Hair, In Two Parts

I.
When I was in elementary school, I sometimes wore my hair in two braids
Parted down the middle, behind my bangs
Fastened at the bottom by those old school hair bands with the plastic colored balls.
Do you remember those?

My maternal grandmother, whom we called Nanay, lived with us.
She brushed and braided my hair.
Sometimes my thick black hair would get unruly and tangled
So Nanay would try to work on the knots with a glob of coconut oil
This would make my hair shiny and oily and smell tropical.

I have a memory of going to school with my coconut oiled hair in braids.
Kids made fun of me for having a greasy head.
“Your hair looks wet. Did you wash your hair this morning?”
“No, my grandma put coconut oil in my hair.”
“Ew, that’s gross!”
This is one of my first memories of racism.
Even though their words may not have meant to be racist
And even though I didn’t have the understanding or language
To articulate what I felt back then,
Those words still hurt me.
Those words made me feel
Othered
Different
Foreign
Dirty.

 

II.
My most awkward hair phase
Was in seventh grade.
My mom convinced me
To cut my long, permed hair
Short like a “boy” haircut
Like hers.

My mom used to have
Beautiful, thick black shoulder-length wavy hair
And then started cutting it short in her 40s.
She was a hardworking doctor and mother
Busy
No time to take care of long hair.

She wanted me, her twelve year old daughter
To do the same
“You don’t have to worry about it
Or spend hours brushing it.
Short hair is much easier to take care of,”
She said.

So we went to the salon
And my Tita Rose
Who cut our entire family’s hair for decades
Chopped off my hair.

What the hell was I thinking?
I absolutely hated it.
I totally regretted it.
Why did I listen to my mother?

So a few months later
I thought I would improve my look
By getting a perm.
Some waves would help, right?

We went back to Tita Rose
And I sat in the salon chair for hours
And got the chemicals and curlers
And afterwards
I looked ten times worse.
No boy would ever ask me to dance
At school dances
Ever again.

I was mad at my mom
Why did she manipulate me?
Why did she convince me that my twelve year old self
Needed to chop off my hair because it was too bothersome?
Why did mom want me to be like her?

Middle school was the last time
I listened to my mother
About my hair,
About a lot of things.

At the end of seventh grade
I straightened my perm and
Grew out my hair
And it has been long ever since,
With some shorter bob experiments
In my twenties and thirties.

It is still thick and black
With a smattering of gray and white hair
Thrown in for good measure,
Which I wear like a badge of honor
Because aging is a privilege.

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