How To Love Your Hair (A History)

how to love your hair

The first real memory you have of your hair is absence. Curls falling on water like crow feathers. Small pieces of you floating, circling.

In third grade, you refuse to cut your hair. I don’t want to look like a boy, you protest, and your parents listen. Your hair grows. From certain angles it looks like a rain cloud. Cumulonimbus, you write in your notebook. You are a being with a storm for a head. The more you brush it, the bigger it grows. The people of your small suburban town are fascinated by it. Sometimes they ask your permission before they touch it; other times, they don’t. You, on the other hand, are drawn to the icy blondeness of the girl who sits in front of you in Ms. Heskett’s class; the way she undoes and redoes a perfect ponytail with casual precision, the way the strands slip so sleek through her hands. You wonder how such softness feels. But you will keep your hands clasped, sweaty and still, under your desk.

Your hair is, for lack of a better word, fluffy. In church, old white ladies come up to you with shaking blue-veined hands, pat your head as if you were an obedient dog and go, “How lovely!” In the playground, while on the swings, an older boy with a scrunched-up face will “ask out” your cute brunette friend Kelsey, who will say, pointing at you, “Why not her?” And he will appraise you with eyes like small commas and say, “Indian girls aren’t pretty. Look at how weird her hair is.” You aren’t Indian, and you don’t want him to “ask you out,” but you think of him when you touch your hair in front of the mirror – think of his words and the blond girl, her ponytail, that glacial prettiness – and tie up your own hair for the first time.

Your hair lacks the sleekness of your father’s and the straightness of your mother’s. With your hair pulled back tight enough it looks flat at the top. You hang on to this truth till the oxygen leaves your head. But your curls are too rough, lack the rhythm, the metaphorical soundness, of ocean waves, sine curves, things that could translate well into poetry. You realize that your hair – and the rest of you, really – doesn’t translate well into poetry.

An old man at a family party tells you, “I know girls that look like you in Sri Lanka.” This gives you a kind of hope. A faint connection to that glorious thing, a country, a heritage, a type. 

When you go to the Philippines, you let down your hair briefly to go to the store and your cousin will say, “Ay naku, have you been electrocuted?” In church, you notice an older woman staring fixedly at you (they all stare fixedly at you in the Philippines, even more so when your father is present), who later asks your mother if you are “mestizo.” Your mother tells you this is a compliment, that mestizos are known to be especially beautiful, but you do not believe her. The woman’s stare is one of naked curiosity, but not admiration, you can tell, and you are humid with embarrassment for your difference. 

In the mall, an employee at an ice cream stand comments to your mother in breezy Cebuano, “She’s a mutt, right?”

“It’s your hair,” your mother says, as you walk away. “That’s how they can tell.”

In nerd camp, your best friend runs her hand through your ponytail and goes, “Why do you put your hair up all the time? You should let it down more.” Hand lingering on neck. You are thirteen and unused to such easy contact, such guileless admiration. Earlier that day, you and the rest of your Cog Psych class learned about the Kinsey Scale, and since then, you haven’t been able to stop thinking about them, those seven revealing numbers. It is eye-dark and skin-close but you are not brave yet, won’t tell this friend (the one who will come out, to great success, in less than a year) that maybe I’m not entirely a 0…you know? Instead you will let the answer beat, unsaid, against your ribs, quickening again and again and againandagainandagain. And again.

In ninth grade, you set your sights on a straight bob, thinking perhaps it’ll make you look more Asian, since none of your white friends think you are. “You don’t look it,” they say in blank disbelief, thinking of geisha girls and anime, of silken raven locks and almond eyes and pale, slightly golden skin. Even this lesser kind of beauty is not afforded to you. You think maybe pressure and heat will help you blend in. It doesn’t. Straightened, your hair fluffs straw-like, triangular, like a YIELD sign. You give up the flat iron. Your hair cannot be anything other than what it is.

