Curls, care and capitalism

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My mom will always be the most beautiful woman in the world to me. 

Growing up, I often watched her brush her hair and apply face masks. Observing these moments my mom spent with herself, I learned the language of beauty — health and cleanliness. 

“You must cherish and take care of what you’ve been given,” she often retorted.  

It’s no surprise that I longed to be beautiful exactly like her. There was only a slight problem. 

My mother has had luscious, thick, straight hair that has fallen to her hips for most of her life. I, on the other hand, had frizzy, puffy locks that stood out in all directions (thanks to my dad, whose Afro was diluted and passed down to me).  

I didn’t see our differences as a hindrance; rather, I thought if I followed the same rituals of self-care that my mother did, my hair would magically transform into hers. 

My mother tried her best. When she set out to tame the unfamiliar beast that is my curly hair, it was akin to challenging a bear to a fight with a toothpick. But being Russian, she rolled up her sleeves and stepped into the arena. 

Through my crocodile tears and sharp yelps, my mother battled the mythological monster on my head for hours with a wide-toothed comb and a bottle of drugstore detangler spray (which was probably just scented water, because it did nothing). Raking the comb through my hissing tendrils, she fiercely fought the enemy — but like the Greek hydra, with each curl she brushed three fuzzier curls took its place. 

This was a weekly ritual, and it was one that I dreaded. The worst part wasn’t so much the throbbing post-brushing pain, but looking in the mirror afterward. What was this foreign thing on my head? Why was it so difficult and ugly and messy? I felt as though my body was fighting me, demanding extra space, attention and care, all things I myself had trouble vocalizing. 

Growing up in the Bay Area, curly hair was vastly underrepresented — the majority of my classmates were blessed with unproblematic, thick and beautifully straight Asian hair. For a long time, I blew out candles and dandelions with the same wish in mind: to wake up with that same shiny waterfall of hair, or at least something similar to my mother’s.

Everywhere I looked, the same tiresome adjectives were pinned to curly hair: messy, dirty, frizzy, unprofessional. When worn loose and not tucked away in a braid or bun, it was labeled attention-seeking. In films, pre-makeover “ugly girls” most often donned a curly hairdo, while villains and witches had voluminous, disheveled hair similar to mine — my deepest insecurity was depicted on-screen as the antithesis to beauty.

Beauty standards in the United States (and the world) are exceedingly Eurocentric and strikingly arbitrary. In the United States especially, while we like to say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, it would be more accurate to say that it lies in the hands of big corporations and advertisers.

There came a point when the hair that I was ashamed of was suddenly marketed back to me in the new wave of “natural beauty” advertising. “Embrace your inner, natural beauty, but only using a product from our company.” 

In the capitalist United States, beauty is entirely monetized — at its core, consumers (women especially) are always lacking. Straight hair is too plain and boring; curly hair is too messy and wild. Everyone is conditioned to long for what they cannot have, and attaining inner beauty is contingent on external factors. 

Why was I always being sold something that was already part of me?

Though it is true that decolonization in the beauty industry is already in the works with inclusive ad campaigns and corporations representing women of all backgrounds and physical characteristics, we all know there’s still work to be done. 

Simply including them is not enough — we need to begin erasing the stains of colonization from the bodies of women. We must never stop questioning what beauty is, reimagining it and transforming what it can be. 

Today, my hair is a beloved appendage; I can’t imagine myself without my curls in tow. Though I like to say I’m low maintenance and easygoing, my hair begs to differ. It’s certainly not easy. It’s not quiet or subtle. Perhaps it’s my body reminding itself to speak and be heard and to care for and love itself. 

In my family’s cramped bathroom, a single flickering yellow bulb bathes me in warm light. As I melt shea butter in the heat of my palms and work the oil into each curl, I am lost in my own living, breathing body. I never liked the loudness and the wildness that unapologetically grew out of me. I fought it off with tight ponytails and buns that concealed the texture of my hair. 

But in the light, my hair slowly takes shape as my fingers twist. Somehow, while tending to myself, I see my face framed differently: my mother, her prominent brow bones, as well as my grandmother’s round eyes. I see my father, his puffy mouth and oddly charming eye bags. I see my hair, that which is my own — not quite as tight as my father’s, nor as smooth and glossy as my mother’s.

I am quick to love others, to offer care and affection and to celebrate and relish in their beauty. But when it comes to me, I hesitate. Noticing the beauty in myself is not something easy or natural. Most days I need to actively search for it — I know it exists, but I (too often) fail to remember. But when I see the beauty of others I love in my dimly lit bathroom, for a moment, I find myself beautiful. 

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]