My Multiracial Hair Betrayed Me

My Hair Betrayed Me…

That was the title of my first autobiographical writing assignment in grad school. Looking back, I probably should have called it: “My Hair Portrayed Me.”

Elizabeth and I had silky-smooth hair growing up. Our father had a rule: no cutting our hair till we were 18. In middle school, that was fine when Elizabeth’s hair turned massively curly, but mine became enormously thick and heavy (like an afghan blanket).  No curls, just frizz, frizz, and more frizz!

I stopped wearing it down. Every day I locked it up in a sorrowful braid down my back. Sometimes I gave it a bit of life with a French braid or two.

Then one magical day in ninth grade, my father finally said I could cut it. I sprinted to the kitchen utility drawer, grabbed the scissors, and my mother chopped off about a foot of hair, though it still hung to the middle of my back. Oh, happy day!

By the end of tenth grade, I had a chin-length bob. I was ecstatic because there was so much less of it to deal with!

I’ve read so much about mixed hair, and every day of my life has been an attempt at accepting what I’ve got. And the fact that it constantly changes.

In high school, I discovered that if I used my mother’s 2” plastic curlers and slept all night with them (ouch!), my hair would dry straight with big, bouncy curls. I remember showing up for my boyfriend’s senior photo shoot with these big, bouncy curls; he was disappointed. I didn’t look like myself.

Some days I wished for Cree Summer’s hair; other days I longed for hair like Kristy McNichol. I have no memories of ever being happy with my hair before my mid-20s.

As I got older, I started experimenting with products and discovered that my hair was actually pretty cool, and that excessive frizz was not the monster I’d always considered it. Frizz could not stand up to Mr. Paul Mitchell or Mr. Vidal Sassoon.

After having my head shaved for surgery in 2001, I let it grow back a few years later.  Surprise!  I had real curls for the first time! Incredible! By the time my real curls were halfway down my back (Daddy would’ve been so proud!), I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  After two months of stifling humidity, I grabbed the scissors from the utility drawer and asked my significant to relieve me of my locks.

After sporting a short ’do for a while, I wanted to grow it back.

As if possessed by the devil of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, my hair grew back straight as a pin. Not even a wave. I had no idea what to do with this straight hair, and often asked aloud, “Whose hair is this growing on my head?!” I even consulted a hair stylist about getting a perm. I refrained.

My strands are mixed: I have wiry, coarse strands and straight strands. It was as if the straight strands won the battle, and those wiry hairs — which were still there! — had just given up.

Strangely, this affected my sense of my identity as a biracial person, which was shaped by my biracial hair. Now with straight hair, the white skin and blue eyes made me feel like any genetic traces of my biracial roots were gone.

As years passed, I let my straight hair grow, grappling daily with how to style it. Finally when it hit my shoulders, a bit of thickness returned along with a bit of wave.

When I chopped it off again, it grew back like my hair, which is mixed and unpredictable. And I love it every day.

I look at pictures, like the one above, from the fall of 1990 when I visited Elizabeth in New York City on Columbia’s campus, and think, My hair looks awesome! How on earth didn’t I love every strand of that beautiful hair?

I don’t hold it against my younger self that I chose the word “betray.” The drastic changes in my hair have simultaneously defined me and kept me in the present moment. I love my hair (mostly) today because tomorrow’s hair may be something else entirely.

Am I the only mixed one of us with a lifelong love-hate relationship with my genetically mixed hair?


© 2017 Catherine M. Greenspan


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