She was angry at me for combing her hair. Her curls stood out straight from under the comb as I threaded it through her hair. I sprayed detangler, I looked for where her scalp began, and combed again. This time the tangles gave a little more when the comb went through. She cried out again. Ow!
A young(er) Miss E
My daughter’s curls are not my curls. I mean this literally and metaphorically. My hair is not curly. If anything it’s wavy, when it’s long enough. Now that I have from one to three inches of hair on my head, you can’t tell my hair is curly. I’ve outsmarted my waves in my early thirties.
As a young one
I had thick, straight hair as a child. I always had it cut to my shoulders, or at least that’s how I remember it. When I was in 3rd grade, my mom took me to a hair salon and so I could get my hair permed. After that, the only way I’d ever get straight hair was either straightening it or cutting it short. (Unfortunately, I cannot find pictures of me with the perm.)
For years I brought up the perm to my mom again and again, especially during my puberty years. I didn’t blossom during puberty; puberty was more like a root breaking through a cement sidewalk. I grew curves. I sprouted acne pimples. And my hair turned frizzy. Even though my mom’s decision to perm my hair probably had no effect past a few months (after all, your hair grows out eventually) I felt that the years of frizzy hair and salon nightmares had all to do with that. That was the one thing I could figure out that was under someone’s control. Puberty? No one controls that shit.
I call this my “middle school poof.” Picture starring my favorite Gap shirt.
Whereas all the other women around me seemed to grow into beautiful young ladies, I felt like nothing fit me right. I had to grow into my “big” body and my unruly hair. The mainstream media didn’t help make that easier. My hair was too frizzy, my face was too pimply, and my body was too shapely for the junior’s section that I still thought I could shop at.
Everyone around me seemed to have their hair business together. I didn’t know how to manage my own hair. My mother tried to help by buying conditioners, taking me to the salon, looking at magazines together. I tried everything, but no one could help me understand why the heck I could never look like the girls in class or the ones in my magazines. Letting my hair be in its natural element was not an option for me; I felt like that would make me stand out even more, and I lived on a tropical island. My body was visible enough, and I didn’t want my hair to attract more attention to its awkwardness. But, more importantly, the hair was something I could control. Puberty I couldn’t do anything about. The comments from my classmates I couldn’t do anything about. My hair? that I could at least try to tame. And I tried my hardest to tame it.
I had several awkward haircuts by the time I got to my junior year of high school. But that yearI decided to grow my hair out.
I listened to a lot of rock and roll and grunge, and it seemed like long hair was in. (Secretly, I wanted to cut my hair and dye it all purple, but it would take me years to feel comfortable enough to shear it all off.) I’d had short hair all my life, not because my mom wanted me to have short hair but because when you get frustrated with how your hair looks the first reaction you have is to go to the salon and have someone cut it and make it look better. I wanted to let mine grow out, part of my bohemian chick vibe.
Growing out my hair in high school. Also, chokers were in.
One day my mom told me about this girl she had seen who had gotten blue highlights. I thought this was the coolest thing ever: blue highlights?! Permanent blue highlights, not food dye, the stuff my friends and I used when we wanted to get a little crazy with our hair? And when I asked her if I could get my hair done too, she said yes.
My mom’s always been the coolest.
It was a day-long ordeal—real time though? three hours or so. I went to the salon. They put on a highlighting cap on my head. They bleached my streaks, added the blue, styled it. It’s one of the times I remember feeling good about myself as a high school student.
Now, I know how that sounds: superficial. “She colored her hair to feel good about herself.” But hear me out. When you grow up in a culture that makes you feel that as a Puerto Rican who doesn’t fit the norms of what it means to be beautiful (and therefore valued), the moments where you decide to do something different and embrace it as beautiful, where you decide to make yourself visible on your own terms? That’s powerful. It was for me, at least.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my hair for half of my life, and that moment where I dyed my hair blue might have been the beginning of the healing process. After 11th grade, I grew my hair out, and it almost came all the way down to my waist. I thought it was beautiful…until someone told me I looked old. And when you’re 20, 21, you don’t want people telling you you look “old.” I cut it off. And grew it some more. And cut it off again. And grew it some more. Until I started my PhD. when I decided it was time to cut it short. Super short. Like I can’t tie a ponytail short. Shortly after, I met my husband. He has never known me with long hair.
In Austria during my long long hair phase…
And then I cut it short…
And then when I went to grad school I grew it out a bit (and dyed it light brown)…
And then I went really short…
And then i went reaaaaally short…
Grew it out for a minute (post-baby)…
And now I’m back to short
Now, my hair is short, and I feel much happier about it. In fact, even when we were cash-strapped, I almost always tried to make time (and money) to get my hair done. Making my hair look good is a form of self-care. When many other things competed to make me feel bad (the job market, no friends in a new town, postpartum weight gain that no longer counts as postpartum I guess, anxiety about my dissertation), I could look in the mirror and feel a little bit of happiness about how my hair looks.
I’ve been thinking lately about growing it out, growing it all the way out. I love short hair (and I love that I have the facial features to pull it off) but I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it. I’m yearning for a pony tail, for curls, for a side braid, for bangs.
My daughter’s hair has given me much to think about. I think her hair is adorable. She has the tight ringlets I always coveted, the ringlets my cousins have and that my mom had as a child. I know deep down she may someday hate her hair and covet straight hair. I wonder sometimes if she’ll see me straightening my bangs and feel the pang of jealousy that mommy can make her hair go straight easily. My wish for her is that she one day loves her hair as much as I do mine, and that she sees it as a strength instead of a flaw.