by Guest Contributor Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Special to Racialicious
Hard to believe, but I was born bald. Not cute little peach-fuzz bald. Not skinhead bald with a chance of stubble. No, I was born with a head as bald as a baby’s butt. What’s more unbelievable—I grew up with straight hair. Of course, if you look at me now, the first thing you see is what happens when Ireland and Iran decide to come together to have a baby—curls that put even Shirley Temple to shame.
My hair went curly in early adolescence, right around the time I hit middle school. I was a small, petite tweenster, and instead of fretting about breasts, which were hardly there, or periods, which were nonexistent, I poured my angst and energy into my newfound mop of kinky hair that sprung itself on me almost overnight. My father hated my curly hair. He said it made me look black. This is a problem to some Iranians, who hold a great pride in the purity of the Persian race. Iran is actually Farsi for Aryan. To this day, when people meet me, their first impression isn’t that I look Persian; it’s that I look black. My Arabic first name doesn’t help. It makes people assume that I’m one of “those black people” whose parents named her something from the homeland. Persians have lustrous hair, but usually it’s straight with a slight little wave. Mine is too kinky to scream and dance “Iran!” Even when I met Shirin Neshat, the most famous Iranian artist outside of Iran, who has made a career out of photographing Persian women, it wasn’t apparent. She didn’t realize I was Iranian until I mentioned my last name.
There is a racial element to the picture here—hair that is curly, kinky or even nappy is commonly associated in American culture as “black.” Silky, straight hair, on the other hand is usually seen as “white.” As comedian Paul Mooney put it, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” Herein lies the paradox of many ethnic women in America, black and otherwise—the pressure we curlyheads feel in assimilating into a dominant image of lustrous, straight hair that will seemingly make us look more well-kept or better-groomed in a culture of brushes, perms and irons designed to give straight hair what we already have. Yes, curly hair is sexy—at times. Usually the sexy sirens with curly hair are actually straight-haired women who know how to use a curling iron. The grass really is greener on the other side.
This ideology is pervasive, to the point that many times, we don’t even realize we’re buying into it. Beauty requires an acknowledged ugliness in something else, so in order to look damn good, someone else has to look like a train wreck. I remember being told as a child that curly hair is really a genetic mutation. I remember thinking I was a freak. When I was in high school, a classmate once told me that race is actually determined by hair type. If your hair is straight, then you’re Asian. If it’s wavy, then you’re white. And curly hair makes you black. I stood there dumb-founded that a straight-haired, freckled white guy was telling me this. The physical contradiction between him and his theory was so obvious. Even with a democratically elected black President, there are people in our country who still think that the American image should still lean towards white. And if you think that’s outdated, just look at this past summer when 11-year-old Malia Obama wore here hair in twists during a trip to Rome. The conservative blog Free Republic called her unfit to represent her country because her hair wasn’t straight. The blog has since pulled that thread from their site.
How is a young, ethnic girl with curls supposed to feel good about her body if the images she’s being told are sexy are those of women who either have straightened hair, or are women with straight hair that has then been curled? Google “curly hair celebrities,” and most of them are straight-haired women who have gone through a curling iron. I’m sorry, but end-of-hair flips do not constitute curly. Beach waves are called waves for a reason. They don’t count either. In Hair Matters, Ingrid Banks wrote, “Certainly white women have concerns with their hair, but their concerns do not involve the actual alteration of hair texture to the extent that is an expression of their cultural consciousness (Banks, 38).” There are naturally curly celebrities out there, but looking back, the only ones I have never seen with straightened hair are Bernadette Peters and Howard Stern. I hate to say it, but Howard Stern is keeping it real here. Guys seem to have it easy here—all they have to do it cut their hair super-short. It the world of curly hair, it really does seem as if you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. Even Michelle Obama straightens her hair, and Malcolm X tried, before he came to consciousness about it. In his autobiography, he writes on what he calls his “first really big step toward self-degradation:”
I’d seen some pretty conks, but when it’s the first time, on your own head, the transformation, after a lifetime of kinks, is staggering.
