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{Natural Hair Series, Part 1} They Are Not Their Hair: A Look at the Latina Curl Stigma

I love my natural hair. I may not always reflect that, but I do. There have been times I hated it and didn’t care at all. But in the end, my hair is a true representation of how I identify myself and will give you a pigeon hole view into my spirit. It’s my hair. The hair God gave me.

 But that’s just the problem. It’s the hair God gave me and the not idyllic locks I think would look best on me. Perhaps because of the social pressures and standards placed on women to look a certain way — or better yet, the classification of ethnic women and our appearances — I’ve allowed myself to want “other” type of hair. 

Let’s start there. 

Why am I, a successful, wildly independent, smart, and educated woman not satisfied with what God gave me? As a black Latina with very strong Chinese genes, my hair is a combination of textures, not all the way “kinky black” as some have suggested, definitely not that corn silk hair most Asian women have, and not the wonderfully thick and long treases a lot of non-black Latinas have. I have a unique blend of all three hair types, which makes it a complicated mess to manage at times.

That complicated mess only became an issue when I decided I wanted to start wearing my hair blonde and blown out. Though it’s a super pretty look (you can see it here), it’s not natural for me or most afro-Latinas. Our hair is not blonde (at least I don’t know a single natural blonde Latina) and curly tops are more prevalent than not. The constant blow-drying and flat ironing, eventually killed my hair and I ended up having to cut it all off. Had I just stuck to my natural,  I probably wouldn’t be penning this post.

But the desire to straighten my hair isn’t unique to me. Most Latin women I know have curls, in many patterns, and also opt to wear their hair straight. Through perming, blowouts and flat ironing, we have become a culture of wanting what’s not natural to us. Ironically, we come in all different shades of white, brown,  and black, inclusive of ethnic groups. We come from 21 different countries, and though connected in our roots, we are vastly different in appearance (and culture).

There’s a deep rooted issue we don’t talk about. Why do we want to wear our hair straight? Why do we think it’s prettier, as many have expressed? Why can’t we just love and rock our curls? In a mild debate over the issue a few months ago, a family member suggested our attraction to flatter, straight hair is indicative of our self-disapproval; that a White looking aesthetic is more appealing, they argued. That may be a strong reach, but I have to believe there’s some truth to it.

A male colleague told me recently that “men prefer it that way {straight}. It’s just sexier” after seeing it curly during a week-long work project and then straight for a black tie event. BH

If we look at the cultural history and practices of curly haired women, we spend hours upon hours and paycheck after paycheck visiting  salons for all kinds of lengthy services to make our hair straight. I used to do it, too. And even though I wore it 100% natural all through college, there was a time when I looked forward to the straight or looser look more often than not. It made me feel sexy. I’ll get into my personal issues and reactions from friends and colleagues in a follow-up post, but the sentiment is the same — the need to look a foreign part.

The wrongful association to professionalism and straight hair isn’t uncommon, either. The TODAY show recently did a segment on curly hair with Hoda Kotb, where she explored why curly haired women go straight and vice versa. My sister, Karen, was part of the round-up. My sis, a PhD and director of a large facility, with a staff of 40, shared how her colleagues and patients told her she looked “more professional” when she wore her hair straight. Get out of here with that mess! (sisterly reaction). Really? To suggest she’s less intelligent or less capable of performing her work, or that anyone would treat her differrently because of her curly hair, is insulting, borderline racist, and ignorant. To suggest straight hair is more professional is oppressive. But she’s not alone.

In talking to some Latina friends about their experience, there was an impressive commonality: they’ve all gone from sticking to straight hair in the work force and rejecting their curls to loving and embracing them. Most of them also shared that the process had a lot to do with loving and accepting themselves in a way they hadn’t before. But that just underscored my argument that our self perception is in part designed by what society expects of us. We see these gorgeous Latina models and actresses all rocking long, straight hair. That’s the standard which then becomes the expectation. Any departure from that removes us from mainstream and invites unreasonable conversation about our lifestyles and culture. When was the last time you saw a curly-headed Latina personality or celebrity on TV or in a magazine? I can’t relate nor do I look like a single of the mainstream Latinas on TV; most are blonde with long and straight hairdos. But there was a time when… (next post in series)

The scary harm in that is the lesson we’re teaching our daughters (and son, actually). A friend recently shared her daughter wondered why her super tight curly hair was different from her own, which is worn straight though just as curly. Having to explain that to a 5 or even 12 year old is tricky. What are we teaching our daughters about our natural beauty? What message are we sending by not setting an example of self-worth in our uniqueness? If we consider the issues a young girl innately faces, especially in school, where they inevitably start asking about all the varying looking girls, we have to plant seeds of confidence and acceptance.

Ultimately, our hair is who we are. It can define us or not. Loving it naturally sends a loud message: I am Latina. I am naturally me. I am beautifully me.

These are some love notes shared by some of my Latina friends whom have embraced the curl. Some are stoic in their approach while others had to take a hard look at why they hadn’t loved their curls before. But now, they rock the curl. They are the curl.

