(Off the Cuff brings you opinion and essays on current events in the appearance universe)
As the daughter of a Black man and an Asian woman, I have always been more than my hair, but I didn’t always know it. My mother, who is Filipino, didn’t know what to do with hair that was so radically different from her somewhat wavy, mostly straight hair. She never explicitly said that my hair was ugly, but she pledged loyalty to the flat iron. If I didn’t want to straighten my hair that particular week, she would ask, “Why not? It looks so pretty when you straighten it.” I took this to mean: You look so much BETTER when your hair isn’t curly.
Growing up in a multicultural household in a sleepy, all-white suburb in New England automatically cast me as an Outsider. My hometown believes racism and discrimination are evils only limited to states below the Mason-Dixon line. If I dare mention the racism I’ve experienced, white people take it as a personal attack. I’ve been called "racist" just for recounting my lived experiences. I may have been the daughter of two different races, but I was still black enough to be coded by the color of my skin and thus, dehumanized. My hair, with its impressive ability to break combs and brushes, has always been an easy target for small-minded bigots, from loud-mouthed, entitled white schoolgirls to oblivious older white men and women who seemed to have only seen Black people on TV.
When I was around eight or nine, my family went to Disney World during my summer vacation. I was standing near our airport gate when I felt two pairs of hands combing through my hair, tugging at the roots. Frightened and angry, I turned around to face two non-black women of color. Ignoring my distress, they reached out again for my hair. They would have continued to feel my hair if my father hadn’t appeared, mouth tugged into a frown. When whiteness is the default standard of beauty, blackness is cast as its unworthy opposite, as though one is Cain and the other, Abel.
As a child, I was made in my mother’s image of beauty. My father, considerably protective and a follower of old-school, traditional masculinity, didn’t have much to say about makeup and beauty. Meanwhile, the images from teen magazines that warped my influence were always available to discredit the mirrored reflections of my nuclear family.
I did not grow up insulated by the familiarity of blackness. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t have a large extended family. My father is estranged from most of his family and others passed on before my parents married. My mother’s family lives in the Philippines and I don’t remember the one trip we took to her home when I was three.
So at my mother’s suggestion, I began dying my hair in middle school. As the years progressed, I went blonder and blonder. I wanted my hair to be reminiscent of what I saw everyday in the media, the type of hair I saw on the white girls at my school. My mother and I brainstormed ways to tame my kinks and frizz into pitiful submission. The few times that we went to a local hair salon always ended in resentment and frustration. The white hairdressers never knew what to do. They’d stare at my hair as though it would jolt to life. One hairdresser actually turned us away.
Eventually, we grew so tired of these reactions that I allowed my mother to trim my hair. Looking back, I understand that the incompetence and ignorance of those hair stylists has nothing to do with my value as a person. But at the time, my hair was a constant source of agony and personal shame. I hated (and still hate) the assumption that a Black girl or woman with natural hair should graciously bask in their supposed Otherness: the assumption that the Black girl in question doesn’t mind if you invade her personal space to dig your hands in her hair. White people, even non-black people of color have done this to me throughout my life. Without the slightest hesitation, they put their hands in my hair. They’re surprised that their stereotypes don’t hold up, that the texture of my hair “doesn’t feel like wool.” They write off their rudeness and ignorance as curious flattery. Such disrespect has never read as a compliment to me.
Upon entering middle school, I felt irreversibly, internally shaken by the negative attention that my hair attracted. I wore my hair in a tight bun most of the time. Friends and classmates couldn’t help but add their two cents: “Do you ever straighten your hair? Why don’t you straighten your hair more? It looks so good (read: better) that way!” By the end of high school, I claimed defeat. There’s nothing I can do, I thought, I just don’t have good hair.
If I had not gone out of state for college and graduate school in Boston and New York, I would have carried this mantra without knowing that there is no such thing as “good hair.” What is the concept of good hair without its relationship to whiteness? Still a superficial system of worth that shames genetics and heritage. By escaping my monolithic hometown, I was no longer the token minority everywhere I looked. In those environments, I was allowed to be more than my hair. Free of my mother’s beauty preferences, I began to trust my own taste. I saw beauty that defied the rigid standards of Connecticut townies. I was awakened to the fact that self-love did not have to be conditional.
Of course, my existence deems that I can’t completely escape the far reaches of racism and white supremacy. My hair still elicits rude comments and violations of respect. In professional settings, I’ve had people ask if my hair is “real” or what do I do to “make it look like that.” While out to eat at restaurants, I’ve had men put their hands in my hair, unapologetic and entitled. I’ve had potential romantic prospects exclaim surprise upon discovering that my hair is “actually soft.” Yet I no longer worry about conforming. I no longer yearn for pin-straight locks. I haven’t chemically relaxed my hair in years. If the height and volume of my hair offend you, mission accomplished.
(Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared on Book Riot, Vice, Hazlitt, The Hairpin, and The Toast. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine.)