When I reminisce about my childhood, three things usually come to mind: otters, grilled cheese sandwiches and frizz. I don’t remember much. Despite dozens of photo albums stacked inside my parents’ closet, I tend to forget the details of almost every birthday party gone awry, dysfunctional family camping trip, and awkward middle school dance. But I vividly remember one day in second grade.
It was a typical morning at my elementary school in Kensington, California, a small town nestled in the lush East Bay hills with a panoramic view of San Francisco. My neighborhood was so uneventful that my friends and I often read the local newspaper’s police reports for fun: “Wind Blows Open Door” and “Small Dog Barks At Grandmother” are two memorable ones, but believe me, the list goes on.
That morning, when the recess bell rang and my classmates scampered outside, I had two options: stay inside and makes shapes out of silly putty with the kid who was allergic to the sun, or follow the masses and play a game of soccer. My best friend Mimi and I chose the latter. We were a good, curly-headed pair. We both loved Wishbone, had moms who were really into Hebrew school and were so dedicated to our friendship that we had the same imaginary friend: a purple triceratops named Rebecca.
We scuttled up to the team captains eagerly, sure that we’d both be first draft picks. But then we saw something ominous. Megan was divvying the teams for that morning’s game. She was a Sweet Valley character in the making with straight blonde hair, blue eyes, and a superiority complex—and we were far too weird to be her friends.
“Can we play?” I asked, sauntering up to her in my Big Dog Jurassic Bark oversized tee shirt. She whipped around; her slim little legs wrapped inside an agonizingly cute pair of Limited Too jean shorts. The bottom of her smooth yellow ponytail grazed her cheek, and she stared at us pityingly. “No,” she answered drily.
“You guys have curly hair,” she smirked and pointed at Mimi’s unruly mass of ringlets. “Duh.” Then she turned around and kicked the ball to her teammates, leaving us dejected, alone and frizzy on the asphalt. We slunk back to the classroom, in search of Rebecca.
Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about my hair. I was too busy arranging meetings for the Dog Club and choreographing dances for my fourth grade band, The Dingos. But all of a sudden, I started to resent the Chia pet growing horizontally from my head.
Years later, whenever I would tell my straight-haired pals how much I hated my hair, they would gasp and tell me I’m crazy. “But it’s so fun!” they would trill, running their fingers through my fusilli spirals and destroying any possibility I had of looking like Topanga, my elementary school idol. In fifth grade, when I complained to my mom that a boy at camp said my head looked liked a vagina, she shushed me and insisted, fiercely maternal, “People pay to perm their hair!” Yeah right, Mom, I simmered to myself angrily, thanks for making me look like a mons pubis.
Because I hated the way I looked. Despite growing up in Berkeley – the socially accepting commune of kale chips and Indigenous peoples day – I wasn’t happy with my appearance. I wanted to look like the button-nosed girls who lost their virginity on a memory foam mattress with their long-lashed first loves, the ones surrounded by boys at dances while I awkwardly Shakira-danced by myself in corner. And so I tried everything: ridiculously expensive shampoos that I secretly purchased with my Bat Mitzvah savings, styling my hair into tightly wound buns for days on end, and even the forbidden daily straightening routine. But unfortunately for me, nothing seemed to work.
One day in high school, I decided to try my luck at the straightening game one last time. I had a torturous crush on my Physics lab partner, who basically didn’t acknowledge my existence. He was socially awkward, didn’t seem to like washing his clothes and was dating a legal midget. I thought his partner choice made him caring and sweet. In retrospect, that so-called gentility was slightly misguided, and he turned out to be kind of cruel. But still, I liked him. And I wanted him to like me too.
I decided that straight, silky hair was the key to his heart. I got ready for school certain that just a little more effort would bag him once and for all. I flat-ironed my hair until it was so brittle it looked like it could snap in half, shimmied into my favorite turquoise urban outfitters tank top and smeared my cheeks with blush from my mom’s mascara-stained makeup case. I tilted my head and stared at my profile in the fingerprint-smudged bathroom mirror. I thought I looked bangin’, and was sure he’d throw his girlfriend to the curb and ask me out immediately. But when I got to class that afternoon and put my brown messenger bag on the ground, he cocked an unkempt brow and stared at my brittle strands quizzically.
“Is it raining out?” he jerked his head at the window.
