When I was younger, every few months, my mom would take me to The First Studio Beauty Hair Salon, where my rebellious black curls would be sizzled into straight submission. After driving about an hour out of our small Connecticut neighborhood to find the green-roofed building boarded with chipped yellow walls, my mom would park her silver Acura in the weed-infested driveway and promise me that when the procedure was complete, my hair would fall and flow like the hair of Disney’s Pocahontas. This is what I told myself as the glittery hairdresser named Princess burned my ear for the sixth time, her long pink nails grazing my earlobes as she swung her hips to the shop’s soulful music, her long, beaded dreads jangling. She ripped through my tangles, separated the strands and steamed each one until their limp and lifeless bodies fell against the bottom of my chin. After hours of fighting back the tears, I would watch her step back so that I could see what she had created. My curls were gone. Pocahontas.
Though, just to be clear, I don’t think calling my hair ‘my curls’ is really accurate because the follicles seem to follow their own rules. While they did fall in long, shining coils after just being washed, within minutes they proceeded to tighten and puff, as if the fresh air made them nervous. Actually, a lot of things made them nervous: humidity, creams, the wrong shampoo—my hair was the type to reject swimming before even dipping its toe in the water.
Thus, most mornings before school—after my father had left for work and my mother arrived from her night shift—consisted of my mother sighing and weaving together a quick braid (or a bun for fancy events), my locks gelled and pulled back tight, twisted and tied so that they wouldn’t dare breathe. This confused my schoolmates. “Why don’t you ever wear your hair down?” they asked me.
Yet, in all fairness they confused me as well; I couldn’t understand why hair was so easy for them. My skin was so light that I couldn’t differentiate myself from other students at my predominantly white elementary school, and the fact that I was the only girl in the class who wasn’t white didn’t seem to factor into my conclusions. I was the girl with fizzy hair, and this, the classroom snickers taught me, was a bad thing. Obviously, I was doing something wrong since my hair didn’t naturally cascade into simple blonde waterfalls like theirs. And my mom, so eager to call me Pocahontas, didn’t mind waiting the four hours (and sometimes six in the rare times she did it herself) in a month to have Princess rake her hot pink fingernails through my scalp. Rip, wash, steam, sizzle, using whatever gel was needed, whatever tool could be applied, she forced my hair down and I accepted it silently like a biracial Raggedy-Ann doll. Meanwhile, I would sit silently, surrounded by the black tarp covering my body, with nothing to do except stare into my mirrored reflection as it slowly morphed into the girl with river-waved black hair.
When my hair was straight, passersby, or those who did not know me well, thought I was Korean or Japanese, and to be honest, that sort of thing still happens to me. If I have straight hair, I must be Asian, if I have curly hair—and it’s the summer time—then I may be black, but if neither condition is fulfilled then people weren’t really sure what to make of me or what to assume, and neither did I. White, Black, Asian, none of their beauty standards were achievable by me, there was no ideal to reach for and the media’s screens only reflected faces differing from my own, solidifying that notion by simply never acknowledging my ethnicity’s existence. Why don’t you wear your hair down? I’m trying, I’m trying.
The First Studio Beauty Hair Salon turned my trying into transformation. Walking inside, my seventh-grade self now welcomed the bombarding smell of coconut cream and lavender perfume. My footsteps imprinted and molded within the caramel carpeting of the waiting room. The green wallpaper, dotted with the royal French insignia, and the lit Victorian chandeliers hanging from above, wrapped the inside of the building together, and I, who had been its visitor for so many years, had now memorized its every curve and divot. Sometimes, when my mother and I were early, she would inspect all the displayed Paul Mitchell hair products and flitter through magazine articles, her eyes sparkling with possibilities.