Now picture me in the quaint, white, cookie-cutter homes and gardens, picture of Littleton, Colorado, where almost every girl in my middle school sported sleek-straight locks with bleached highlights, suntanned over the summer and walked around dressed like the latest advertisements from Abercrombie and Fitch. I stuck out enough before with my dark hair and tan skin. But my curls made me stick out as if I were in a picture of a Where’s Waldo book. A hairstylist once told me I have an irregular curl pattern, and never was it more pronounced than in middle school. There was no fighting it. Every strand went whatever way it decided that morning, and brushing it only made it look worse. Classmates would come up to me during lunch hour and tell me my hair was too curly. They labeled me as the Iranian girl, and that mindset stuck with me into my twenties, that because I looked different, I was Iranian before I was American, and that was a status I would have to subscribe to because there was no way I could change my looks. In our inherent, but rarely caught habits of racializing appearance, curly hair commonly seems to get caught somewhere in the middle. It is, but sometimes, it isn’t. I remember hearing girls tell me, “This weekend, I saw a girl with really curly hair, but not kinky curly like yours, really pretty ringlet curly.” Even my mom, my number-one fan, called my hair kinky, a term commonly reserved for black hair. That never bothered her though. She said she loved my hair because she loved the look of African hair. It was exotic to her. She just wished she knew how to take care of it. At the same time, Iranians weren’t laying any claim on me either. To them, I looked more mullato than anything else. My father hated looking at me because he said I didn’t look like an Iranian child. It wasn’t enough that I was a scrawny, underdeveloped child with glasses and braces. No, that was too easy because too many other kids in my school had glasses and braces too. But I was the one with the out-of-control hair. By the time I reached high school, I saw girls all around me, left and right, getting asked out on dates and dances, but I was getting glossed over like the big white elephant in the middle of the room. I was positive my hair had something to do it, and that was when I bought my first hair relaxer kit. I’m not alone in this endeavor. According to the market research firm Mintel, home relaxer kits made $45.6 million in sales in 2008. And that’s just a temporary fix.
Hair relaxing wasn’t my first attempt at taming my curls. I can’t even to begin to count how many nights I would spend doing homework with jumbo curlers in my hair, hoping they would at least smooth the strands. They never did, so then I would pull my wet hair back into a ponytail, hoping to at least straighten the top part of my do. My mom once told me that puberty made her hair a little curly, but then it calmed down. I clung onto that, thinking that if straightness came back to her, it was only written in my genes to come back to me as well. I was in such denial, I would still insist on having my hair cut into layers as if it were straight, so that the moment my hair decided to behave, it was already cut to look perfect.
I relaxed my hair for the first time one spring weekend during my freshman year of high school. I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted the new me to be a surprise. Quite honestly, the chemicals are the worst smell ever, but beauty isn’t painless, and I was willing to deal with the smell if it led to me looking normal again. Of course, it didn’t straighten my hair. It only loosened my curls by about ten percent. What the fuck is wrong with my hair? That was when I pulled out a paddle brush and a hairdryer, and I yanked it until it dried moderately straight. Then I ran the flat iron through it. You have to realize how many products are involved in making curly hair look naturally straight. First, there’s the relaxer kit. Then there’s the moisturizing shampoo and conditioner, because curly hair is naturally thinner and drier than straight hair. After that is gel, and handful goops of it, followed by the heat protectant spray or lotion. Sometimes, a serum is thrown in right here. John Frieda was my choice, but that was mostly because of the before and after pictures. My hair never settled like the models, but I was convinced with regular use, it finally would. Then you have the brush, hairdryer and flatiron. After that is the conditioning gloss spray, which really doesn’t condition so much as it coats your hair with a silicone-like film that reflects the light and distracts you from obvious follicle damage. All this, just to hide the fact that you just willingly burned your hair and your scalp for the sake of aesthetic hygiene. The whole process can take all evening, and because I had teenage grease, I would have to repeat the process from shampoo and conditioner on down once or twice more that week. When I walked into school after my first relaxed experience, everyone did a double-take. Not too long before, I did a video project with a friend for our government class that covered the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Jerry Springer-style. I played Monica Lewinsky. I don’t know how that casting worked out, but when my friend saw me in class, the first she said was, “I wish you did this two weeks ago. Now you look even more like Monica Lewinsky!”
The relaxer addiction lasted all the way through graduate school, into my mid-twenties. Boys and theatre roles only made it worse. University of Denver, where I went to college, was ranked by US World News and Report as the least ethnically diverse campus in the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to the Census Bureau, Denver is just over 50% white. Somehow, I kept on finding myself dating white guys who were scared of me when my hair stepped out of the shower. One boyfriend said when I let my hair go natural, I looked like I had just be electrocuted. Another boyfriend, a Jewish violinist who had a fetish for Middle Eastern girls, used to always call my hair frizzy. Hairstylists thought I wasn’t going far enough. Repeatedly, I was pressured into thinking about Japanese thermal straightening, which after shelling out anywhere from $500 to $1500, will leave your hair sleek, soft and bones-straight for the next six months. By the end of that half-year bliss, your roots have grown out, and it’s time to pay another $250 for a touch-up, which ends up becoming more of an arduous process than the original straightening itself. No secrets? I did consider it. Multiple times. But I never followed through.
