“Your daughter has beautiful hair. Is that natural?”
I was only four when I heard the first compliment on my hair, at least that I can remember. I was with my mom in a plant nursery, and the older woman asked how my hair got to look the way it did, as she patted the top of my head lightly.
We lived in an apartment in Berkeley. I picked out all my own outfits at the time so you could always be sure to see me in clashing colors and patterns, short sleeved white shirt under my yellow tank top, a denim skirt and pink tights (unless my mom won that day). I was probably missing my front tooth at this time. I didn’t think about my hair much yet, and I definitely didn’t have any feelings about it. I thought I looked awesome, everyday.
My hair was short and a dark brown so dark it was almost black. It naturally grew out in big, loose curls. My mom on occasion tied parts in pigtails or tiny ponytails above my head, but for the most part it grew and moved freely, a lot like me.
My mom is from Egypt and has a slightly different hair texture than mine. Hers is really curly but thin, but mine is curly but thick in both density and texture. I think that’s why she never really knew what to do with it. That, and the fact that everyone in Egypt straightens their hair.
My mom in Egypt as in her early 20s
So when the growing and doing its thing freely wasn’t acceptable anymore at age 12, I had no idea what to do with my hair. I mean no idea. I tried to brush it out and as you can imagine, it looked awful. Frizzy and poufy. The words the teenage magazines I would read later would call hair like mine a “mane” that needed to be “tamed.” But I’m 12 at the time and had no idea what products to use because my mom had no idea, and the internet was just in its infancy. I just knew it didn’t look right and didn’t look good.
And that is basically how I felt about all of me at the time. Looking back on it, it almost seems like a shame – but a truth – that becoming an adult is in a way learning insecurity. And then learning to overcome it.
In high school I had these straight across bangs (a look that doesn’t really work with curly hair), but since I was insecure and shy at the time, and I got to hide behind them in a way. That's why I don't even have a picture to share with you guys from this time.
In college I discovered something magical that's called a flatiron. Whoa. New experience. My friends of similar ethnic backgrounds and hair had Hot Tools flatirons that they stored in their boxes like prized possessions. Unwilling to spend that much, I got a random one from Target which in the end made my hair kind of straight, but still a bit heat damaged.
You guys, one time, after I found an on-campus job and started working, I spent an entire month’s pay to do a Japanese straightening treatment to my hair. The grow out period was awful, so I opted to cut all my hair off and start over. I moved to Cairo at this time and since they're not used to curly hair or short hair there, I got a lot of comments from strangers which further confused and tore at my fragile self-esteem.
The point is, I remember those days really vividly,
standing in front of my mirror after having put all this time into my hair, makeup, and clothing and still thinking “Well, this is as good as it's going to get” before forcing myself out the door so as to not be any later to wherever I was going.
It felt like all of my early life’s problems were wrapped up in that part of my hair that was particularly frizzy, or in that zit. Like class would be better or that boy would like me more if my hair would just lay down right or control itself.
Self-esteem is a delicate thing. It took me many, many years to find mine, and it had (and still has) ebbs and flows. But one thing I've learned for sure is that self-esteem doesn't come from a magazine or bottle (though sure, maybe it can help in some ways).
It doesn’t come from viewing yourself or your body as something that needs “controlling” or “dealing." It comes from looking in the mirror and feeling good about yourself, no matter what you see today. It's being gentle on yourself. And it's knowing that looking in the mirror, you'll be okay even if people don't like you. Because you like you. Because you know not everyone has to like you for you to like you. You’re not a slice of pizza.
It took many years for me to learn this. Literally, years. I am inspired by women younger than me today who are trying to learn to love themselves – every inch of them, the triangle hair and frizz included – because I was a late bloomer in that regard. Due to some more recent mistakes, my curly hair is now heat damaged again and that has been a different experience.
But I accept and even adore my curly hair now, and try to nurture it, not “deal” with it. The curls, the kinks, the parts where it sticks out weird. Just like all other parts self-esteem, it has its ebbs and flows. My feelings about it are not perfect. I’m not perfect. And that is perfectly okay. Because while I am not perfect, at least I know now that I am strong.
I am #HAIRSTRONG.
Thanks for listening to my story. I know it was long. For being a girl with short hair, I didn't even realize how much I had to say - and how much I've struggled with my hair until I sat down to write this. I hope you feel like you are #HAIRSTRONG too. And if you don't, I hope you realize you are beautiful, inside and out, because you are not perfect. I'm certain you're strong too.
Director of Brand and Digital Marketing at Aquis