It was the fall of 2009, and I could see my mom's face of sheer disappointment as I walked out the door with my photo form, pink lipgloss, and what she called my "pelo malo" to take my high school graduation photos. I had picked that day to finally embrace my curls; the natural hair movement was dawning, and I was thrilled to make a statement that would forever be stamped in my high school yearbook.
I didn’t even make it up the block.
Remembering that my graduation was much more significant to my mom, a Dominican immigrant who never had the opportunity for a high school education, I wanted to give her this experience wrapped up in a bow. So, I turned back and called the photo company to reschedule. The surrender came with one compromise: My baby photo had to represent my natural curls.
Looking back, I know that my mom's disapproval wasn't meant to hurt me; she was simply raised in a culture that placed a higher value on sleek, straight hair. The phrase she used, “pelo malo,” is a Latin saying that literally translates to "bad hair." And by "bad hair," they mean anything that isn’t a smooth blowout. As someone of Dominican heritage, I understood that my mom faced pressure not only for judgement from the rest of the community — what would they say about us if she didn’t “groom” my hair — but also from the long-held belief that curly hair isn’t meant for school or the workplace.
“Our parents, our mothers, our grandmothers, they didn’t mean any harm. They thought they were doing the best thing for us by getting our hair straightened," says Nikki Walton, psychotherapist and author of Better Than Good Hair – The Curly Girl Guide to Healthy Gorgeous Natural Hair! "If it’s not [straight], it’s like, ‘What are you doing with your hair? It’s all over your head.' Sadly, that was society because of the beauty standards.”
Only wanting what she thought was the best for me, my mother started taking me to the salon around the age of five. Every Sunday morning, I'd sit patiently while they washed my thick curls, set them in rollers, heated them under a dryer, and ultimately blow dried them straight. The entire process took up to three hours.
I sat under the hair dryer and felt like I was turning against self-acceptance. I thought: Am I wrong for not embracing my curls?
High school came around and the conversation shifted on a global scale. Suddenly, the natural curls we had long been told weren't acceptable were now desirable by societal standards. Celebrities were wearing their spirals on the red carpet, the curly hair aisle was expanding, and I wanted in.
I ditched my flatiron and wore my air-dried curls every day for an entire summer, until I found myself back in the salon chair that fall. I was starting a new job in media and felt like it'd be easier to style my straight hair while adjusting to a new morning schedule. Thinking back to those Sunday sessions with my mom, I sat under the hair dryer and felt like I was turning my back on self-acceptance. I thought: Am I wrong for not embracing my curls?
For the years to follow, I went through an internal battle of whether I should ditch the hair tools forever, or keep straightening my hair. I stopped posting my #SalonSundays on Snapchat, feeling like I was sending the wrong message in this new age of self-love. I started competing in pageants and felt even more personal conflict: Here I had the perfect platform to stand out and embrace my natural hair in an environment that had long excluded it. But I didn't want to — and not because I wasn't confident enough to — but because that was my personal preference at the time.
Being natural 100% of the time, never felt truly natural to me.
The natural hair movement is rooted in encouraging women to enjoy the characteristics of their hair texture, which I proudly do. But being natural 100% of the time, never felt truly natural to me. And that's OK. “The conversation shouldn’t just be, 'let’s embrace this one texture,' but [rather] that all hair is good hair,” says Sulma Arzu-Brown, author of Bad Hair Does Not Exist! “Whatever type of hair that we have, whatever color we choose to have it, whether we wear protective styles or not — hair is a part of you. We want to respect everybody’s individuality and choices.”
Now, I wear my Shakira curls one day, and rock pin-straight Cher hair the next — and that freedom is at the heart of this cultural shift. I now have the power that my mother or grandmother didn’t have: To do whatever I want with my hair without conforming to any ideal. And that's what it's all about.