Growing up, my hair was the thing about myself that I despised the most. I hated everything about it — the pain that I had to endure on Saturdays at the salon in order to make it straight, the way that my hair would curl up as soon as I got even the slightest bit sweaty, the smell of it burning to a crisp between the plates of a 400 degree flat iron. I hated how every time I went to the salon, my hair stylists would suggest various chemical processes that they said would make my hair easier to “deal with” including relaxers and keratins — as if my hair was a burden to me in its natural state.
I hate the fact that in my own culture, my hair type is referred to as “pelo malo” (bad hair), a way to identify those of us who don’t care about our appearance enough to dedicate an entire day of the week to the salon. My hair is considered ugly — especially in comparison to the sleek, pin straight hair of the models who graced the covers of hair magazines, images of their tresses scattered across the tables of Dominican salons in Washington Heights. With us seated in those large salon chairs, our biggest supporters, the ones responsible for protecting and encouraging us, unknowingly became complicit in the extinguishment of our roots every single day.
They don’t understand why our women have been conditioned to believe that their hair is a nuisance rather than something to be proud of, they just know that as our truth. They did not realize that by dragging us into their chairs once a week, they were implicitly telling us that we were not pretty enough, that our hair was too unkempt, and that we should aspire to look as European as possible, no matter the cost.
We were taught, more explicitly, that we should try our best to avoid looking like the morenas in our communities; the ones whose braids flowed down to their lower backs, the ones whose edges were undeniably and unapologetically African, just like the ancestors whose presence we insist on erasing both here in the US and in our patria. Our communities consist of people who have all different types of skin colors, hair textures, interests, and talents. We are a diasporic community, flourishing in spite of our geographical displacement and the aggressive genocide faced by those before us. That’s the beautiful thing about our Native and African ancestors — their spirits live on within us, their physical traits passed down to us through centuries of revolution and perseverance through war.
Centuries of generational trauma have led us to believe that in order to be worthy and valid, we must distance ourselves from our roots. The normalized erasure of our roots leads us to cling to our whiteness fiercely, almost as if for protection. Our pajones and greñas are representative of parts of ourselves that we’re supposed to refuse to accept. In fact, Dominican cultural norms make it seem like the only appropriate response is to reject our African roots as violently as possible by literally burning them out. Unconsciously, we destroy our hair in order to conform to a standard that is difficult and expensive to maintain, a standard that isn’t necessarily meant for us.
Going to the salon weekly was just something that I did from an extremely young age in order to take care of my appearance, like taking a shower or clipping my nails. When I decided to go natural, I had to think critically about why I perceived beauty as being unattainable for myself and women like me. It took months and various haircuts for me to learn about how to take care of my hair properly. Getting in touch with such an important physical part of myself was a challenge but the journey has been more than worth it.
My journey with my hair is approached differently by many people. My mother, just like many Dominican women, was taught that the only options for her hair were relaxers and blowdryers. When I facetimed her after my first big chop, with my curls growing in around the nape of my neck, she was surprised. She asked me enthusiastically, “How can I do that to my hair?” I could tell that she was at once impressed and mesmerized by how short I had cut my hair, by how committed I was to this transformation.
Generally, I get compliments about my hair pretty frequently, especially from other women of color who have already gone natural or plan to. I think that comes as a result of me being more comfortable with my physical appearance; walking out of the house with my natural hair doesn’t make me feel embarrassed anymore. I find myself having conversations with other girls who also decided to stop processing their hair and agreeing on how much more at home we feel with our hair in its natural state. We no longer feel the need to go through the trouble of smoothing our curls out. Although my hair is more dense now than ever before, I feel that a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.
I am conflicted, however, when I have to go to job interviews or anything where the appropriate attire is professional. My curls, while considered pretty by some, are not ‘tidy’ enough for a professional environment — they are too distracting. This obstacle is made even more apparent for women with afros made of tightly coiled hair, especially those with darker skin. Your proximity to whiteness matters in these environments because of people’s preconceived notions about how blackness exists. Light skinned privilege manifests itself in every professional space we enter, where 4C hair and dark skin color are considered less favorable than 3B hair and lighter skin. It isn’t rare for black children to be sent home from school or for people to get reprimanded at work for their “lack of presentability”. Our professional peers tell us, through their actions, that they want us to conform in the same way that our hair stylists and community members do.
It seems almost ridiculous that something as seemingly unimportant as hair can have such an impact on people’s opportunities and experiences. Yet, it does. For this reason, I get a warm feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see our hair types being represented in the media. I’m filled with an unfamiliar sense of pride when I see people out with their curls and ‘fros and locs and braids because I know that in a world like ours, existing freely in spite of overt racism is an act of revolution. We understand, on a personal level, how uncomfortably risky it is to draw attention to our roots, to highlight our African ancestry — but many of us do it anyway. In doing so, we demand liberation in the most visible way possible.
Becoming a part of the natural hair movement has allowed me to feel more beautiful than I have ever felt and I know that many other people feel the same way. I can look in the mirror after wetting my hair and know that I look exactly the way that I’m meant to look. I can look at myself and know, deep down, that our hair types are more beautiful than our persistent anti-blackness has allowed us to realize. I plan on passing these lessons down to my kids and my hope is that it will set a trend. Our babies don’t deserve to grow up loathing their appearance and now more than ever, we should be taking responsibility for our influence over them. The children who were being forced into salon chairs are adults now and our intentions are clear — we want to be ourselves, regardless of what others may believe.