Growing up, I remember being extremely self-conscious. I would look forward to my grandmother putting my hair into tight ponytails because I believed curly hair was ugly thanks to the ruthless neighborhood kids. Unlike my two sisters, I always stuck out like a sore thumb because of my tight, unruly curls. My uniqueness was obvious, but I wasn’t able to appreciate it or see the beauty of my big hair. Instead, while looking at my reflection in the mirror, tears would roll from my cheeks because I didn’t have long, manageable hair like my siblings. I had a big dry 'fro, which I interpreted as ugly.
One day at home, I was caught dancing in front of a full length mirror with a bed sheet wrapped around my head (like a towel) with a scrunchie holding the top. While I was playing, I imagined that the sheet was a long, straight ponytail -- the kind of hair that I wanted, but I knew I would never have in real life. When my family saw me, everyone laughed. I wondered: What was so funny? I felt beautiful with the bed sheet on.
As a Puerto Rican woman, I was encouraged at a very young age to force my curly hair into silky, straight submission. When I started doing my own hair, I favored hairstyles that hid all evidence of my natural texture. The flat iron was my best friend; I regularly clamped it tight at my roots and slid it down to the tips of my hair before making a perfect French braid. I even dabbled with box braids.
Disguising my curls worked for me in junior high school. I didn't have any Latina friends because I didn't fit in with them, but my black girlfriends loved my hair. Some of them even called it “good hair.” I finally felt accepted until my Spanish teacher pulled me to the side after class one day and asked me, “Melissa, why do you wear your hair in braids? You should just tell your mother to put a relaxer in your hair.” The constant struggle to fight my curls and to get validation became overwhelming. As a result, I got my first relaxer at the age of 13.
Then came a moment of inspiration when I was about 15 years old. The Spice Girls made their debut and I watched Mel B (same initials as me, by the way) jumping up and down with her big, beautiful curly hair. I decided to cut off my straight ends and started wearing my hair curly like hers.
Since I went to an all-girl private high school, I thought I was safe from any type of ridicule, but that changed during my second week. There was a senior that tried to torment me when I would stand in line for lunch with comments like, “Just comb it!” or, “There goes the hair.” One day, in the midst of listening to her usual hurtful comments, I turned around and asked in front of everyone, “What is really the problem? We both have curly hair, so what is it?” She must have been shocked that I finally stood up to her and she couldn’t even respond. She never bothered me again.
Lately there have been a few incidents that remind of my teenage years, where I have been subjected to insults and negative assumptions about my hygiene by my fellow Latinas. When I was at a restaurant waiting in line for the restroom, I overheard two women say in Spanish, “Oh, man, look at all that hair. It looks so unkempt, it probably smells.” Then they gave me fake smiles and nods as if they were talking about something else, not knowing that I am fluent in the language. I got angry and thought about immediately defending my “Boriquaness,” but instead I just responded in Spanish, “Thank you for the compliment. Please be careful what you say because you never know who speaks Spanish or is Hispanic.”
EVERY time something like this happens, I get the same reaction and it kind of looks something like this: bulging eyes, an extremely flushed face and a gaping mouth. I proudly recognize the African ancestry that shines through in my physical features, but why are people surprised that I speak Spanish? Latinas come in all different shades.
I've also been in situations where people are so enamored by my curls that they reach to touch them out of curiosity, wondering if they're real. How I react depends on whether or not they ask to touch my hair. If they do, I normally say yes and ask them if it feels like what they expected (they usually say it's much softer than they expected). If they reach out to touch without asking (which is what normally happens), I raise my hands to stop them and ask them kindly not to touch. I always feel vulnerable when people I don't know touch my hair because I'm a germaphobe and I don't know where their hands have been.
It was hard being different when I was younger, but now I really love my hair because it part of me, you know, like a package deal. It’s huge, soft, vibrant, unruly, and delicate which also describes my personality.
I launched my blog in hopes of creating a community to encourage my fellow Latinos and people all over the world to embrace their natural hair. I’m focusing on building global unity among people who recognize that we are all different, we're not defined by our looks, and who celebrate our individuality. It’s a journey that has definitely not been easy but worth the ride.