Three weeks ago, I got snowed in without access to my blowdryer and flatiron. My usual routine is to wash, blow-dry and straighten my hair on Sundays, then let it go all week. I was looking at a week without a plan. This wasn’t a DEFCON 5 situation, but it did pose a dilemma for me. Pull my hair back in a bun all week or risk a drive through the storm to purchase some products to go curly.
Here’s the thing about the bun. I styled my hair in a bun at the back of my head every day from the time I was about ten until I was in college. I simply did not know how to manage my natural curls. Thought they were too wild. In high school, I started to get my hair chemically relaxed, but continued with the bun. One, ceramic flat irons weren’t a thing yet. Two, I still did not know what was required to tame the curls, even in this new looser state. The thought of returning to The Bun, even for just a week, felt stifling. Like I would be reverting to a pre-confident, pre-formed me.
Growing up biracial posed a few challenges. Which boxes to check on forms. Questions about being the neighbor’s kid while out at family dinner. Realizing that I have a “tan” year-round while my family remained noticeably pale. But, by far, the hardest thing to deal with was my hair. I have thick, tight curls. A lot of them. Like, lose a brush in them. My parents, possessing straight hair that generally does what they want it to do without a whole bunch of effort, did not know what to do with my mane.
In a recently rediscovered photo of me around age nine, I am sitting on a bed in a t-shirt which looks like it was signed by classmates I now cannot recall, caught unawares by Mom. The best part about this photo is the epic rat’s nest on my head. My hair is totally wild, completely natural. Likely slept on. Maybe hiding a comb or two. That was me, at home and one hundred percent comfortable with my hair, however it wanted to be. Before I hit middle school, before I became aware of beauty norms, before I heard the sniggering of classmates, this was my state.
I have a few very distinct memories from growing up which circle around the theme that my hair was different. Mom taking a lock of her hair, folding it on itself and then pushing down the bubble. Watching in fascination as her friend, Jen, ran her hand through her long, silky hair. Leaving a spiderweb-like net cascading down from her crown. Going to a regular salon and leaving looking silly, going to a black salon and leaving unnecessarily greasy. The other girls at cheerleading camp French braiding each other’s hair, but leaving mine because it was too difficult to work with. I remember thinking that I would never be able to run my hands through my hair like that and feeling distinctly left out because no one knew what to do with my thick, crazy hair.
My hair made me feel a bit like an outsider. Even ugly, sometimes. I thought that curly hair was beautiful. On other people. I thought that on me, it just looked unkempt. And so, I spent a decade obsessively pulling it back, hiding it, trying to forget everything it wouldn’t do for me. When I got my first flat iron in college, it was a chance to express myself with my hair. I learned to love my hair long and straight and touchable and soft. I then spent years obsessively straightening it, thinking that my beauty came from my long locks. With adulthood, I’ve learned that my hair can be short or long or straight or curly. Whatever I damn well please. However, it wasn’t until very recently, that I felt radiant with my natural, wild curls.
I never thought of my hair as black or white, just as a uniquely frustrating brand of thick and curly. I never derived racial identity from my hair, but I will admit to believing for a long time that “white” (read: straight) hair was the only kind worthwhile. I wish I’d seen women like Shakira from a young age. Now that is a wild-haired, badass, sexy woman. I probably would have come to the conclusion much sooner that beauty comes in many forms. Would have learned that my own hair is actually pretty malleable, I can go curly or straight at will, depending how I feel on a given day.
Every time I see a young woman struggling with their hair, I want to pull them aside and give them a pep talk. Or at least take them to Target and point out my go-to products. I’ve seen progress, but still think that the media could have more biracial, curly-haired women to serve as role models to an increasingly diverse young generation. I wish there had been other little biracial girls I could have talked to about the struggle. The Struggle is Real AF. But it gets easier. If I ever have a girl, she’s going to love her hair, no matter what kind of craziness it’s doing.