How I Learned to Embrace My Curly Hair

"It's definitely been an uphill battle learning how to accept my hair."

21 March, 2018
How I Learned to Embrace My Curly Hair

My father always jokes that when I was first born, he thought my mother gave birth to a puppy. I had hair all over my body, except for my head. But once I became a toddler, thick, curly hair sprouted in abundance from every inch of my once-bald scalp. In its earliest stages, I maintained the likeness of a baby chia pet. 

My mother had grown up relaxing her thick, kinky hair all her life, and she knew she didn't want me to face the same fate of harsh chemicals and painful, costly treatments that she had. She didn't want to damage my fine baby curls with harsh relaxers. Unfortunately, because she'd never left her hair natural, she had absolutely no idea how to handle mine. Every day of my young life, she chose from three hairstyles — a bun, a braid, or, if she was feeling really crafty, two braids. I would look at all the creative hairstyles that other girls in elementary school would have in the type of pure, unadulterated envy that only a 6 year old could have. The other girls at school had crazy-cute French braids, twist-outs, and other hairstyles going on, but I was stuck with my dark brown curly mane hair pulled back into a boring single braid every day. 

By the time I reached middle school, my mom was sick of hearing me complain about the way she styled my hair and allowed me to go every two weeks to my neighborhood's Dominican hair salon to get it blown out.

I knew the straightening was frying my hair, but I didn't care. I loved how smooth, sleek, and manageable my hair became after three hours in the salon. For once, I felt like my hair wasn't just something to put into boring but convenient hairstyles anymore — it was beautiful.

It especially helped my self-esteem when I started attending a private all-girls high school on the Upper East Side. Being at an all-girls school would have been hard enough, but I was also a lower middle-class Latina who was suddenly surrounded by fairly upper-class, mostly white girls who seemingly had naturally soft, perfect hair, and I treated those trips to the salon as the golden ticket to my acceptance among them. Despite the fact that many of my classmates told me they loved my curls, I had already internalized this need to belong. 

But when I went away to college in a small town with no good salons and with no time to straighten it myself, I had no choice but to figure out how to work with my curls for the first time in my life instead of against them. Initially, I would very easily get frustrated with my hair. Between untangling my hair in the shower and trying to experiment with different styling products, it took me forever to get ready in the morning. But within a few weeks, I got the hang of it and it became just another part of my morning routine. As I came to terms with my curly mane, my hair also slowly became a huge part of my identity. There was no big aha moment — it was more gradual than anything. The more that I styled it this way, the more I became used to the idea of visualizing myself with curly hair.

I also met other Afro-Latinas who had hair like mine. Like many predominantly white institutions (PWIs), the community of people of color on my campus was incredibly tight-knit, with relationships made through the different events and resources that were available to us on campus. I bonded with the other Afro-Latinas in my dorm over #CurlyHairProbs as we shared different methods of deep conditioning, and swapped and borrowed products. Moreover, I learned that there was culture in my curl pattern and a beautiful, supportive community that came along with it. As I came more into my Latinidad, I felt encouraged to sign up for a number of different classes in the Afro-American Studies department, and I took up a Chican@/Latin@ studies minor.​ I was fascinated by how rich my culture's history was, looking up to historical figures like those in the Young Lords Party. When I saw photos of them rocking their curls proudly, I couldn't believe this was a part of myself that I once shied away from. That strength in my roots (pun somewhat intended) inspired me to further embrace my curls, with all the history and culture that came with them.

I loved that my hair has become a bigger part of who I am. I remember being part of a workshop when Janet Mock visited my campus in my junior year and hearing her talk about how her hair was a big part of her personal brand. I instantly beamed because that's the exactly how I felt about my hair now. People now know who I am because of it. Yes, occasionally I get the ignorant person trying to touch it without asking or people commenting on how ~gorgeous~ it would look if it were straight. But none of that matters anymore. My curls are something to be proud of. They're a huge connection to how I, and others, identify me.

It's definitely been an uphill battle learning to accept my hair, and I've certainly come a long way from being the baby with absolutely no hair on her head. But embracing my hair helped me accept and love who I am as an Afro-Latina woman, curls and all. 

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Credit: Cosmopolitan