Growing up, I had super long hair, the type of hair that flows in the wind on a breezy summer day, the kind you see in the commercials promoting hair products. I had long, thick black hair that extended past my waist.
When I was a very young girl, perhaps as young as four, my Grandmother would excitedly await my yearly visit to Puerto Rico. What made these visits so special is that I always knew that Mama Julia would greet me with a special gift. It never failed. She would make sure that I had new, fresh ponytail holders. These were not just any ponytail holders. These where special — well, at least they were special to me. They looked like huge colorful marbles that shone like the rainbow, and they were all mine, chosen especially for me. On the afternoons I would visit my grandmother, she would make sure to brush my long hair with her own hairbrush. I remember how important it was for her that I have the perfect ponytail, every single hair in place, total perfection.
Later on, when I was eight or nine, the texture of my hair began to change. It was no longer straight but had become wavy. That beach-wave look many women now pay to create were the waves my mother wanted to tame. That’s when my mother began to iron my hair. Yes, you read that correctly: Iron. Back in the day, there were no flat irons, so we had to use the next best thing, an iron — or, my personal favorite, hair rollers bigger than a can of corn. Both became my weekly hair ritual with my mother. It was important to keep that long straight hair. That was what I learned to believe. I hated those rollers with a passion, and I hated that iron just as much. Having such long thick hair meant I would have to keep the rollers on all day and, sometimes, till the next day. Needless to say, sleeping with rollers bigger than a can of corn was painful and super uncomfortable. Yet this is what I had to endure to “regain” my straight hair.
My hair changed once again around the age of 12, when I was finally allowed to cut it. Being an against-the-norm type of child, I didn’t just want to trim my hair. I wanted to cut it off, drastically! Against my father’s wishes, I was allowed to cut my hair super short — and that’s when the texture of my hair changed even more dramatically. I finally had “pelo malo” (bad hair) in the eyes of my mother.
Our mother-daughter rituals changed from ironing and rollers to chemical straightening treatments. It was like clockwork: Every three months, sometimes even sooner, we would carry out our ritual visit to the local salon to chemically strip me of my “bad hair.” At this point, I began slowly to hate my hair. It was either too curly or just so chemically straightened that it felt like wire. There were times my hair became so brittle that the chemicals would burn chunks of it, making my “bad hair” look even worse.
These were the first messages of beauty that I learned as a young girl. They continued on for years — until I moved from home and took control of my own hair. At first, it took a long time for me to learn to even deal with my hair. I knew that I was done with the years of chemical straightening. I knew that I wanted to embrace the waves and curls that for so long had been controlled. However, I struggled. I struggled with the years of not knowing who I wanted to embrace. Did I want to embrace the curly-haired woman or the straight-haired woman?
I had moments when I went straight all the time by pulling with round huge brushes and flattening with a flat iron — by this time, a quick and easy fix. I also went through my moments when I left my hair curly, but those were the days that I was reminded that my hair looked better straight, so back to square one. It felt like a constant identity crisis — one that I wanted to end.
It all changed when finally I began to learn who I was culturally. Reading about my cultural history and identity began to open my eyes to a world that had not existed growing up. The more I learned about my history, the more curious I became about my ancestors. I began to ask questions about my ancestral lineage: Who were my great-grandparents? Where did they come from? What did they look like?
My great-grandparents were the key to my freedom and the end of my love-hate relationship with my hair. My great-grandparents all had different hair textures because they all had different ethnic backgrounds: African, Taino, and Spaniard! Finally, my ancestry explained how I could easily change from straight, to wavy, to wild curls.
There it was, clear as day: the reality that I didn’t have to choose one kind of hair over the other. Having curly hair didn’t mean that I had “pelo malo,” and having straight hair did not mean that the other was less worthy. I could embrace both, because both was who I was.
For so long I hated my hair, but when I learned to love my ancestral diversity, I learned to love what my hair represented. It no longer symbolized pain for me. It symbolized a rich background for which I had been eagerly yearning for so long. It symbolized my own acceptance of myself and my ancestors. I felt so honored to have such a gift from them.
Unfortunately, we learn negative messages very young, and unlearning them can take years and years of peeling back all of the layers of negative talk and negative thoughts that have been embedded in our souls and minds. I am so happy that I loved myself enough to peel away at those layers and finally be free of those childhood lessons.
“Bad hair” does not exist. All that exist are bad thoughts and views that make you think something about your beautiful self is ugly.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young smiling black woman with dark eyes and long black hair.]