Sometimes you work through things without realizing it. I read or heard somewhere that the part of our brain some claim we “aren’t using” is actually processing and analyzing information subconsciously. So those light bulb moments aren’t random happenstance, they’re more like the kitchen timer going off! I think it’s pretty fascinating that I can actively ponder something and when I get distracted or hungry or whatever and switch my active focus, my brain continues to mull things over. And it does that until it figures something out, at which point it shoots the message to the front of my attention and I feel like a genius!
This is a story about that. It’s highly personal and one of those things I'm a little scared to share because it's long and there aren't many pictures. It’s also one of those things I felt I had to share. So I am.
I talked about the different methods I experimented with when trying to come up with a capsule wardrobe a little while ago. The Wardrobe Architect was one of those methods. I glossed over it then because I didn’t think it had made that much of an impact on me.
But then, the other day–when I was having a bomb curl day–I was thinking about how I didn’t always love my curls. How sometime between ages nine and ten, I decided my curls were uncool. How I actually really hated and resented them for a long time and kind of resented my mom for wanting me to have this wild hair (she always told me she specifically asked God to give me curls).
And I sat there and asked myself where the turning point was. Like what made me go from hating my hair to cherishing it?
Part of it was definitely my sister. She has hair equally as curly as mine and she started rocking her curls in their amazing glory when she moved away to college.
Part of it was my best friend. She found herself a curl wizard and convinced me that mainstream haircuts were probably the reason my hair wasn’t looking good without a flat iron.
Part of it was the Wardrobe Architect Project.
Week one of the Wardrobe Architect asks you to really hone in on the things you want to highlight about yourself through your clothing. I went back and read the post again this week and it got me thinking about how I choose to represent my cultural heritage through style and fashion. The project is supposed to last a full year, but of course I tried to speed my way through it when I last visited the site.
At the time, I remember thinking my love of huarache sandals and my tendency to layer lots of woven bracelets were how I expressed my culture. But the question about reflecting my cultural heritage in my style managed to open an intense can of worms.
You probably wouldn't instantly know this when you first saw me, but I’m fully Latina. As in both parents were born in El Salvador and immigrated to the States in the 80s. I say you wouldn’t know this by looking at me because 26 years of life has taught me that I don’t fit in the narrow What-A-Latina-Looks-Or-Acts-Like box very well. I have fair skin that freckles in the sun and big curly hair. I have a thin nose and full lips. I first learned how to read in Spanish and have no accent when I speak English.
I exist in the gray area, never truly fitting in to any box, but that subject is still simmering away in my brain.
I realized I’d been subconsciously working through this concept of cultural expression because of this exercise. What came was a deep understanding that I look the way I look because of the people that came before me in my family. OK, yeah, I know how genetics work, I successfully completed seventh grade.
The understanding I’m talking about is the existential kind—that my features are passed down as familial history. My curls are much more than whirly, twirly proteins growing out of my head. They’re my dad’s curls. They’re my grandmother’s curls. And I’d spent the better part of 15 years trying to get rid of them because that seemed easier than facing the sad memories I’d attached to my hair.
Boy did the floodgates open then.
I remembered my poor mom with her pretty, thin, wavy hair trying to untangle my mane of curls as a kid. I remembered learning not to cry during the tough knots. I relived the shame of not being able to detangle my own hair at science camp when I was 10 and walking around with what I can only assume was a gnarly dread in my hair.
I remembered hiding my hair in terrible, misshapen buns in seventh grade.
I remembered brushing my hair out and blow drying it when I was 11 or 12, right before family photos. I will never forget the look on my mom’s face when she looked at me. Her face told me everything in a split second: my hair did not look good and she didn’t have the heart to tell me. I remembered doing it to make her happy and in that moment I knew I didn’t. I don’t know if there’s anything worse for a people-pleasing eldest preteen.
I remembered that high school wasn’t any better. Freshmen year in biology, I tried to straighten my hair with a really cheap straightener that didn’t get hot enough. All it did was inflict damage on my hair and left it looking so, so bad. The boy that sat behind me who I considered my friend at the time started trying to comb through my hair. I whipped around when I felt it and asked what he was doing. His answer was something snarky that implied that if my hair wasn’t nappy I had nothing to worry about. And I remember realizing that he was laughing at me and so were a couple other classmates.
I remembered sophomore year. I would have a group of girls hate me so much they’d track where I sat in one of my classes and write all over my desk in red sharpie so that I’d see their hate all over it. I almost never talk about that. My desk was covered in typical mean girl language. I can only assume they called me a bitch somewhere on there, but the only message that stayed with through the years was the one that read “straighten your ugly frizzy curly hair.”
So I did. That was the year one of my friends straightened my hair at a sleepover right before an all-day theater rehearsal. She taught me how and which iron to use and I got so many compliments on how beautiful my hair looked, I completely bought in on the idea that straight hair was pretty hair while curly hair – my family’s genealogical gift to me – was not. I convinced my mom to buy me the $70 iron and my quest to get straight hair took off.
I spent the rest of my years in high school trying out all the ways that promised to give you straight hair. I had my hair chemically straightened and hot combed to the point where parts of my hairline burned off. I straighten and curled my hair regularly all through college and up until I was 25…not even two years ago. To put it simply, I didn’t feel pretty if my hair wasn’t straight.
The worst part of all was each negative event or comment around my hair canceled out all the nice things other people said about it. Every trip to the salon that didn’t end with a flat iron and blow out left me feeling literally so ashamed of my hair I had to fight back tears. Having my hair natural and down gave me the same amount of anxiety as going to work without makeup on would.
I don’t think I had a specific turning point in my relationship to my hair. It’s been more of a process. It’s taken a year filled with a lot of intention, a lot of loving encouragement from my friends and family, random affirmation from strangers and coworkers, and tons of trial and error with products and the order in which said products are applied, but I worked through the sad memories. I processed them the best way I know how (crying). And now my curls are an integral part of how I express myself and my culture.
I can confidently say that I love my curls. They’re a source of pride. They tie me to my Mamita Gloria who still lives in El Salvador. They remind me where I came from. I no longer heat my hair into submission (a phrase I used a lot in high school and college). I embrace the wild.
I love that no curling wand could ever replicate what my hair does on its own. I carried so many hurtful, heavy memories around about my hair for so long, I’m really happy to let them go and to start focusing on the good associations that have taken root.