My hair has long tormented me. When I was a baby, it looked coppery blond and soft. Then, as a toddler, it grew into darker ringlets. When I was five, though, it sprang up into wiry curls: dark auburn or brown from a distance; a mix of copper and browns close-up. While I love such colors, my curls have caused much personal disaster.
My mom, who has straight hair, never understood curls. Between stuck combs and daily tangles, she began to despair. My dad, whose hair is curly, took over my brushing. Being little, I loved my wild locks and curlicues. I loved how friends would braid my hair; how at birthdays, other moms would exclaim: “Oh, you’re lucky to have curls! People pay to get hair like that!” I loved the short ringlets bouncing over my ears, my glorious halo. I even liked how my curls differentiated me in school.
At age nine, I insisted on taking over my dad’s job of detangling. By then, my hair had grown midway down my back. I desired to resemble “Aurora” or “Belle,” Disney princesses whose effortless locks entranced me. Being young, my hair brushing was desultory. Detangling occurred only if I felt like it. I trusted that my hair, like that of a Disney princess, would magically maintain some semblance of neatness. Instead it tormented me, transforming itself nightly into knots.
At age 10, disaster struck during a Berkshires ski trip. Before leaving our room for a swim, my mom told me to brush my hair. Hastily, I stuffed it into a ponytail. Nobody warned me how girls with curls should spray and condition before exposing themselves to heaps of hot chlorine lurking in hotel pools. Nor did my parents know. Jewish girls with curly hair rarely discuss their struggles with it, nor the lack of representation that it gets. Though my mom took care of many things, she ceded defeat in the battleground of my hair. My dad just hoped for the best. My hair was so long that mere shampoo and conditioner could not prevent tragedy.
I jumped into the warm hotel pool. The room had a skylight. At night, pool lights gave the water a shadowy, purple glow; pop music buzzed in the background. My parents and I played catch with large beach balls. We soaked in the water until our skin felt wrinkled. “Sorry I didn’t wear a swim cap,” I laughed.
In our hotel shower, I tried washing my hair. I felt a sudden, sodden mess. My fingers caught. Hair bands, stuck in knots, broke. It was as if every hair on my head chose to clump together, fusing into one endless tangle. I scrambled into pajamas and ran to my parents, sobbing. My dad tried fixing my hair; it was futile.
My mom panicked, saying, “She has a bird’s nest!”
I sobbed harder.
Back in New York, my parents rushed me to a popular salon. For me, the word “salon” conjured an ambiance of plush robes, of customers reclining with cucumbers on eyelids. Perhaps salons were pleasant for girls with straight hair, whose coifs were simple. The stylist lectured us.
“I’ve never seen hair like this,” she complained loudly.
My face grew hot. I felt confused. Did she refer to me having matted hair? Or me having extremely curly, Jewish hair? I wanted to hide. Instead, I cried silently in the shiny, salon chair as my dark, auburn clumps fell to the floor. My parents begged the stylist to be careful, yet she snipped through knots rather than around them. My dad halted her hacking halfway, leaving my locks uneven. At this moment, hatred for my hair sprouted inside me like seeds. Why could it not be straight and blond, like that of teens in magazines? I wished it gone.
My parents rushed me to an adult salon, which claimed to understand curls. I felt humiliated, being the only kid there. Three stylists worked on my head for two hours. The result? My hair was short, straight, and untangled. I felt grateful yet crushed. My dreams of luscious, long locks were shattered. At first, I sulked at home or wore hats outside. Then my old ambitions became replaced, not unlike a rainbow following a thunderstorm. I loved having straight hair. I adored its weightlessness, its feathery feel. Though my hair grew long and curly again, I wished that it would stay straight forever.
In seventh grade, the day of my bat mitzvah came. I had not aspired to be a princess for years, yet I now felt like one. I wore a violet dress with sequins sewn into every stitch, and a pair of equally glittery high heels. My hair, freshly straightened, swished dramatically. I wore contact lenses for the first time in public. As I sashayed into synagogue, classmates did not recognize me at first either. “Is that Eliana?” a girl gasped.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my bat mitzvah, that shame felt in the first salon—as the stylist snipped through my curls—returned quite explosively. It was as if a firework had been set off, refusing to dissipate. I straightened my hair weekly, ironing all curls away.
“Aren’t you afraid of hair damage?” my friend Lucy asked. “Curls are more you.”
I shrugged: “Straight hair is better.” What seemed better was gaining new friends. Since I returned to school with straight hair, certain girls became quite friendly. It was as if I wore a costume, allowing them to see me as another person.
I continued ironing my hair until the pandemic came, ending my heat-damaging habit. My parents would not let me linger in salons for straightening. Now, at age 15, I dislike my curly hair, which still torments me. Mornings, I tuck it into a bun: a vague attempt at concealment. Yet underneath the frizz, it is both soft and bouncy, complicated and amusing—like me. Looking around in school, I wonder how many girls are straightening their ethnically curly hair, highlighting, or dyeing it blond. In today’s world, it is a small problem. But I still wonder what it means.
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