Fighting Back Against My Culture by Reclaiming My Curls
I am a natural-hair-care-product-aholic. I spend, on average, $100 a month on hair products (which is a lot, considering I still live at home). I have tried everything from Kinky Curl to DevaCurl, because of course finding the right products for my 3B/3C hair is essential. Not to mention, knowing when to take products out of my weekly rotation, or when my hair is tired of the same product, also requires experimenting with different brands. Keeping the curls bouncy, luscious, and moisturized ain’t easy.
But besides keeping my hair healthy, I like looking at the mirror and being met with a mane of spirals and curls bordering my face. I love the compliments I get when my hair is “on fleek.” I love the elasticity of my hair after a deep treatment of Shea Moisture’s Yucca and Plantain masque. I love my hair. I am determined to take the best care of it because there was a time when the spirals and coils on my head were limp, heat-damaged strands.
For most of middle school, I had an obsession with straight hair. I went to the salon every week to sit under the hairdryer for an hour and get my hair blown out for another thirty minutes. Honestly, it was excruciating. I hated the heat and the waiting and the loud Dominican women gossiping about who got the latest liposuction or whose husband cheated. But I frequented the salon every week because I thought I looked beautiful. I thought straight hair was beautiful. I don’t remember when I stopped liking my curly hair, but now that I’m older, the root of my obsession with straight hair is clear to me.
In the Dominican culture, Eurocentric and anti-black ideals of beauty have always been praised. There were the omnipresent rules and boundaries set for the women in my family not to date black men (which I broke) in order to preserve the whiteness of the race. We women were to always make sure our hair was done, and a portion of our weekly allowance was just for getting our hair silk pressed and flat-ironed, with a side of charred ends. My nieces, cousins, and sisters always had their hair straightened. My nieces, in particular—who have kinkier hair than me—would spend hours with a relaxer in their hair. My mother, whose curls clung to her head, also texturized her hair. And so, when I began to flat-iron my hair every day, I was just following the women in my family. To them, straight hair was beautiful. And I wanted to be beautiful.
Because my hair was not “coarse enough” for hair relaxers and texturizers, the at-iron would become my weapon in combating the curls on my head. I flat-ironed my hair every day before going to school and every night before I wrapped my hair. If it rained and my hair frizzed up, I made sure I flat-ironed it until my hair smelled so burnt that no amount of hair grease could cover the smell. It got so bad that my mom had to hide the flat-iron from me, and when I went to the salon, my hairdresser was like, “Girl . . . maybe you should stop straightening your hair.” But I only realized I had to stop once so much of my hair had fallen out that the hair in the middle of my head was nine inches shorter than the rest of my hair. It was like a layered haircut gone wrong. After that, I stopped straightening my hair altogether. I cut off most of the damaged hair and started transitioning. I like to think I went natural before going natural was cool. Besides providing me with beautiful curls, transitioning allowed me to really appreciate my Dominican features. All the women in my family sport beautiful curls and cinnamon skin—features we were taught to hate. As I transitioned my hair, I realized I wanted to end centuries of anti-black sentiment in my culture. Loving my curls and refusing to straighten them are things I can do to tap into my identity as an Afro-Latina without the additional standards of beauty imposed on my already beautiful features. Texture transitioning allowed me to realize that oftentimes the most beautiful parts of ourselves as people are the parts we try to hide the most.
Going natural has taught me a good lesson about loving myself, especially the parts of myself I cannot change. It’s also taught me to appreciate the diversity of my culture and know when I should fight back against ideals rooted in outdated and prejudice claims. It’s enabled me to indulge in myself unapologetically and unconditionally. So, who cares if my hair products are too expensive? My curls deserve the best.
Roberta Nin Feliz is a class of 2016 mentee alum from the Bronx, New York.