Straight, blown-out, bouncy, lightened, long, smooth, relaxed, shiny: If you had been told for years that this is the only acceptable way to wear your hair, wouldn't you start believing it? Maybe it'd prompt you to spend hours in the bathroom with your flatiron growing up; or beg your mom to book you recurring Keratin treatments; or duck from photos on days your curls looked especially "unkempt."
This is not hypothetical. For many people within the Latinx community, maintaining polished ends is more than just the ideal — it's a deep-rooted cultural expectation. Curly, kinky textures, on the other hand, are dismissed as "pelo malo" (a.k.a. "bad hair") — a phrase that's lingered for centuries.
As someone of Cuban heritage, I've long understood the strict supposition to look presentable: Always dress nicely for guests; never show up with a wrinkled skirt. But I also have fine hair with only a slight wave to it, so I'd never heard the term "Pelo Malo" until I met David Lopez, a celebrity hairstylist who is Puerto Rican. He tells me that what I have is "pelo lacio," meaning smooth and ideal (at least according to these outdated standards). Only after I dug deeper into the issue, and talked with several women of different backgrounds, did I learn that countless Latinx people spend most of their lives being told they should fix their "bad" hair. The phenomenon is so widespread, in fact, that it's even the subject of the 2014 critically acclaimed film, Pelo Malo.
Of course, this societal pressure to fit a straight-haired "norm" extends far beyond Hispanic culture; it points to the pervasive, global influence of Western beauty standards and deep-seeded racism. "One of the strongest links between Latinxs and African Americans in the U.S. is our shared experience with colorism and the politics of hair," says Dr. Mako Fitts Ward, teaching faculty in women and gender studies at Arizona State University. "Having 'pelo lacio' reflected a closeness to whiteness and dominant, white American culture."
So, How Did The "Pelo Malo" Complex Begin?
"Historically, these phrases connote the celebration of cultural nationalism that took place throughout postcolonial Latin America," Dr. Ward explains. "To manipulate one's texture was about access to freedom under slavery; the homogenization of Latinidad through African erasure."
In a newly released book, "The Curl Revolution," author Michelle Breyer explained that in some countries, like the Dominican Republic and Brazil, girls are told they can’t go to school with curly hair. What you call it, however, varies depending on your Latinx lineage — "pelo churrusco" in Panama or Colombia; "pelo crespo" in Argentina; "pelo chinito" in Mexico; and so on — but the idea remains the same, and is just as ubiquitous in the U.S. "I don't remember a time when I didn't hear that curly hair was undesirable," Lopez says.
His mother would spend hours under a hood dryer with plastic rollers to smooth her tight ringlets, not completely unlike the experience of Monique Delarosa, who is Dominican and Black. "For years, I straightened it and got Dominican blowouts," she says. "I didn't think I was beautiful, so I thought I needed to be smart."
But this goes beyond race, too. Other white Latinx people with kinky, curly textures share the same sentiment. Gabrielle Collantes, who is Ecuadorian and Colombian, longed for the hair she saw on The O.C. and Laguna Beach. Nicole Gorritz, of Puerto Rican background, also didn't identify with any of the women she saw on TV, particularly those in the stereotypical shampoo commercials of the early ‘90s — where models are seen flipping their bouncy, smooth strands as they walk down the street. "It made me never want to leave the house with my natural hair," she says.
And it’s not just women who experience it — men feel the pressure, too. "To my family, how you presented yourself aesthetically to the world was super important, so I knew [early on] that my dark, curly hair was a curse waiting to take over my life," Lopez says.
In the end, Lopez, Delarosa, Collantes, and Gorritz all turned to relaxers, Keratin smoothing treatments, and flatirons at a young age. None of them worked over the long-term, of course, and ended up damaging their strands in the process: "[Straightening treatments] ruined the texture of my hair," Collantes says. "My nickname of 'cola de caballo,' known for its thickness, vanished — and I got stuck with thinning, frizzy, mish-moshed half-curls instead."
The Media's Role
Across the board, there was one common denominator in every interview on the matter: Latinx people didn’t identify with anyone on TV and in movies, magazines, and music. "I developed a very deep complex because I didn’t see myself represented in the media," Lopez says. "No one with dark skin like mine, no one with tight afro-like ringlets."
And he's not alone. In a recent study published in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, researchers found that from the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, only 3% of roles were occupied by Hispanics — even though the minority group makes up for 17.8% of the U.S. population. "From the whitewashing of Latinx characters to the Anglicization of Latinx actors who changed their surnames, Hollywood has not historically promoted Latinx-centered storytelling and casting," Dr. Ward says.
Changing The Narrative
The good news: With more and more women embracing their natural hair texture — whether it's curly, kinky, wavy, or straight — the tides are starting to shift. "Today, people are seeking authenticity," Lopez says. "We're more 'woke' about why we want our hair straight and what that means, and why wearing your hair naturally is not only empowering, but also a political statement as well."
People are starting to learn that there is no "right" way to wear your hair. You can still be proud of your Hispanic culture and not fit within these outdated beauty ideals. Dr. Ward echoes this, adding, "In my research on body ethics among Latinxs and Black women, I found that natural hair was viewed as an active form of resistance." Celebrities, like Camila Alves, Lauren Velez, and Yaya Da Costa, are leading the charge by embracing and talking about their natural textures on their massive platforms, providing much-needed representation that was previously missing from the dialogue.
And brands have caught on, too — creating products that cast a wider net of customers, including more options for curly or kinky hair. "Today, the market is changing quickly and dramatically," says Nicola Chung, the senior director of haircare innovation at SheaMoisture. "[People] are now accepting that Latinx come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors."
In other words: Like a snowflake, no Latinx hair is exactly like the next. Chung adds that looking at the engagement within the Latinx community, which spent over $4.3 billion in 2016 on beauty products — 88% being on hair and skin products — "the potential for growth is tremendous." That means truly understanding what consumers, from a scope of different backgrounds, are looking for is more important than ever.
"Knowing your ethnic lineage does not help determine your hair needs," says Breyer. "It may affect perceptions about your hair or determine your texture, but the products you choose depend on your hair's individual needs." For Lopez, Gorritz, and Collantes, finally coming to terms with this fact, and experimenting with new products and styles, is what eventually led them on the path of hair acceptance.
"Now, I can't imagine my hair any other way," Gorritz explains. "I don't know what took me so long, and I know it might sound frivolous or vain. But hair can be a woman's identity. This is how I was made, and it's about embracing who you are."
How To Work With Your Texture — Instead Of Against It
Think of embracing your natural texture like practicing for your driver's test: It might not be smooth sailing in the beginning, but once you get the hang of it, nothing feels more freeing. A good place to start? Lopez recommends ditching the shampoo (or sudsing up less often) and trying DevaCurl's The Original Cleanse & Condition Curl Kit. And invest in leave-in treatments (Collantes likes Alterna's CC Cream; Gorritz swears by Shea Moisture and the L.O.C. method). You can also check out our handy curly hair-care guide.
In the end, though, it’s not a mousse, cream, or flatiron that’s really going to change your perspective. "When you speak negatively about your hair constantly, it's just a daily affirmation that it is bad,” says Lopez. “That's just not true! Your hair is beautiful.”
Adds Gorritz: "'Pelo malo' doesn't really mean anything to me anymore. Now, I just see it as a term made up to suppress something beautiful. Curly hair, especially corkscrew and tighter, aren't the norm. It's wild. It has a mind of its own. It's absolutely magnificent."
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20 Styles You Need To Learn If You're Transitioning To Natural Hair