When I was seven, I read about something called Japanese hair straightening in one of my mom’s magazines. My prayers had been answered! There was a permanent way to get rid of my bothersome curls. I got out the phonebook, dialed the number to a hair salon and inquired about prices. Because it was the 1990s and I lived in the midwest, they had no idea what I was talking about and hung up on me. Six salons later, I found a place an hour away that would do it for $450. I highlighted their name on the list, asked if the price included tip and hung up.
I headed into the living room to present my parents with a passionate explanation of how having straight hair would enrich my life.
“Why would you want straight hair? Your curls are beautiful.” My mom looked hurt, as if it were a personal insult that I wanted to drastically change my hair. In a way, it was.
“Mom. All the other girls in my class have straight hair. My school pictures were a disaster. And don’t even get me started on when someone throws a snowball at my bangs.”
“Vanessa!” My dad yelled, “Your hair is curly and it’s staying that way. Now go to your room, and think about how you can become a more grateful person.”
By the time I was 12, my relationship with my Bad Hair had reached an all-time high. Climbing out of a pool, or post sweaty-recess, or the morning after a sleepover… my curls betrayed me over and over again. Even a hair straightener I had procured turned out to be useless, especially on my “baby hairs” — those fine little wisps of fuzz at the temples of curly-haired girls. My hair stuck out in all directions; a constant physical reminder of the fact that I just didn’t fit in anywhere. It seemed to me as if my straight-haired counterparts were excelling in all the “important” areas (boys and looks) while I was faltering. There was nothing I could do but wish for some miracle to fix my Bad Hair, which I was certain would solve all my other problems, too.
The only solution I could come up with occurred to me one day while I was watching my favorite sport, gymnastics, on television. I idolized the gymnasts and realized that many of them slicked their hair back into very tight buns.
With the zest of a 12-year-old making a major life change, I ran to the bathroom. Never having used hair gel before, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I took a big glob and plopped it on top of my head. I watched as I brushed my hair back: it was actually working! You couldn’t tell I had curly hair anymore! My miracle had finally arrived!
The kids at school didn’t have the falling-out-of-their-chairs reaction to my makeover that I had hoped for. Well, they did fall out of their chairs, but it was with laughter at the fact that my hair gel turned crusty and started to flake off halfway through the day. This was ample ammunition for them to tell me I had dandruff. But I couldn’t go back to the frizz. I faithfully slicked my hair back. Every. Single. Day.
One day, during math class, a classmate, let’s call him Evan, was bored. He decided to entertain himself by asking me a million questions about my hair and ethnicity.
“Where do you come from?” Evan asked.
“Here.” I replied.
“How come you don’t look like anybody here?”
“Yes I do. I look like anybody else.” I averted my eyes down to my math book and realized all this talk and hair preoccupation had prevented me from retaining any knowledge about basic pre-algebra that year. Damn it.
“You know what?” Evan taunted. “Your hair is weird too.”
“I know. It looks like I have dandruff. But it’s really just the hair gel–”
“No.” He interrupted. “I mean, you have, like, a receding hairline. Like an old man!” He laughed hysterically.
My hand flew to the top of my head. I thought back to the past six months of slicking my hair. Was my hairline moving further back? I never noticed where it was originally. Because who notices those things, honestly? I mean, I can see why you’d think I would, what with my pre-occupation with my appearance, but I swear: the hairline was an afterthought.
The thing is, Evan pointed out something real in the way that only cruel and filterless children can: I wasn’t like anybody else in my small town. I looked different. I felt different. My family was different. And I was ashamed by it. In the early aughts, there wasn’t a mainstream self-love movement. There wasn’t a documentary on Netflix about the lengths ethnic women go to for “good hair.” There wasn’t a Beyoncé lyric about the “good-haired” mistresses of beloved pop icons. There was just this constant, pervasive belief that if you didn’t fit into a very specific standard of beauty (white, thin, with straight hair, probably blonde), you weren’t ever going to be beautiful. And I stupidly believed it with every fiber of my being.
I got home that afternoon and took down my bun. My hairline was definitely looking funky. I chastised myself for thinking that I could outrun my curls. Some people have good hair and some people have bad hair. I was obviously the latter.
Ten years after the receding hairline incident, I visited my hairstylist Jay in West Hollywood. Jay was from Georgia and knew everything there was to know about hair. He was also going to school to be a therapist, so he loved talking to his clients about their problems and giving advice. Jay was really my favorite kind of individual.
“I haven’t seen you in awhile, Missy.” Jay said. “I bet those ends are a mess!”
“They’re disgusting, really. Maybe I’ll just shave my head,” I replied.
Jay looked at me, mortified. “I hope that’s one of your little jokes.”
The truth is, after all these years, I really was growing tired of the constant battle with my hair. Since moving to California, I had grown my hair super long and was too lazy to do anything besides let it air dry most days.
After an hour of free therapy, Jay was nearly finished with my hair. He turned on the blow dryer and began the finishing touches. Suddenly, he shut off the blow dryer and began examining a small area on the side of my head. He pushed hair this way and that.
“Uh-oh, Missy.” He said quietly, looking at me with concern.
“What? What is it?” The image of me pouring that first fateful glop of hair gel onto my head sped through my mind over and over again like a very personal, very annoying GIF.
“Your hair is really thinning on this side of your head.” He twirled me around in the chair to face the mirror and pointed to the left side of my head.
“Yeah. I have naturally curly hair. That’s where the baby hairs are.” I smoothed them down with my hand.
Jay took my hand away and shook his head. “Sweetie,” he said gently, “That’s a bald spot.” I nearly fell out of my chair. “No!”
“Yes. Look.” He held up a magnifying mirror to the area. A near-perfect half-circle where little-to-no hair was growing revealed itself.
How did this happen? I had accepted that I had Bad Hair a long time ago. But still, at least I HAD hair. Was this some sort of cosmic payback for not appreciating what I had? A feeling of great self-disgust washed over me.
“I’m revolting!” I wailed, covering my face, meaning it in all of the ways.
“Shh!” Jay patted my shoulders.
I looked up, happy to be comforted. Then I noticed he was smiling reassuringly at the woman waiting for her haircut, who was studying me and trying to figure out why I began crying the moment I looked in the mirror.
“We can fix this!” He turned the blow dryer back on. “Do you ever sleep on your side?” He yelled over the noise.
“Always.” I nodded.
“Well, there you go.” He laughed. “You’re just irritating your scalp. Try sleeping on your back and the hair will start to regrow.”
After attempting to modify my sleeping position for close to two months, I noticed no difference other than a cramped neck. One day, as I examined my bald spot, I realized that now, despite years of wishing my hair gone and attempting to destroy it in any way possible, I wanted nothing more than to have all of the hair I was born with. It’s beautiful. It reminds me of early childhood mornings with my mom, who spent hours lovingly working detangler through my hair and who bought a book about braids and learned how to do every style on my head. It reminds me of my Aunt Betty, who once told me that if boys didn’t like my curly hair, they were idiots who weren’t worth knowing (she was so right, by the way). It reminds me of my Grandma and the Dominican Republic and of all of the beautiful women who came before and after her who never had a problem with their curly hair until someone told them they should. And so, just in case no one has ever told you, I would like to let you know, dear reader, that there is nothing wrong with your hair. It is perfect just the way it is. You are perfect just the way you are.
Vanessa Mancos is a writer living in Los Angeles. In her spare time she enjoys getting chiropractic adjustments, secretly eating Taco Bell, and posting too many Snapchats of her cat, Clementine.