My Sister, Karen

It’s a chia pet but I love it because it’s the natural me, just as I was created to be. But it wasn’t always like that. I used to wear it straight a lot, but after an awakening conversation with my sister, I loved how she embraced her curls and encouraged me to just be me; to be free of the pressures. It feels great and I love it! My hair has been a source of disappointment and delight for as long as I could remember. 

 

Lisa Quiñones
My hair has been a source of disappointment and delight for as long as I could remember. My hair has gone through every possible stage. It’s been long and short. I’ve been with and without bangs. It’s been dyed red, brown, blond and blue black. I’ve had highlights – auburn and gold. It’s been wavy, curly, crimped and ironed straight. I didn’t always love my curls and I wished for straight hair. Now I’m ready to embrace my hair and I love the stage it’s in now: natural and curly. I love when it’s styled and I love when it’s wild. My hair suits me and my personality.

Marty Darby

I truly feel like it’s okay to be myself. Embracing my curls means embracing an integral part of myself.  Loving my curls is loving myself.  Here’s my story.

 

Jeannett Kaplun
Being a mom changes the way you see things, and it made me reexamine my relationship with my curls. Last year I realized how my own habit of straightening my hair for special occasions such as weddings or TV appearances (to look more “professional”) affected the way my daughter perceived her natural curls and waves. I wasn’t the only one and a national morning TV featured us with my little girl. I stopped straightening my hair and my showing my daughter that I love my curls, I hope to inspire her to love her own hair.  Jeannette talks about her feelings in this post.



Melanie Edwards
I now embrace my curls even more than before so I can show my daughter that curly hair is beautiful. I want her to grow up loving her curls despite what our culture and society depicts.

Even though I still feel self-conscious about my curls look, I’ve never felt more unique than now. And I realized that is not what the people say it´s how I feel what matters and, oh, surprise! If I wear my hair confidently, people actually admire me. 

Vanessa Torres
Like most women with naturally curly hair, as a young girl I wanted the fine, straight locks of my friends. The flipped layers, the straight bangs, the easy-to-manage, brushable hair.  As I grew older and hair products, treatments and stylists grew more sophisticated, I got a grip on my curls, though I will not lie – we are in a constant evolution together. 

 
Accepting and loving your curls means you are OK with not being perfect. Or, what I call “glossy.” You can never guarantee a good hair day. You cannot convince your hair to behave because you’ve got a big meeting or important job interview. Curly hair is wild, it is unpredictable and it also disappoints at inopportune times. 
 
But it also provides wonderful surprises. An extra-bouncy curl here, an adorable twist there. The sincere compliments I receive outweigh the negative comments or “suggestions” that I should join the straighteners’ brigade. The last time I checked, it was my head and my life and I don’t choose to spend hours forcing my hair to do what is against its very nature. This is how God (and my unique genetic composition) created me and I embrace it in all it’s unpredictable, untamed glory.
 
 

Simone Carson
Curly hair products were not available when I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s  in Miami, so I struggled embracing what I naturally had. But once I learned how to manage my hair with a great diffuser and products, the love/hate relationship stopped. I embrace my curls and love them every single day! 

A rare day I wore my hair down and loose, I always wear it in a braid, a bun or ponytail slicked back. Growing up I hated my curls, the other girls had lovely long straight hair & I was jealous.
 


Vianessa Syed Castaños
I’ve straightened it a lot for auditions to fit the description of the stereotypical, narrow view of what latinas look like on TV. But I’ve moved away from that and wear my hair curly almost all the time time now because I prefer it that way and I’ll make them prefer it too 

My curly hair is part of my identity that I haven’t always appreciated. When I was a kid, it made me stand out when I wanted to blend in. As a young adult, my curls became a chore when I wanted to be on trend. But now, as the mother of a biracial daughter, I value the curls that connect us and see them as a tool in my parenting. I hope that my girls grows up to know that blending in, or being on trend, should never overpower who you really are. Curls and all.

 
 

Read about my journey with my natural hair here and hereAnd hereThis is something I’ve been discussing with my girlfriends and sister over the years and more recently in the last 2 years because of the dramatic changes I’ve gone through with my hair. But, I’ve also struggled with my curls on varying levels. My goal is to invite a conversation I feel we need to have more openly and more confidently. I love my hair. I’ve said plenty on this blog, but I have stopped to wonder why I straighten it, moreso now that it’s super short. But more on that in this series. 

 

Next: A Look at the African-American Curl Stigma

 

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3 thoughts on “{Natural Hair Series, Part 1} They Are Not Their Hair: A Look at the Latina Curl Stigma

  1. Your male colleague is wrong! I used to think that men like it better straight in my younger years (think college) but I get MORE compliments from men when my hair is curly. We could open up a discussion on how men of different races perceive our hair – in which case, I get the most natural hair compliments from white men. I almost like to equate the love of my hair with confidence – men with

  2. I love this! I'm bummed I didn't get to participate in this. 🙂 I love my curls but it took a long time to learn how to care for them and truly appreciate them.

  3. I am a naturally blonde Cuban woman ! I love and appreciate all types of beauty! The one thing I cannot stand is perpetuating ignorance! Being Latino is an ethnicity we have every color from chalk to chocolate ! Blondes Redheads and Brunettes!

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