened my hair more than a year and a half ago. This hasn't brought me to a state of bliss or made everything better—but it has taught me to embrace my hair and through that to embrace who I am in farther-reaching ways.
I write this not to say that people shouldn’t straighten their hair or that I will never straighten mine again. I write this simply to say that in a world that never ceases to hurl judgments on every minutia of women’s looks, we should strive to learn, and teach others, how to love ourselves.
I feel some resentment toward a culture that made me feel my curly hair was undesirable, but I also feel pride at being in a place where I have learned to accept and embrace this part of me. All self-hate starts somewhere, and I am happy I found where mine started and happy to know that it has nothing to do with me or with actual curly hair, but everything to do with an oppressive ideology. Now that I've identified it, I can reject it.
Not long ago my niece spent the night with me. When she woke up, she said, “Tia, I have crazy hair, and you have crazy hair, too!”
I replied, “Yes. We both have crazy hair, and crazy hair is awesome.”
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