When I was a child, my hair was thin and manageable. I didn’t have my first hair cut until I was 4 years old and remained a primarily bald toddler. My hair was so blonde it would turn transparent in the sun. Small ringlets formed against the nape of my neck and running a brush through my hair didn’t pull on my scalp.
But I grew up, and so did my hair. It darkened to a chestnut brown and multiplied in strands seemingly overnight. It was thick, coarse, and occupied a significant sphere around my head. I was always adorned with a halo of frizz, glistening under the fluorescent lights of classrooms. It attracted comments, unsolicited pulling, and adults oddly marveling as I ran around the playground followed by what looked like a small poodle attached to my head.
I was always conscious of my hair, but never self-conscious. I knew that I inherited my curls from my Jewish father and that it looked nothing like my Catholic mother’s hair. I knew I couldn’t expect to see it on TV or in movies or on the American Girl Dolls I pined after. I knew if I braided it like the other girls I would never be able to undo the braids now full of knots.
At the time, these were just facts I accepted and was able to co-exist with. It was a seemingly simple relationship between my hair and me.
But everything changed when I was 17. Washing my hair meant unveiling ugly truths, puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit the mold. It meant I couldn’t hide, and I was at a point in my life where I wanted nothing else but to be invisible.
Growing up in a community where Jews were few and far between, my hair was a distinct indication of my heritage. Never mind that my mother was Catholic, the combination of my last name and hair was enough to single me out amongst the kids who had perfectly mastered the side swept bangs we all pined for (it was the late 2000s, scene kids had too much power).
I realize Jewish appearance is often perceived through stereotypes. The Jewish diaspora is a melting pot of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and varied physical attributes, and there truly is no singular way to “look Jewish.” However, my hair falls into the widespread notion of what Jewish hair is expected to look like, which made my hair an obvious marker of my identity. For years I was defined by my hair, perhaps as a way to spot me in the crowd or singled out to ask about my Jewish heritage unprompted. It was heavy, in a way, for my identity to be narrowed down simply to my curls, especially for a kid in middle school wanting desperately to conform.
For prom my junior year, I straightened my hair and then carefully re-curled it with a curling wand, attempting to create a perfectly quaffed set of waves. I was scared of being different, aching to be traditionally attractive and accepted as a normal, so the solution was to trade my crazy waves for carefully crafted ones.
For the next six years, hardly anyone saw my natural hair.
There were many external factors that I’m sure subconsciously prompted this obsession with hiding my hair. Beyond the uncontrollable ad campaigns and overall representation of femininity, the pressure I put on myself to become perfect was immeasurable. Maybe it was the looming college application process. Perhaps it was the aftershocks of my parents’ newly minted divorce. Or maybe I subconsciously was embarrassed by my Jewish identity. This whirlwind of perfection manifested itself in several ways, but the longest lasting effect was the toll it took on my hair.
For six years, nearly every morning, I would wake up 30 minutes earlier than I needed to. I would sit down with a cup of coffee at my desk and pull a brush through stubborn ringlets and then finally wrap them around a 425 degree electric wand. The days I washed my hair were meticulously planned so I knew I would have time the next morning to go through this process twice to achieve the ideal result. Rain and snow were my worst enemies. I have several burn scars on my arms and fingers from sleepy mornings and clumsy evenings. It wasn’t arduous, but tedious. Yet, I chose it.
In the past few months, I’ve fantasized about shaving my head and starting over, letting my hair grow back in its natural state, bouncy curls and all. But then I remembered I have a head shaped like a basketball and could only imagine a future of Bozo the Clown comparisons. So I stuck to the heat tools. I would let my hair dry and look at myself in the mirror, thinking, “Is today the day I leave you be?” It never was.
Until a few weeks ago. I took a normal shower. I washed my hair. I used a fancy mask my hair stylist gave me to tame some of the split and melted ends. And then I left the house without touching my curling wand.
Accepting my hair has been one of the last pieces of accepting my Jewish heritage and claiming it as my own. Being raised interfaith, my choice to delve into my Judaism as an adult has become a significant marker of my identity. I constantly am talking about being Jewish and how proud I am to be Jewish, yet I was hiding my thoroughly Jewish hair behind smoothing creams while Googling the price of Brazilian Blow Outs.
While my Judaism is defined outside the terms of my hair, it is a part of my history. Jewish culture is layered. It does not need to rest on a single curl. But that single curl is a frizzy reminder of a piece of who I am.
My hair and I are experiencing a lot of firsts all over again: puffy ponytails, humidity, airplanes, losing bobby pins, and a necessary curly hair specific haircut. We’re taking it slow, but we’re learning to work with each other again. I sleep with silk pillowcases and hair piled on top of my head using the “pineapple method.” My new stylist recommended a whole plethora of new products to use. I even invested in scrunchies rather than normal hair ties, both as a fashion statement and to avoid inevitable pony tail creases. It’s been a remarkable learning curve, both in styling and identity.
Does this mean I’ll never heat style my hair again? Of course not. My hair is an extension of my personal expression, and if I feel the urge to flat iron it, I will. But I have relieved myself of the insensate need to restrain my curls. Now it’s a choice. Before it was a command.
So here’s to the curly girls. To the girls who suffered the poodle phase in elementary school, who lost a pencil in their hair more than once, and who dread getting bangs ever again. To the girls who are trying to master using a diffuser but are honestly struggling. To the girls who’s hair is full of life and significant volume.
Here’s to embracing your identity, whether you’re Jewish or not, and seeing that crown of curls as exactly that: a crown.