My most meaningful epiphanies occur during times of stress. Final exams were just around the corner on a rainy day in early December, and the hair that had taken me two hours to wash and straighten started to curl. Pin-straight had become early Carrie Bradshaw; tamer than my natural hair texture, but rapidly expanding. I raked my fingers through the curls, hoping to subdue them.
As I rushed toward an academic building at NYU, I pulled frantically at the strands, thinking:
If you were straight, I could preserve the little confidence now dying inside of me.
If you were straight, I would have a shot at looking decent.
If you were straight, I could be happy.
As I entered the building to find a study spot and looked down at my bag for my ID, I glimpsed the frizzing ends of my hair. El pajón would find a way to destroy my life. For Dominicans, el pajón is big hair that includes curls, kinks, and coils. They say it makes you look messy. If you choose to leave your pajón in its natural state, you will frequently be called names like bruja or greñua, someone with hair so rebellious not even a trip to the salon will help. We are taught to hate our god given hair.
Exiting the building that day I bumped into my friend Melissa, who is also Dominican but does not hate her own hair.
“My hair is attacking me,” I complained, my stress bordering on panic.
“You’re fine,” she reassured me.
But I wasn’t convinced: “How can I be fine? My grades are shit. My hair is shit. My life is shit. I’m going to study abroad in London next semester. How am I going to do my hair? I can’t bring my hooded hair dryer with me. It’s super heavy. I can’t do my hair on a weekly basis in London. I won’t be able to eat. I can’t be pretty on the pound currency.”
Melissa then delivered a short, stern lesson: “You need to face reality. Your hair is curly and not straight. Curly, straight, it doesn’t matter. You need to face reality. We all do.”
Her words resonated with me. When I went home later that night and for several months, I thought critically about the existential crisis of my hair. I looked in the mirror, played with my tresses, searched through blogs that addressed the natural hair movement and read up on other women’s experiences. All of which led me to question why I felt compelled to straighten my hair every time I washed it, as if the time-consuming ritual were hardwired into my brain.
Somehow my hair had become connected to my self-esteem: A direct linear relationship had been built between its appearance and the level of happiness and prosperity in my life. I wondered who would love me if I looked like a leaf blower had attacked me? And what about my professional image? My cousin’s employer in the Dominican Republic has told her and her colleagues that curly hair is unprofessional and will not be tolerated at work: Whether they want to straighten their hair or not, the policy pressures them to live by a code of beauty that devalues them.
For Dominican women and those from many other cultures, the way that the hair grows out of our heads is widely considered to be unacceptable. As the style and culture writer Michaela Angela Davis says in the short film “You Can Touch My Hair,” the central mission at many salons serving women of color is to drastically alter their clients’ hair: “People who do our hair their first lesson is to change it. It’s like Eve you start off wrong.
So for a lot of Black American women our hair historically has started off as wrong and anyone who touches it their first job is to change it. Change the texture, change its nature, so when you start that way the journey to finding happiness can be long.”
Dominican salons specialize in frizz-defying blowouts that masquerade curly and kinky hair, so that it resembles hair more typical of Europeans. The way to be socially accepted is to mimic that European look: We embrace our Spanish heritage but do not recognize our African one. We don’t discuss our mestizaje, the Dominican ethnic mix of African, Spanish, and Taíno Indian.
In fact, I was barely aware of my mestizaje, my roots, until I started reading up and accepting my curls. Newly enlightened, I played around with different styles. At times when I wore my hair straight, my mother said I looked European, and I knew she meant I looked beautiful. Similarly, when I rocked my pajón, she said I looked African, and I knew she meant my appearance was off that day.
I needed to cut off the rubber band that snapped me weekly to either the salon or the hooded hair dryer. The more I researched the natural hair movement and was exposed to new perspectives on Dominican beauty, the weaker the rubber band became. But my progress was erratic. At the end of December, I went to the Dominican Republic and refused to straighten my hair for a while, which put me in a distinct minority in the country. Some women on the island left their hair curly, but they were members of an endangered species. The majority of the women were running around relaxing and straightening their hair in the heat (a consuming Dominican obsession matched only by the fervent pursuit of lucky lottery numbers). I flaunted my big, conspicuous curls and sometimes, out of anger, I would fluff them out. I got the usual remarks:
“Greñua, did you lose your brush?” I found I could take only so many passive-aggressive comments. I caved in and went to the salon.
Air conditioners are a luxury in the Dominican Republic, and I left the stifling establishment looking like a dewy flower with straight hair. Two days later, my hair returned to its natural state because of the heat. So, finally fed up, I stopped. I stopped abusing my hair either verbally or through heat damage. It didn’t deserve to be called hideous names. And I didn’t deserve the self-inflicted torture of hours in a sweltering salon.
My grooming choices are not a political statement. I am not sticking it to the man by wearing my hair the way it comes out of my scalp. Rather, I’m claiming my own identity. The natural hair movement, by carving out a space for women of color to know their hair, can also give them insight into themselves.
Hair is a part of a woman’s identity. By accepting my natural hair I am, literally and figuratively, embracing my roots.