By Caroline Balick
Art by Sophia Gregorace
Disclaimer: Curly hair is closely tied to race. In this piece, I will be speaking from personal experience as a white, Jewish woman. My experience with having curly hair may be similar or vastly different from that of other women who have curly hair. I will reference other women’s experiences when relevant.
When I look at pictures of my younger self, I see a carefree, joyful girl looking back at me. With my uneven, jagged teeth and eccentric outfits, I was a sight to see. I look a lot different now. I’ve grown a few inches, straightened my teeth, and (barely) improved my sense of fashion. But my hair has stayed consistent. It has always been bold and difficult to brush. It is distinct and sticks out in every direction. It is unapologetic. It is both beautiful and maddening. Despite, and because of, these characteristics, my curly hair is a core part of who I am and is central to my growth from girl to woman.
Today my hair can sometimes feel uncontrollable, but this is minimal compared to how unmanageable it was as a child. I couldn’t care for it myself, mostly because I was too busy attending to my extensive plastic animal collection, in addition to having little self awareness. My parents hardly knew how to tame my hair either, since brushing or combing it always led to such intense frizz that I looked like I got electrocuted. As a result, my hair often had a mind of its own.
In third grade, a turning point occurred in terms of how I viewed my hair. While I was waiting for the bus to arrive, a classmate said, “Shut up, afro head.” He probably has no recollection of this remark, but I have never forgotten it. I do not in fact have an afro, yet the negative tone struck me as an insult. The implication was that having an afro was something to be embarrassed about. Despite his harmful intentions, I now do not feel hurt by this comment, since all curly hair types are beautiful. This comment exemplifies how the interaction between race and hair is viewed by society. If I received the message that natural curly hair is undesirable through this one comment, then what is it like for women of color who hear similar messages? Nevertheless, his comment caused me to feel an awareness of my hair rather than just passively existing with it. I figured that if he was focusing on my hair in a negative context, then everyone else was too.
For the next 5 years, I wore my hair up. Whether my hair was in a ponytail or a braid didn’t matter to me; I just needed to hide it. I ensured my hair would not be perceived by others in order to protect myself from hurtful comments and looks. On the rare occasion I wore my hair down, I straightened it, which I only did because my classmates recommended it. If people ever caught a glimpse of my natural hair down, they would be shocked, asking why I didn’t show it more.
I reasoned that it was easier to tie it back every day. It was easier to hide, to not constantly feel ashamed of something I couldn’t control. It was easier to prevent scrutiny from occurring in the first place rather than find the confidence to ignore it. Few girls in my grade had hair as curly as mine. I just wanted to fit in.
I was also ashamed of my curls due to my Jewishness. I frequently received comments saying I “looked Jewish” since I have dark features and curly hair. My hometown is homogenous: very white, very straight, and very Christian. I’ve heard almost every stereotypical anti-semitic statement you can think of. This only heightened my awareness of what others thought of me.
Sometimes my peers told others with curly hair that their hair “looked Jewish.” This especially occurred when their curls resided near their temples, slightly resembling peyot, which are the curly sideburns traditionally worn by orthodox Jewish men. Not only did I feel my curls made me physically stand out, but these remarks also reminded me that my religion differentiated me from everyone else. These comments concerning my religion in addition to ones about my hair in general significantly affected my relationship with my hair. My hair never felt like it was mine, since my perception of it was so easily swayed by others’ opinions.
The media’s representation of curly hair also contributed to my self-consciousness. For example, in movies or TV shows that feature a woman undergoing a transformation from “ugly” to “pretty,” she essentially straightens her curly hair and removes her glasses. Teen magazines provide hair care and styling tips that rarely apply to me. According to shampoo and conditioner advertisements, frizz is the enemy. As an impressionable young girl consuming these notions, I could not help but feel embarrassed.
