I have great hair. No sense beating around the bush. I wake up in the morning with a fabulous mop of tousled, dark curls. My complete lack of skill with womanly primping means that my ‘do is unimpressive most days, but that’s not the hair’s fault. The raw material is there.
I’ve gotten a little bit better with product use and such. As with most things (physical and mental), it was worse in middle and high school. I grew up in East Texas. Meteorologically, the heat and humidity are just awful for curly hair. Culturally, it isn’t much better. My little sister admits that when we lived there she used to wish she were white. She wanted a cute blond ponytail like all of her friends I guess. And her hair, black as it was, at least was straight.
I never actually wanted to look different. In my mind I fantasized about growing up to be some kind of exotic beauty. The wind would catch a soft lock and blow it across my face and suddenly I was a foreign princess, striking and mysterious. What did it matter that it was really a plume of frizz set on top of an awkward kid in ill-fitting clothes? That’s what fantasy is for. Out in the real world I resigned myself to just being weird looking. I wasn’t ugly, so I counted my blessings and turned imaginary heads.
I had my mom straighten my hair once for a school play. I found it curious and intriguing to realize how long my hair actually was…but then when I got to school my friends were so impressed and excited. I was appalled. My hair was curly! How dare fashion and society suggest that I should spend hours of my life blow-drying reality into submission? How dare these people with their straight hair suggest that somehow I could be improved by looking more like them. They should all get perms and leave me in peace. Maybe I would have been prettier with straight hair, but just as I had no dreams of getting a nose job to flatten out the bump in the middle of my face, I had no interest in “correcting” the thick mop that, for better or worse, was mine.
I’ve made myself sound very strong and self-possessed. I wasn’t. I was a kid, like any other. And like so many dorky teenagers I had visions of being “popular”. I don’t know exactly what this meant to me. I found the popular crowd to be by turns intimidating and repellent. I never looked at a cheerleader and thought, “oh yeah, we’ve gotta be friends one day.”
Nor did the football players or other classic male heroes of the school-aged set do much for me. While I may have been intrigued by a boy here and there I don’t even remember actually desiring a boyfriend. Jesus, then I’d have to go out to a movie or something with said boyfriend, and therefore tell my parents I was going to a movie with a boy! Even my mom noticing that some kid my age was talking to me at a family barbecue made me want to throw on a habit and get me to a nunnery.
My inner monologue has always had a snide take on my social failings. I offered myself absurd explanations for how things worked. A nice shirt from XYZ trendy brand, now people will like you! Plucked that single, unruly eyebrow hair, problem solved, you are now beautiful! I would say these things to my reflection in the mirror then snort at the absurdity. Maybe deep down inside I wanted it to be that easy. But that easy to what? What did I want?
The vague adolescent longings didn’t explain themselves to me at the time, but in retrospect I think I just wanted confidence. I wanted to feel good about myself. Movies and my peers taught me definitions for “cool” and “pretty” that had no room for a book-worm with dark skin, dark hair, wry humor, and a knack for getting As. But then, I guess I didn’t want to be cool and pretty badly enough to get over being really lazy about messing with my hair. (And as a teenaged girl, cool and pretty are really all you’ve got.)
I wasn’t a sloppy kid; I just refused to get into the hair and makeup thing. Beauty had straight blond hair and no amount of good conditioner was going to make that grow out of my head. So why bother?
During my late teens and early 20s I slowly, really painfully slowly, started to realize that there were people out there (besides my parents) who thought I was attractive. At first I was highly suspicious of these people. I wasn’t ugly enough to be made fun of by this kind of behavior, so what was the end game? Once the idea of diversity really being a thing and not just some slogan finally fully digested I started to pay more serious attention to my hair. It was nice hair! Thick, healthy, shiny. After a mere two decades of life I embraced the idea that a smidge of attention could make my hair really gloriously lush.
For Christmas a couple of years ago my husband got me some fabulous hair product that he didn’t realize was marketed to African-American women. It was great stuff, and he wasn’t concerned about the racially specific marketing. He often refers to my “ethnic hair”. I love that. Really, I do. It sounds vaguely like he’s being offensive, but it made a light bulb go off: I have ethnic hair! Not failed, white-person hair, hair that is big and dark and curly on purpose. What a revelation. One that, even now, I have to repeat to myself, just to make sure the sentiment really sticks.