To some people, your hair is exotic, exciting. In junior year, a boy you think you are in love with will fondly pat your head and say, virtuously, as if bestowing a privilege, “I like your black girl hair.” He is afraid of touching it, but he doesn’t look away, and that seems like enough. He will never call you pretty, or beautiful, but he will call you dainty, over and over again. You think you like this, even though it makes you feel more like fine china than a real person. “I’m always afraid I’ll break you,” he says. You know he won’t, but you smile anyway. Fragility is a privilege you were never accorded before – not until you tied yourself up in cardigans and stockings and high buns, pastel stiffness presupposing pastel breakability. You wrap yourself in these signifiers like a present for unpacking. You put a ribbon in your hair. Is this femininity? you wonder, undoing the clips, the bobby pins, the bands. Is this what being a real girl is like? Your hair yields tenderly to gravity, but only in the dark. You apologize to it silently. Your roots are sore that year.

Freshman year, college. You are telling your best friend and her ex-girlfriend about the queer theory you were assigned for class. How Judith Butler says that heterosexuality is performative, that straight people must iterate the closet every time they assert their straightness, how straightness is (and you bungle this quote) “always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself – and failing.” Your friend laughs. “So every time you claim you’re straight, you’re just iterating the closet, then?” she teases, over her shoulder. The street is icy and her words crunch accordingly. “What?” you say, irrationally angry. Your hair seems to bristle, either in confirmation or denial, you don’t know which. You have denied it so many times. Your friend notices nothing. Everything is performance.

You are a fraud, but your hair is natural. Black women in the Indian store or on the street or behind counters or in line in the Ratty always compliment you. “I love your hair,” they say, casually. You think perhaps that you have been looking for affirmation in the wrong places. Say to your therapist, “I like boys, but I know I’m a person meant to be appreciated by women.”

In many ways, your hair comes out before you do.

Realize, early on, that no one has hair like you. Seventeen and Glamour with their gently-waved innocuous It Girls are no help. You stop trying to find role models in these places, and begin liking your hair as it is. Start wearing it back in a ponytail with a mass of curls spilling from the front, Prince-style. When you go back home for Thanksgiving, your friends (who still think you want to marry a nice Jewish boy), think you’ve shaved your head. Think maybe you might.

You never brush your hair. People are always shocked when they find this out. But attempting to control is makes it, paradoxically, more out of control. Your curls expand with a vengeance. When under attack, your hair reaches for the heavens, defies gravity and you.

You argue with a friend of yours, the tall blonde one obsessed with India and Bollywood, the “beautiful colors and clothes,” who is now convinced she’s in love with you. “Being gay isn’t about wearing denim, or piercing your nose, or shaving your head, is it?” she demands, and you wonder how luxurious the fear of being a stereotype must be. Think about the phrase “letting your hair down.” Wonder if you have access to even the possibility of a cliché.

You tell everyone that they should thank god you’re not a white girl or your hair would be dyed ridiculous colors – jade green, pepto-bismol pink, pressed violet, ice blue. As such, you’ll have to make do with this – gesture deprecatingly toward your hair, its quivering mass. Your girlfriend will frown and assure you (this is a joke but also not, at all, a joke) that as a QWOC you have every right to your hair, that you work that hair, that your hair is in itself an explicit Fuck You to the white heterosexual male powers that be. “My hair wants to sit in its underwear and eat Cheetos and watch Netflix all day. Yours wants to smash the patriarchy.” Wonder how just existing could possibly be a form of rebellion.

Relatedly. Your hair is frequently described on shampoo bottles as “rebellious,” “untamed,” “wild,” and “loopy.” Your mind skips forth to other such adjectives. Crazy, savage, freakish, kinky, weird. Ponder this. Are you rebellious, or is it just your hair? Who are these “curly gurls,” anyway? Psychotic exes and locked-up wives, immigrant women who Need Your Help, kooky nerds due for a makeover and a sensitive jock? Society’s most visible rejects bristle in aureoles of dark, frizzy hair. Pop culture tells you to expect this, to accept this. Now that you wear your hair loose, people frequently tell you that you “look like a writer” or “an artist,” and you wonder whether that’s a nice way of telling you that your hair does not look like it belongs in polite society, no matter how demure your voice is. Your hair is the first and last thing people notice. It speaks for you.

