It was the day before my bat mitzvah, and I was experiencing a Jewish girl’s rite of passage in my community: a Brazilian blowout. I was having my hair straightened professionally for the very first time. I was excited to comb easily through my hair with my fingers and show it off to all of my friends. It was only years later when I realized that the joy I felt on that day was bred from a hatred for the hair that naturally grew out of my head. I have come to question the very notion behind straightening one’s hair, particularly for a special event.
The Jewish community as a whole, I think, can benefit from examining this practice. As a community, we fall into habits and traditions more often than not. In my experience, it seems like Jewish girls with curly hair want to straighten it; holding onto my curls is considered questionable and out of the ordinary. Each time I get my hair freshly straightened, I am met with a myriad of compliments. The same enthusiasm is rarely expressed for my natural hair.
Of course, the idea of natural hair cannot be looked at from a single perspective. There is a lot of diversity among Jewish people and the same exists with our hair. Even coming from an Ashkenazi Jewish family, there is so much diversity in my family members’ hair.
My grandmother was a redhead, and she has really tight curls. She wears her hair in the glorious “Jewfro” that my friends and I have all come to identify her by. I love her hair, and when I was little I wished I had hair like that. She wasn’t this proud when she was younger; she straightened it every day for about 50 years. But, as the loud and proud Jewish woman she is, she learned by age 70 that it made her unique. I think that’s a message we all need to embrace sooner rather than later.
My mom—also a redhead—has curly hair, but not nearly as tight. She wore her hair curly when she was young, but now she tends to straighten it. Last summer, she even went so far as to permanently straighten it so that it would stay that way for months. She says it’s just easier, but I think it might be more than that.
My hair is somewhere between wavy and straight. It’s the hair that a lot of my Jewish friends have—the kind of dirty blonde mess of waves that a lot of us struggle to embrace.
Today, when I consider the hatred I once had for my hair, culminating in the joy I got when I straightened it for my bat mitzvah, I challenge the premise behind it. What message did it send to me as a little girl when I had my hair straightened for special occasions? It’s the message that has damaged the hair and self-esteem of so many of my relatives. It created, from a young age, the idea that my natural hair is not beautiful, that when I want to look nice, I have to change myself.
To all the Jewish girls who have also struggled with their hair, I want you to learn, like I’m still learning, to love what grows out of your head. My cousin wishes her wavy hair were straight, my mom wishes her curly hair were wavy. Many of us want our hair to be anything but what we were born with, and that’s ridiculous if you think about it.
There is so much diversity of people and hair in the Jewish community, and we should see that represented. The way in which our society conditions girls to fit within expectations of beauty is something that can only be broken down if we are each willing to question our own adoption of these norms.
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