by Siobhan Barbour
I first noticed my hair was different around middle school. Growing up in the 1980s, straight blond hair was everywhere: on Barbie, my Cabbage Patch Kid, all the Disney princesses – even my aunts had blond hair. As a half-Dominican girl with tight corkscrew curls and chocolate brown hair, my ringlets seemed out of place.
My first hair-related memories are of my mother. She spent hours transforming her kinky tresses into a relaxed Oprah-esque bob. Every weekend, she’d wash and comb her hair into sections, then roll it up into jumbo rollers covering her entire head. Her hair dryer was a plastic monstrosity – a helmet with a hinged stand connecting it to a base that she set up on our kitchen table. She’d flip a chair around, sit down, pull the helmet over her head and crochet for the remainder of the morning as she waited for her hair to dry.
I didn’t think much of the ordeal back then; it was just routine. Mom spent hours straightening her hair and Grandma, my dad’s mom – a Floridian of Irish and German heritage – spent hours curling hers. Hair seemed important and every woman I knew spent a lot of time forcing hers to be something it wasn’t.
While I had Hispanic, Black and white friends, it seemed like mine was the only hair that responded to the weather; the hotter Virginia summers got, the higher my hair stood up. When I complained to Mom, she decided bangs were the solution. The result was a Statue of Liberty effect I had for nearly a year – and a newfound love of metal snap hair clips. My grandmother tried to help by taking me to get what she called “a real haircut.” But when the gal at Hair Cuttery made the first snip, I heard her say, “Wow, that really sprang up there didn’t it?”
On the surface, not knowing anyone with your hair texture may seem like no big deal, but there is some research suggesting that multiracial people are more vulnerable to depression, suicide, substance abuse and mental illnesses. A sense of belonging, or in this case, a lack thereof, plays a crucial role in the development of our identity.
Once, the only other Hispanic girl in my grandparents’ neighborhood offered to blow dry my curls straight. I raced to school the next day, excited to see what people thought. Most were nice, surprised by my hair’s length. But the one comment that seared into my brain for years came from another girl: “Why don’t you wear it like that every day?”
“This took two hours,” I said.
“So?” she replied.
As I got older, finding a decent stylist became a mission. One trip to the salon resulted in the stylist brushing out my hair; his natural bristle brush caught every snag. “I usually just comb it in the shower while it has conditioner in it,” I told him, wincing as the bristles found another knot.
I often arrived at hair appointments with pictures of styles I liked. The problem was those examples were white women – the only ones with curly hair I ever saw in magazines or on TV. And when I flipped through salon books of Black women, I saw Afros, braids or relaxed hair worn like the rest of my mom’s family. No one seemed to have my hair. So, every visit ended the same: After the stylists washed my hair, they’d run their fingers through it, trimming the ends and cutting layers, then lightly pat a tiny amount of pomade over the top of my head. “All right, all set!” they’d say, unsnapping the cape from around my neck as I looked at the frizzled mess reflected in the mirror.
“Thanks,” I’d mutter.
By my senior year of high school, I was so frustrated I chopped most of my hair off. A guy told me, “You have a great body; maybe if you hadn’t chopped your hair off into that weird ‘fro more guys would notice it.” As cruel as it sounded, he was sort of right. College was where I learned that some men were into my hair and some would never be. One particularly embarrassing moment came when a guy found one of my curls in the bathroom and mistook it for pubic hair. The moment stung, but I learned to accept it; my hair weeded out the jerks.
After college, I moved to Boston and New York City, metropolitan areas with larger ethnic hair care aisles and more people with hair like mine. I began to embrace not just my curls, but myself. Strutting the city streets, my Dominican heritage flowed proudly out of me through the top of my head and bounced on my shoulders with every step I took. My European roots and upbringing were on full display through my pale skin and broken Spanish, only ever spoken begrudgingly during phone calls to my abuela on birthdays and holidays. In Harlem, they just laughed and called me “white chocolate.”
When I moved back home to Virginia for my first real job, the comments at the office about my hair weren’t new, but they were more subtle. I arrived one day with straight hair and was told it looked “professional.” Crushed, I immediately called my aunt, who also had a job in the corporate world. “Oh yeah,” she said. “No one wears their hair natural at the office.” Turns out she was spending hundreds of dollars a month on twice-weekly blowouts.
“It’s just what you do when you don’t have good hair,” she said.
And there it was. Good hair – aka white people hair. I had just started learning to love my curls, and now I was supposed to hide them.
So, after years of expensive trial and error, I turned to Brazilian blowouts. It let me keep my curls but tamed them to a “professional” level. For a couple of years my hair followed a familiar pattern: flat and lifeless for the first two weeks, followed by a glorious month of soft, chic curls and culminating in a return to my hair’s natural state, only frizzier. One night with my husband, I shared my frustration with the whole process. He asked me why I did it. “I like your natural hair better,” he said.
That’s when I got angry. First at him for not understanding. Then at my family for telling me to wear my hair straight because, that’s “what you do.” Then at the TV shows, movies and magazines for never showing people with my hair, so that society views it as “different” and “unprofessional.” Then I got angry with myself for willfully participating in the farce by believing that all women are unhappy with their hair, for voraciously reading beauty blogs telling me how to look more Parisian and for posting photos of myself with straight hair on dating profiles to get more clicks instead of recognizing the blatant racism.
Not to mention the ungodly amounts of money I spent at the salon – all in an effort to look white.
Every single one of us has ideals planted in our heads by family, pop culture, magazines or racist beauty norms. The only way any of us are going to achieve a semblance of peace is if we embrace what we were born with. I’m not white, Black or Hispanic – I’m a mixture of all three. The hair that grows from my head is brown, frizzy and on a good day, curly. Why should I feel the need to force it to be anything else?
The truth is, it’s much easier now than it was 10 years ago. Even the big box stores have entire aisles dedicated to ethnic hair products. I see variations of my hair in movies and commercials, on news correspondents and at the office as new laws ban discrimination of “natural” and “cultural” hairstyles. Seeing it elsewhere helps me take pride when I see it in the mirror. It took some time, but now I’m finally just me, a feisty half-Dominican woman with dark, crazy, corkscrew curls.
Well, that is until I start going gray.
Siobhan Barbour is the wife of Distinction’s executive editor Clay Barbour, who loves her and her natural hair, but knows better than to edit her.