Personal Statement: Story of a Curl

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Illustration by Claire Abdo
Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 9:28pm

My mother comes from a family of blonde Irish Catholics with smooth, compliant hair. Maybe she was blindsided by the delicate way my curls framed my head as a toddler, soft ringlets that formed a gentle puff of yellow around my head. It would become clear that I inherited the Jewish father’s hair: frizzy, twisted locks, thick and prone to expanding upon contact.

It’s not her fault that my mom didn’t know the rules of curly hair. She would brush it out, often resulting in abundant static and the dreaded “yield sign” effect christened by Mia Thermopolis of “The Princess Diaries.” I spent ages 4 to 7 with puffy bangs, and in a third-grade picture I wore an orange athletic sweatband as a fashion (?) accessory, brandishing a full Tweety Bird forehead and a sea of cowlicks parted down the middle.

When I was young, my hair frustrated me. My sister and I would cry when it got combed out. I envied my cousins’ pale blonde hair, cascading over their shoulders and swishing around their bodies when they walked. At infrequent haircuts I would tell the hairdresser that I didn’t want my hair to make me look like a triangle anymore, to which she would laugh and promise that things called “long layers” and “product” would solve those woes.

When she was done I would climb down from the chair, smile and thank her politely, feeling even more triangular than before.

During tweenhood a lot of curly girls I knew took to their straighteners, opting for sleek and flattened looks, especially for special occasions, and this left me torn. I grew up with other curly-haired women who praised costly chemical treatments and straightened their hair so frequently that it was hardly curly anymore. There was nothing wrong with this, but I knew deep down that process was time-consuming, and I was not patient enough. I knew deeper down that my curly hair was maybe a marker of my Jewishness. For me, straightening my hair was an attempt to make something different about me disappear.

When I was a shy 14-year-old, a boy I thought was cute touched my hair unexpectedly. I was flustered and flattered at first. Then he continued: “It’s so … coarse.” I blushed and shrugged it off without saying anything, but vowed to condition religiously, focusing on the ends. Nobody was going to call my hair coarse again, especially not cute boys. I grew more and more self-conscious of having hair that was unpredictable and somehow “different” — it felt like it was always taking up too much space, too much time or shedding onto someone’s carpet.

There have only been a few times I’ve had my hair straightened — the lengthy process takes up to two hours. When someone asks if I like my hair straight, I’m not even sure how to respond. I like the way it feels when it brushes against my shoulders. I like it the way I like a pet: The sleekness and smooth silky texture is all right for a night, but it has never been worth the effort for me.

I could tell them I seem to get more male attention with straight hair. Even friends have paused to say, “Maria, you look … different,” and something in the pause seems to be something of an admiration I didn’t know could exist. I could tell those who ask that it makes me look nothing like myself.

As I get older, I’ve started to make peace with my hair. I avoid brushes at all costs, and swear by minimal shampoo and maximum moisture. I like that I can be easily picked out of a crowd by it, and I like it as an accessory to my sub-par dance moves. People, even the occasional stranger sometimes, say nice things about my curly hair, and I don’t really know how to feel about it — I usually blush.

In “Paradise Lost,” Milton rewrites Adam and Eve, going into detail about Eve’s hair, a tangled mess that is somehow enticing and intoxicating. Milton describes her hair as “wanton” even, which suggests that Eve’s untamable mane is just one of the things that contributes to the babeliness that makes Adam want to kiss her and eat the fruit and disobey God and all that wild stuff. Amid objectively sexist undertones of women as mere promiscuous objects of the male gaze, I admit that I found the characterization somehow humorous, comforting and unnerving. What if this frizzy brown mess could be the seat of power?

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes wish for frizz-free hair that looks like a Pantene ad, or hair that would take nicely to all of these hip shoulder-brushing cuts so many of my friends have been getting, but I do think there is something more than hair here. For example, that boy who touched my hair without asking and said it felt “coarse” is definitely a jerk, and I can’t help but hope the tragic poofy bangs made me a little tougher on the inside.

Part of me wants to hold on to a complicated story I’ve let my hair tell, but another part wants to say, “it’s just hair, it doesn’t have to mean anything.” Couldn’t I just shave it off or ignore it or write about something more important?

In asking these questions, I resist the urge to let something as superficial and arbitrary as a collection of dead cells define me, yet maybe that choice isn’t even one that is up to me. I can’t ignore the fact that I have been exposed to constructions of female beauty that come in sleek and uncomplicated packages.

I joked to a curly-headed friend of mine a few weeks ago that our curly hair drew us to all things cozy — fluffy blankets, snuggling, semi-sloppy clothing, small animals. But it’s not even about texture. Maybe it’s the freedom that comes with letting something just be, in all its messiness and unpredictability.

I don’t mean to paint this as a picture of a purely “chill” girl who has come to complete peace with all parts of herself. Though I no longer have crippling fear of triangle head (and if you have a negative comment on my hair, I have cultivated some choice words for you), I still think that such in-depth contemplation and anxiety on something superficial is strange in a way I can’t seem to shake.

It continues to vacillate between feelings of importance and unimportance. It continues to contain the pieces of my parents, and their parents. My hair continues to take up space — to frizz, to tangle, to shed and to grow. My hope in all this tangly mess is to only do the same.