Too thick. Too messy. Raggedy Ann. Unruly. Frizzy. These are some of the ways my hair has been described.
I have no childhood recollection of my hair being called beautiful. I hated taking baths and having my hair washed. My hair was a thick mass of curls and straight lines, waves and knots, washing it every day was torment - combing it was even worse.
I refused to allow my mother to touch my hair, which resulted in it being cut. She couldn’t tame it, so I looked like a little boy. Something in me knew I couldn’t admit I loved looking like a boy. I especially loved looking like a boy in dresses, pinks, purples, florals, all the things I was told were for girls.
Puberty hit and my body began to form into a figure easily read as “girl”. I also began to regularly wear a headscarf, a sure sign of “girl”. I tried to hide my growing breasts and rounding hips under boxy boy’s clothes, claiming I wanted to cover for religious reasons.
By my early 20’s I stopped wearing a scarf, a friend confessed to me that he always imagined I had long luxurious hair. I laughed, knowing my hair had always been dry and frizzy, not pretty by any standards, certainly not according to anyone in my life. In my mid-20’s I went to get my hair professionally cut for the first time, paying for a haircut was a luxury I did not know - two different stylists complained to me that my hair was too thick and unruly.
There were those words again, and I wondered how someone whose profession meant working with hair, could so easily say them. Both women cut my hair differently from what I asked, deciding for me how I should look, straightening my hair, transforming it into a look requiring constant maintenance - waking early to wash and blow-dry, applying product, expense upon expense that changed my look, changed me.
It took years for me to find trust in someone to cut my hair, other than my own sister. Even she sometimes tried to convince me to straighten, to alter it. And I did, hoping it would somehow change. I finally articulated in my mind that I had spent all my life assuming there were two types of hair: Black and White, and I obviously had White hair as I wasn’t Black. But hair, like all of us, cannot be broken into two categories. Despite shampoo commercials insisting only White people need to wash their hair, the rest of us want hair that is clean and beautiful, too.
I stopped straightening my hair, I began washing every two weeks, conditioned regularly. I never felt anger towards my mom for not knowing how to treat my hair. She’s an Irish-American woman born at the end of WWII. I can’t blame her for assuming she needed to treat my hair like her own. I am one of five children, all with varying textures of hair, all treated in gendered ways. My oldest brother and I have similar hair, but his was expected to remain short, not subject to the same rules and regulations. The irony of course, in my case, was that my hair was covered under a scarf anyway. I can’t blame my father either. He was born in Iran at the beginning of WWII, a time when the norm for showering was to go to the public baths once a week, separated by sexes, and himself bald at a young age.
I was recently approached by an Iranian woman I had not seen in years. Her first comment was how beautiful my hair looked long, that she did not ever want to see it cut again. I grew defensive and remembered when I last saw her she told me my hair didn’t look good short, like a boy’s. This is a woman I barely know, who has no business commenting on my body. I think of my hair as this amalgamation of my racial identities, my religion, my gender/s - my hair is my own personal intersection of me.
Ancient Iranian art depicts us with long thick masses of hair settled into large curls, a symbol of beauty for men and women. Was I shaving my head out of spite towards this woman and my Iranianness? It wasn’t spite, it was reflecting on her comments, her assumptions, her forcing cultural - frankly, Iranian and US - standards on me.
My hair had suddenly achieved the beauty that was expected - smooth massive curls wrapped around hidden knots and straight lines, a perfect representation of my mixtures. But shaving my head also represents me - it’s a process that takes time, my hair moving in opposing directions, requiring multiple winding motions of the blades. Its thickness still evident, my dark brows more pronounced, my almond shaped eyes more evident. And it creates that slight confusion for the onlooker - “boy or girl”, “gay or straight”?
Binaries are boring, and my identities occupy more than two options. My identities are a multitude of beings. My hair represents all of me.
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