A few weeks ago, my sister called to let me know that Zoe, my ten-year-old niece, wants to straighten her hair.
“I knew this day would probably come,” she said, her strained voice radiating distress.
My two-year-old daughter, Eve, was already tucked into bed, her hair in neat, geometric cornrows that I take pleasure in styling every week. Even as my sister and I spoke somewhat mournfully about courses of action she should take, why Zoe would suddenly want this hairstyle, and how to come to some sort of compromise, I marveled at the dour tone of the entire conversation.
I remember all too well my childhood obsession with long, straight hair that shimmered and shook in the slightest breeze. Loose curls that bounced and swayed with every gentle toss of the head. When I was as young as five years old, I would look in the mirror and prod at my hair, which — even relaxed — refused to slip daintily through my fingers or flip over my shoulder with the practiced ease I saw demonstrated in my fairer-skinned classmates. Rather than obey my fingers’ or comb’s commands, it would stick stubbornly outward, looking like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, whom I understood to be a comedic character. I didn’t want my hair to be funny; I wanted it to be glamorous. Beautiful. Like the Pantene and Herbal Essence commercials: flowing, wavy, free.
It was this yearning that I thought of, frowning, with the phone perched between my ear and shoulder. “I mean, it’s definitely normal,” I said to my sister, Sophia. “She’s getting to that age. I was obsessed with having straight hair when I was eleven.” For a significant period in middle school, I had worn my hair in the same exact style every single day: a high bun with a side parted bang. I would stand at my vanity and brush and straighten and brush until my mother implored me to stop. I couldn’t stand the imperfection of a flyaway hair or crooked bump.
In high school, my tastes inverted into a desire for effortless disarray: the ever-elusive messy bun. That “I just washed my hair and tossed it up with this scrunchie,” blasé look. I couldn’t understand the mechanics of the style or begin to make sense of the sheer injustice: I was positive that if I’d even attempted to leave the house displaying such a lack of effort, my mother would have marched me right back upstairs to “do something with your hair.” The one time I’d even come close to this sort of devil-may-care approach (washing my hair immediately after taking braids out), my mother had to cut off all my hair. The tangles bested our combs, our conditioners, and our prayers. Messy bun.
“I know. Me too. And that’s the problem,” Sophia countered. “I don’t want her to go through what we did. I don’t want to have to deal with the drama. She already spends forever staring into the mirror, playing with her hair.”
One of us suggested that she be allowed to wear her hair straightened only for special occasions, I can’t remember who. Let her choose when, but with the explicit stipulation that it was not going to be a normal occurrence. Maybe a texturizer instead of straightener. Or a very soft perm? You know, just leave it in for half the recommended time. Every consideration bore the weight of our lived experience with the drama of our hair: we both knew that this small wish of Zoe’s was the first step of many on her journey to adolescent self-discovery.