“I don’t think so,” I glanced outside to check. “Why?”
“Your hair,” he said earnestly. “It looks weird.”
I told him I straightened it that morning. “You must like it better curly then,” I purred, stepping an inch closer.
“No,” he retorted quickly. “Definitely not. You look way better with it straight.” After all, he added, his girlfriend had straight hair.
I was devastated. Our harmless interaction seemed to represent a nagging trend in my high school life. Boys didn’t like me. I had a fake tooth and bulgy muscles from playing sports; I was academic, found solace in the many books that lined my shelves and never felt comfortable at the debauched high school parties my friends seemed to love so much. Whenever we went out together, I found myself becoming anxious, pessimistic, and reclusive, because I knew what was going to happen next. And it always did. The cute boys would sidle up to my friends, leer at them in that strangely acceptable 16-year-old way, and tell them how sexy they were, while I found a nice couch to sit on in an unnoticeable area, sending text messages about my thoughts on the world and humanity—to myself.
By the time I was 16, I was basically the only one out of my friend group without a boyfriend. On those painful high school nights when I was by myself, I played fetch with my arthritic dog, Rascal. Deep down, I was convinced that I would be alone forever; a fear I found to be confirmed by family friends at dinner parties, when they asked me the same question, year after year:
“Erica, do you have a boyfriend yet?”
This truly made me believe that my physical imperfections (like my curls, I thought) were the reason for my solitude, and affected my sense of self so profoundly that I still find myself sabotaging my healthy relationship. Because somewhere, those un-smearable memories rear their ugly heads and whisper in my ear tauntingly, he doesn’t really love you. How could he?
When high school ended and I set off to college, I was determined to find that elusive boyfriend. A guy who loved me for me. But the problem was that I still had the same insecurities, no matter how much I tried to hide them behind kohl eyeliner and back-to-back shots of vodka. Somehow, the leggy, shiny-haired girls who waltzed into bars in black mini-dresses made me feel wild and unkempt, like a wounded hyena limping through the Serengeti.
As the years passed, I continued to search for physical validation from boys. This led me to many questionable characters, from an egocentric British bartender in the Peruvian mountains to an Alabama native who cried himself to sleep one night in the bathtub while listening to cumbia. And somewhere between dating mishap number two and number 20, I swore to myself that I would only date guys who liked me best with curly hair.
So naturally, you can imagine how nervous I was when my post-college boyfriend saw me with straight hair for the first time. We were rifling through old pictures on my phone. He zeroed in on me at a fancy party: fingers coiled around a glass of bubbly, tanned body draped in an elegant gown, lips drenched in red, and hair professionally straightened.
He squinted at the screen to make sure that was really his girlfriend, grinning and gleaming through the pixilation.
“Wow,” he blinked and shook his head in disbelief. “You look amazing. So hot.”
At first, I thought I’d be upset. But when I snatched my phone and clicked away from the picture, I realized I didn’t care. I’m older now. I have an incredible group of loving, invested friends, and enough money to buy Bumble and Bumble Curling Crème on a pretty regular basis. My hair is, and will always be, a huge part of my identity. Sometimes, my curls are the first thing people notice about me, or how they choose to describe me. They’re unpredictable. They’re unequivocally me. And I love it.
Of course, this realization didn’t come quickly. It took years. But there is one exchange that I like to think planted the seed of curl acceptance.
Rewind back to senior year of high school. I ducked out of fifth period with a terrible case of cramps and headed to the campus health center. As I unwound my hunched body and sprawled out on the creaky doctor’s bed, I began to daydream about the upcoming episode of the OC. The school nurse walked in the room and interrupted my thoughts, gingerly setting a heating pad on my stomach. “Honey, can I get you anything else?” she asked.
It was Megan’s mom! I don’t think she knew who I was, but I definitely recognized her. I had spent years seething about our second grade exchange on the playground.
I assured her I was fine, just a bad of case of cramps—and did she happen to have any Godiva?
She shook her head no, laughed and pressed a cool towel on my forehead. And then out of nowhere, she plucked a ringlet from my ponytail, pulled it towards her, and let it go—watching it expand and quickly recoil.
“Wow,” she said a second later. “You have gorgeous hair.”
By Erica Hellerstein
Feature image via Tanakawho flickr creative commons.