Despite my Jewishness, as a white woman I feel the pressure to conform to beauty standards to a lesser extent than women of color who have curly hair. In a BYRDIE article titled “30 Women of Color Share Their Most Personal Natural Hair Stories,” a Black woman named Regine Christie shared, “I never fit into the box of Eurocentric beauty, but as I grew older, I realized I didn’t have to. My natural hair, kinky and coarse, has never been glamorized in the media or society. Over the years, I developed a tendency to question my self-worth and the value of my hair. 'Am I only pretty with a weave in my hair?’” Women of color seldom grow up seeing their natural hair represented in mainstream media, which significantly impacts their self-image. The pressures to conform to white Western European beauty standards vary across all women, especially when it comes to hair.
While my experiences are not commensurable with those of women of color with curly hair, both of our experiences showcase different ways in which curly hair falls outside the societal beauty standards. Straight hair represents being put together, while curly hair represents dishevelment. Many wavy- or curly-haired girls I knew growing up straightened their hair every day. They would wake up hours before school started, burning and destroying their natural curls with little concern for doing so in a healthy way. Just like me, they wanted to fit into society’s ideal beauty standards. Thankfully, I am lazy, so I would just tie my hair back instead of straightening it consistently. But too many girls permanently damage their hair and reinforce a negative self-image in order to fit these standards.
Society’s view on naturally curly hair contributes to discrimination towards women of color. For instance, Black women in the Army were not allowed to wear their hair naturally until a few years ago. For many women of color, their hair may put their place at school or work at risk. In 2017, a charter school in Boston nearly suspended two girls when they wore their hair in box braids, claiming they violated the school’s dress code. Additionally, in 2016, the Perception Institute conducted “The ‘Good Hair’ Study” which found that, “A majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.” These are just some of many examples of how women with curly hair are not a monolith and are treated differently by society depending on their various identities.
Other identity aspects lead people with curly hair to have contrasting experiences. For instance, traditional curly hair stereotypes are gendered. Men with curly hair do not seem to have the same experiences as women with curly hair. Rarely do men with curly hair feel inclined to straighten or significantly alter it, and many mainstream media roles are played by curly-haired white men. Male curly hair in mainstream media might represent the down to earth, funny guy (think Jonah Hill or Will Ferrell). Men with curly blond hair represent the cool surfer or skateboarder (think Matthew McConaughey). While men with curly hair may experience similar feelings of self consciousness, they are not pressured to conform to the same mainstream beauty standards as women are, nor is their worth based so heavily on appearances.
I am very grateful that I have a beneficial relationship with my hair now, but not every woman with curly hair is able to feel this way. Women of color, for example, have to hide their hair as a form of protection, to avoid harassment, or to keep their job. One may have trouble loving their hair simply due to a lack of confidence and may never find it. Although my relationship with my hair is positive, millions of women continue to be negatively impacted by unattainable beauty standards promoted by mainstream media and the beauty industry.
Becoming comfortable with my hair didn’t happen overnight. Eventually, I became exhausted from always hiding an essential part of myself. My hatred for changing myself in order to appease others overshadowed my hatred for my hair. I pushed my comfort zone, steadily growing comfortable with wearing my hair down in new hairstyles that made me feel secure.
I love my hair, but this feeling didn’t come from some grand epiphany or convincing from others. It was a slow, gradual process that involved determining which products, hairstyles, and routines did and didn’t work for me. My purpose transitioned from pleasing others to simply feeling confident. Instead of viewing my hair’s uniqueness as embarrassing, I now see it as something to be proud of.
 Siraad Dirshe, “Black Women Speak Up About Their Struggles Wearing Natural Hair In the Workplace,” Essence, October 24, 2020, https://www.essence.com/hair/black-women-natural-hair-discrimination-workplace/.
 Kay Lazar, “Black Malden charter students punished for braided hair extensions,” The Boston Globe, May 11, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/05/11/black-students-malden-school-who-wear-braids-face-punishment-parents-say/stWDlBSCJhw1zocUWR1QMP/story.html#comments.
 Shammara Lawrence, “Study Shows Bias Against Black Women’s Natural Hair,” Teen Vogue, February 6, 2017, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-women-natural-hair-bias-study-results.