Your hair is never in control of you, and you are never in control of it. Envision you and your hair as two whirling masses whirling in tandem, like (and this is perhaps a stretch) the whirling parts of your identity. Wince at the clumsy metaphor. Think (somewhat guiltily) of newspaper caught on a wheel, bits flying cursive-fast through an empty street. Think of cloud formations, again. Your hair has something to do with this. Your hair has something to say about this. You wander on.

You have always been visible, whether you’ve wanted to be or not. Even if they forget your name, people do not often forget your face. You’re beginning to become okay with this. Your hair gives you authenticity and legitimacy, it seems, for the first time in your life. Your hair makes your otherness visible but also yours, turns a site of difference into a site of power. Taste these words, then savor them. To speak your own identity into being is power. To speak being is power. Being is power.

Frame it in academic terms. Say to yourself that you’re examining the intersection between race and sexuality through the lens of…hair? Tell your mother over break that you’ve never felt more at home in the label “queer” – that queerness isn’t just about the gray areas in sexual orientation, but about the gray areas in everything else. Say that you are at home in these liminalities – a contradiction in its own right, really, because how can you find a home in a place in transit? You are rambling. But your mother looks only slightly uncomfortable, and you appreciate that. She nearly joined the Communists during the Marcos regime, so that’s hardly surprising, you figure. Your mother, the secret radical who kept her maiden name and made a pact with her best friend in middle school to never get married, only to break that in the 90’s in a country across the globe with a man five years younger than her and Sri Lankan, to boot. You spring from the salt of transgression, oceans-wide.

School validates and complicates your preoccupations with your identity. Read an article called “Coming Out as Biracial.” Feel a small rush at the sudden, unexpected perfection of the phrasing. People throw around the word “intersectionality” with sometimes seriousness, sometimes sarcasm, but you hold onto it like a lifesaver because this kind of language is a gift given at just the right time – language like “fetishization” and “otherness” and “marginalized” and “privilege.” Other people can afford to trivialize these terms, but not you, because you live in their shadows, their fiery glinting lights. Your ambiguous queerness cannot be separated from your ambiguous brownness.

You love your hair. You love how big it grows. You love that it resists everything – hats, hairbands, hands. You love its fullness, its fierceness, its fucks-not-given. Your hair is dangerous. Your hair is a threat. Your hair is irreducible. Your hair is a history. Your hair fits in nowhere, and neither do you. Your hair fits on no one else but you. Your hair fits its own way in an ill-fitting world. Your hair does not need to fit. You do not need to fit. No body, no thing, no identity, no self, you are starting to realize, has to fit anywhere. And your hair – and you – are proof of this. This is revelation, this is revolution, this is rebellion. This living is.

“I love your hair,” the girl you love says, in a dream but also not, half-lids and half-lights glimmering through the solemn darkness of your room. “You just look so…free.”

You don’t often cry but you cry a little then (just a prick, nothing more) because somehow, you feel like you’re being seen for the first time.

By Melanie Abeygunawardana, Bluestockings Editor

Image Courtesy of Melanie Abeygunawardana

2 Comments
  1. “How come your hair gets to be rebellious? Mine’s ‘limp and listless’.”

    I’ve always loved your writing (even if you don’t like the old stuff anymore), but I’ve never read anything quite like this; I can’t say that I know you (not anymore), but this piece makes me feel like you’ve given me a little piece of yourself and that I desperately would like to get to know you. It’s no exaggeration to say that I almost ran into multiple people because I started reading this indoors on my phone off of a Facebook link and continued as I ventured outside into the rain, and there were times where the words just rang so true and with such beauty that I stopped walking and felt this weird sort of vacuum behind my sternum as if it were pulling my emotions out of me. Well done.

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