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(Elaine Vilorio)– When I was six years old, my mother, a mostly White Hispanic woman with wavy hair, had had enough with my wiry curls. My hair was an obvious manifestation of our native country’s African ancestry—thick, coiled, and for lack of a better word, kinky. I had gotten it from my father’s side of the family, whose members are predominantly Black. My hair was ultimately a problem. It did not have the hair texture associated with the Latina stereotype. Since Blackness is often placed outside of the sphere of Hispanic phenotype (among other aspects of Hispanicity), it wasn’t socially acceptable to leave my hair the way it naturally was.
Dominican girls with “unconventional” hair textures undergo perms to meet the beauty standards imposed upon them. Once my mother decided to perm my hair, I was no different. I don’t blame her; she was acting according to how her culture had raised her. And, here in the United States, it’s not so different. Girls with “ethnic” hair feel the need to perm their hair to fit a White standard. This is not unsurprising in a society where natural hair (that is, Afro-type hair that is not chemically straightened) is generally viewed as more professional than straight hair. That’s not to say permed hair is condemnable—to each their own, after all. But, young girls, girls like six-year-old me, are subject to a communal beauty standard before formulating one of their own.
The day before the start of my junior year of high school, I cut half of my hair off. It was liberating. I hadn’t been chemically straightening my hair, spending 4 hours at a time in a salon every other week, and avoiding pools because I wanted to. I did all of that because I thought it was the right thing to do, because I thought my hair would look hideous if I didn’t. The latter was extremely fallacious of me considering I had never worn my hair natural before. I just assumed since no one with my hair texture wore their hair natural, I probably shouldn’t either. I don’t know why the breaking point occurred when it did. It was the end of summer; I was frustrated; I finally came to my senses. It’s officially been two years since that happened (hence the super terrible pun in the title), and in commemoration of these past two years, I want to share my story.
It wasn’t easy convincing my mother to let me cut my hair. She feared the typical misconceptions: that it would be too unmanageable, that it would be ugly. I was adamant; I honestly didn’t feel like myself when I wore my hair chemically straight. I felt phony. And, just to re-enforce this, it’s fine to wear your hair relaxed so long as it’s your preference (and not because you fear natural hair). Obviously, I didn’t feel this way.
After the “big chop” (as it is so fondly called on internet forums), there were a myriad of reactions. My father bluntly told me my hair looked horrible. This was funny on many counts, the most important one being that his hair texture was just like mine (but, of course, being a guy changes the game). My mother was the one who cut my hair, but even she was ruffled. The reaction from people in my high school was more positive. I had friends who loved it, especially since the whole idea of me fighting conventional beauty was, admittedly, bad-ass. But, then, there were one or two people who vocally thought my action was ridiculous. They saw my choice as sloppy, as in I-don’t-care-for-my-appearance-anymore sloppy; there, again, the idea of straight hair is seen as proper, as the minimum for a fulfilling appearance.
Gradually, my hair grew out, and with it, my afro (because, yes, I had and have an afro on most days). And, as my hair developed and as the years passed, I saw natural hair becoming more acceptable. While I acknowledge in the beginning of the post that there continues to be hair prejudice, I note here that the natural hair situation is improving. More and more Black and/or racially mixed female celebrities are wearing their hair natural, dispersing the image long upheld by the media of straight hair as the only acceptable hair type. Coincidentally, I saw more girls in my high school wear their hair natural after I started my journey—at least two or three, a noteworthy change. Once, I was stopped in the hallway by a girl who wanted advice on wearing her hair natural. During my morning runs, I would also be stopped; women were intrigued and would comment on how much they loved my hair. But, people would not only praise my hair—they would also touch it. There have been times when more than three people touch my hair at once; it’s been madness. One story I’m always fond of telling is that of a random woman invading my personal space, sleuth-style. I was volunteering at my local hospital, looking through a booklet, when a woman I didn’t know came up to me, touched my hair, and left; she said nothing throughout our encounter. I didn’t even have time to process what had happened; she was like Batman—there one second, gone the next. It was pretty fucking weird. Suffice it to say, I’ve enjoyed (and still enjoy) the love. However, it’s not safe to assume all natural-haired women feel comfortable with hair-touching.
My parents still don’t wholly approve of my hair. Back home, my mother would make me wear excessive amounts of gel to make my hair look less “wild” in her words. Oftentimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear my hair as an afro in church because my parents cited potential embarrassment (seriously). Again, I peg their discontent on the culture in which they were brought; other members of the family can’t wrap their heads around my decision to go natural either.
At this moment in time, I’m pretty happy with who I am. I heavily believe the decision to wear my hair the way I do plays a part in that. I’m wearing my afro, not because I’m adhering to an ideal prescribed to me by others, but because of an ideal prescribed to me by myself. And, if you see me around campus, feel free to touch my hair (but, please, just ask first).