My mother taught me to hate my hair.
She learned this from her mother, who learned it from her mother before her. And this inheritance has been passed down generation through generation in the Dominican Republic as every Dominicana matriarch with risos (curls) has forced herself under a secadora de pelo, a hard bonnet-shaped hair dryer, to ensure every curl’s annihilation.
My mother was disappointed with me. Not a hair on my head betrayed my father’s DNA, his inky black straight hair, his “good hair.” No, I was every bit her daughter. And so, she wrestled with what she called my “bad hair” throughout the years. Being in America didn’t mean forgoing family tradition.
As a baby, my mother tried to chemically straighten my hair until it fell out in clumps. She would forever scoff at its frailty. She sent me to a hairdresser every other week, sometimes every other month, with my unwashed puffy hair ready to be tamed. Early on, I was so short I needed phonebooks to prop me up under the heat of the hair dryer. I cried when the heat burned my ears but I was still not allowed to move. I stewed with the idea that the alien-looking contraption might suck off my head.
I learned to live with the pain. Three women would wash, pull and comb my hair into large rollos (curlers) before sending me under the dryer for two or three hours. Then they would unwind my hair and use a portable hair dryer to burn it pin-straight. I read.
My mother refused to cut my waist length-hair, even when the hair dressers complained at the agony of having to tame the lengthy strands of her three daughters. They overcharged and she paid. Short hair was not an option.
“Why not, Mami?” I begged. “Can’t I cut my hair? Please!”
“Las mujeres tienen el pelo largo.” Real women have long hair, she responded in a no-nonsense voice.
In defiance, I gave all my Barbie dolls mohawks and pageboy haircuts.
My mother surveyed the massacre with a shake of her head. She refused to relent. She was never more delighted than when my head became the perfect mimic a model’s mane in a Pantene commercial for silky, straight and according to the Shampoo bottle, “normal” hair.
My hair was so exhausting by age 12 that my mother still had to brush it for me. Even in its natural “kinky” state, she would brush it. (Retelling this crime horrifies my hair stylist to this day.) But I was so embarrassed when I found out that my friends all brushed their own hair that I broke up with my mother.
“I will brush my own hair from now on, thank you,” I said ripping the brush from her hands. Was it really embarrassment or all the slaps, pulls and curses my mother doled out as she brushed? My arms sunk, tired as I brushed and braided. I had to take little breaks. I wasn’t proud of the results and my friends weren’t either.
“Your hair is disgusting! Don’t you know how to comb it?” So read the crumpled up note they left on my desk. I looked up to find my girlfriends giggling. I asked my mother to take me back. Brush in hand, she conceded.
In high school, I woke up at 5am to start working on my hair. I was obsessed with feigning straight hair. I poured gel in it until it resembled a bike helmet. I moussed it but was terrified at the resulting volume. My mother imported products from the Dominican Republic made especially for “difficult” hair. And when I ran out of gel one day, I used Vaseline. It was sure smooth! But it took days, weeks, to wash out of my hair.
The final straw was when my crush, Pedro, “water-gunned” my hair after a recent trip to el salon. His idea of flirting was to aim his Super Soaker right at my head and spray. He laughed. I froze. I grabbed at the wet hair crinkling into frizzy tufts on my head and I knew. I had to kill him. With a murderous glare, I chased him around the school. Unfortunately, he was too fast for me and I never got my revenge.
But that day, on the subway, crying as my friends cooed sympathetically over my frizz, changed everything. I was sick of running for cover during rain showers. I was sick of the cramps in my arms after hours of blow drying. I was sick of the “wet dog” smell that wafted out of the shower when I was finally given permission (from my mother) to wash my hair, only to “get it done” again. I was so sick of my damn pseudo-straight hair.
So I rebelled.
The summer before my senior year of high school, no one recognized me. My “straight” hair was replaced with a flowing, luxurious, albeit, triangle-shaped mass of tight curls. Pedro was transfixed. Classmates would reach out to touch it during class. “Boing. Look, look. Again. Boing!” I rolled my eyes while they tugged at my curls just to watch them snap back.
