The Politics of Curly Hair

Yet another glamorous makeover...
Yet another glamorous makeover…

Tonight, I invested in a diffuser attachment for my blow-dryer, some non-sulfate conditioning shampoo, and curl-revitalizer spray.  Why?  Because I’m finally trying to take the plunge into letting my naturally curly hair do its thing.

This shouldn’t theoretically be much of a big deal,  yet it is.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally confronted the split ends and frizziness from constant heat styling and sworn to stop flat-ironing my locks into submission.  I’ve looked online for “curly hairstyles” and been dismayed by photo after photo of women with obviously straight or mildly wavy hair with scattered perfect corkscrews that are obviously the result of meticulous curling-iron placement… and then thrown up my hands at the poodle-mop reflection of raw curliness staring back at me in the mirror.

Corkscrew tendrils apparently used to be in fashion, if art is to be believed.  Roman matrons sported curly bangs, 18th century Venuses had mops of endless blonde tendrils hanging seductively around their ample bosoms, and Edwardian goddesses tied full auburn locks into satin ribbons.  Yet, at some point during the 20th century, shiny locks that fall straight like waterfalls became the rage.   We all heard about how our grandmothers used to sleep with their hair wrapped around orange juice cans to achieve the ruler-straight conformity demanded by the fashion of the day.  There was a brief respite from such torturous regimes during the 80’s, when big glam hair was in fashion and everyone was getting a perm.  Rockstars had giant hair for days and that Weird Science hot chick had a curly do… but then the 90’s happened and all of a sudden Friends is devoting an entire episode to how Monica goes somewhere tropical, her hair puffs up, and Chandler is now embarrassed to be seen with her.  Kyle’s desperate attempt to hide his puffy curly hair was a running joke on Southpark.  People referred to Julianna Margulies as “that frizzy-haired actress on ER.”

I’ve had hairdressers sigh when dealing with my hair, calling it “ethnic” with an obviously disdainful tone in their voice.  I’ve lived in fear of humidity or accidentally getting wet after spending ages on my hairstyle.  My year living in San Francisco was a nightmare only managed by nonstop braids and chignons while pining for the dry heat of my Los Angeles days.

The worst part of endless straightening is that it becomes a vicious cycle… no amount of heat-protective spray will truly shield your hair from damage, and the more your hair is damaged, the more breakage, frizz, and dullness it accumulates.  And then you HAVE to smooth it down or it looks like utter crap.  Sometimes I notice women with long, shiny curls and deeply envy the self-control they must’ve had to let their hair grow out naturally without frying the bejeezus out of it… and I wonder if it’s possible for me to have that kind of self-discipline long enough to achieve the same glorious results.

But this time, I’m determined.  Why?  Because my two-year-old daughter has curly hair.  She is beautiful, with wide blue-eyes fringed with lashes so full they look like butterfly wings and golden-brown corkscrews adorning her cherubic face. Perfect strangers will stop to stare at her and remark on her loveliness.  Sometimes they ask where she got her curly hair and stare at me quizzically when I answer, “from me.”

I think about where my hatred of my curly locks comes from and remember thousands of before and after makeovers with women whose once-wild locks are tamed into acceptably-smooth configurations.  I remember my mother impatiently tearing a hairbrush through my scalp as she tried to tame my frustrating rat’s nest.  Now, I see my little girl stare widely into my eyes, run her baby hands across my necklace and clumsily try to apply my lips gloss to her strawberry pout.  I am the primordial Woman to her, as all of our mothers were to us, and I begin to wonder if she will grow to someday hate her bouncing corkscrews after years of watching me fight with mine.  I don’t want her to feel ugly someday because her hair doesn’t conform to the Barbie-doll straightness that has somehow defined the parameters of a woman’s crowning glory for decades.  I want her to feel nothing but glorious pride in the Amazonian lushness with which Nature has adorned her gorgeous face and shoulders.  Why must we keep perpetuating these rigid beauty standards, making every beautiful variation seem somehow defective?

But for her to take pride in her hair, I must  learn to take pride in mine.

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