My mother wouldn’t look at it. But I took photographs of it in various stages of drying, marveling at how different it looked as it dried. My grandmother had her own breakdown the night before my high school graduation.
“You cannot go to graduation with THAT hair!” she screamed while I was laying out my clothes for the morning. I tried to protest but before I knew it, there were curlers on my head. I was shoved under a hair dryer again. Did I mention she was a beauty school dropout?
My hair refused to straighten. It puffed up as soon as she unrolled the curlers out of my hair. And worst, there was a red burn scorched across my forehead from the dryer helmet. I cried myself to sleep.
In the morning before the graduation ceremony, a hot, humid June day in New York City, I washed my hair back to normal. The burn had thankfully faded. In all the ensuing photographs, I resembled a little urchin, cloaked by a mass of endless curly black locks that grew more and more foreboding as they dried.
Horrified at having had my bad hair day immortalized, I cut off all my hair midway through college. It helped that a British bloke in my first English lit class stared enraptured at my long hair throughout every class. He complimented it as if my hair were not an actual part of my body. Not one to take a compliment about my hair well, I decided he was creepy and I tried a succession of short hairdos and even buzzed all my hair off several times.
At 19, I dated a “traditional” Russian Jew who pleaded with me throughout our relationship. “Please grow your hair,” he asked. “Please. I love long hair.” But I was sure he wouldn’t love mine. “What do they call this?” he asked fiddling with a curl with an expression of distaste. “Is it…nappy?” We didn’t make it. But the short hairstyles did.
By 25, in graduate school, I finally started to grow it out again. I separated it into pigtails during my days as a high school English teacher. My Latina students begged me to straighten my hair, their eyes gleaming like my mother’s once had. I shrugged them off.
When Martin, a guy I was seeing, asked if he could touch my hair, I gave him a dirty look but I let him. “Ow! Ow!” I yelped. “What hell is wrong with you?!” I swatted him away. “Are you crazy? You can’t run your fingers through it, it’s not straight!!!” I winced at every broken hair strand on my head and at all the hair he’d managed to rip from my skull.
“I’m so sorry,” he offered shamefaced.
I thought that would teach him a lesson but Martin insisted on being allowed to touch my hair again. He would fondle it, scrunching it up (not running his fingers through) and praying for damp days when he could track its hourly growth. He refused to let me cut my hair. His obsession with it bordered on idol worship. Because he was now my boyfriend, I let him.
“Wow, what hair!” a friend commented when my hair reached epic proportions. Since I had given up straightening it, it refused to grow longer. It grew bigger. Taller. Bolder. But never longer. I stunned my hairstylist.
“I just want a trim,” I told him. “I want it to be like the sun. Like rays sticking out everywhere! Big!”
It took the Spanish hairstylist a minute to recover.
“Thank God! They all come in here begging me to straighten it!” he cried dramatically in English but he complied with my challenge. He snipped my hair lovingly for two hours until it was much bigger and lovelier than before.
When Martin saw my hair, his whole face transformed. His cheeks blushed a deep pink, a toothy grin broke over his lips and his blue eyes sparkled as he clawed at my hair, wrapping the curls around his fingers.
So, of course, I said “yes” when he proposed that day.
In fact, we had a big, fat Jewish Dominican wedding, which we invited my students to attend.
“But, Missssssssssss, aren’t you going to straighten your hair?” my favorite group of Latina students whined when we discussed wedding preparations. I giggled uncontrollably and shook my head. Their jaws dropped in disbelief. “He loves it this way,” I assured them. They exchanged the glance I had come to decipher meant: “Miss, you are so crazy.” I just smiled knowingly.
And so, under the chuppah, our wedding canopy, when the rabbi asked me to give my husband a blessing for the future, I knew just what to give him. The crowd quieted down as the microphone was thrust in my face. I hesitated embarrassed that I could think of nothing else.
“I wish you a bunch of beautiful, curly-haired babies!” I whispered.
The crowd, which had left their seats to swarm around the chuppah upon my husband’s request, roared with amusement. Sorry, Mom! In mere seconds, I had broken with centuries of tradition.
That’s how my husband taught me to love my hair.