Roles on stage didn’t help with the curly hair psychosis. In American society, where the public body is so important in gaining profit, the commodification of looks is even more magnified in performance. On stage, good looks are a demand, because if people are going to be looking at you for two hours, you better be something they want to look at. Yet there’s no qualitative definition for good looks. It changes from person to person, so the most reliable gauge is what you see most represented in media, and most hair in the media is straight. I was much more likely to get a role with straight hair than I was with my natural hair. Curly hair not only invokes racial biases, but age biases as well. Shirley Temple had curly hair, and so did little orphan Annie. Remember when Chelsea Clinton was seen at the 2002 fashion show with straight hair? Everyone went nuts. The Guardian wrote:
It is the hair that summons most interest. There is something expressly attention-seeking about it. As Chelsea knows, relaxed hair attracts spectators: there is an element of suspense to it that you just don’t get with other hairstyles.
What is it with the news media scrutinizing the curly hair of first daughters? This translates to theatre, where to walk into an audition with a mop of curls can make you childish, funky, and not really well-rounded. With straight hair, I looked older, more mature, and with my tan skin, the catch-all ethnic actor. Most actors have European and Southern dialects listed on their resumes. I have Indian, Persian, Arab and New Orleans. I think the only ethnicity I haven’t been cast for is Pacific-Asian. Something tells me that’s where my hair would draw the line. When I was asked to play an Indian woman one time, I told the theatre that I didn’t even look Indian. They simply replied, “Well, your skin and your hair (straight at the time) look close enough. Audiences will never be able to tell the difference.” There’s a Foucault-like power element here, when you look at the racial and particularly age prejudices of curly hair. For him, power is acted upon and through the body. Ja’Nean Palacios goes on to elaborate that
power manifests itself through the relationship between curly hair and beauty. Since curly hair is regarded as being less than beautiful, this hair type becomes the site of the body that requires discipline.
I cannot tell you how many people have told me I look older and more mature with straight hair. And it’s the lack of discipline in my curly hair that makes me look younger and less mature. One time, a young girl asked me how I get my curly hair. Her mother replied, “She doesn’t brush it!” Curls equal a lack of discipline, a habit of letting those strands go and allowing them to dry and settle however way they feel. Throughout history, there has always been a very deep relationship between discipline and beauty. Just look at our cosmetics industry. How many different types of foundation does a woman need to put on before she looks like a piece of dry, flaking cake? So when we’re confronted with opposing images of a woman with straight hair that’s styled with a curling iron, and a woman with free-styled kinky curls, the one with straight hair is going to come off as more mature, because her beauty routine takes more discipline.
Anti-feminist as it may sound to say this, it was a boy who finally made me feel comfortable with my hair. I was twenty-four, in my last year of graduate school. I went in to model one summer evening for figure drawing class that was run by a guy I would later fall in love with. My hair was pulled back, and he could see the ringlets in the back of my ponytail. Sometime that evening, he asked me to let my hair down. I was terrified—I had no idea what it would look like. He didn’t care, and he asked me again to take it down. Turns out, he loved it. That night, while he held me back after class to chat, he couldn’t stop telling me how much he loved it. I didn’t know at the time that I was going to date or even marry him, but his excitement over my curls made me want to try to make peace with them. The next day, I found a salon in Denver with hairstylists specially trained in cutting curly hair. The haircut is called the DevaCut, because the method came from the Devachan Salon in New York City, which specializes in curly hair. The cut works with the curly hair pattern, and instead of cutting wet hair straight across, the stylist cuts each individual dry curl so that the curl pattern isn’t disrupted. I also learned how to break product addiction—all I needed to style my hair was conditioner. When I got home and realized how much of my bathroom I could empty out, I saw how much time, energy and money I was sinking into achieving an image that was so completely against what was natural for my body. I realized that a lot of my justification for it came from being a performer. I had gotten so used to playing other women, I completely lost the ability to play myself.
Then a weird thing happened. Somewhere along the way, I stopped calling myself Iranian-American and started referring to my ethnicity as American-Iranian. I honestly don’t know where it started, except that it was after the night the artist I would fall in love with raved about my curly hair. Sometime after that, I realized that “American” does not equal just white. Maybe in the past it did, but look at our country. America is a catch-all phrase, and when minority Americans acknowledge themselves as equally American as white Americans, then our images of racial beauty in this country can truly change. It’s interesting to see stuff categorized as African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and so on. But American-American? It seems like a politically-correct code word for “white.” Any time a race is unspecified, we’ve been conditioned to assume it’s white. People think sometimes that it’s ironic for me to have this viewpoint, because technically speaking, I’m purely white. While that’s true, practically speaking, I’m not, because it really comes down to not genetics, but how you appear to other people. Unfortunately, we’re still a society that looks first, and then maybe learns later. The fact of the matter is that because I have kinky hair and tan skin, most people encounter think I’m black, and their projection of racial residue has really pushed me to look at race and ethnicity from a more black and less Eurocentric standpoint. I wonder what it’s like for purely white women with curly hair. Obviously, they’re not assumed to be black, but I wonder to what extent they feel the pressure to look and feel racially “normal”?
The audiences with the loudest voices aren’t always minorities. And I’m pretty sure they have straight hair. Political leadership, magazine fashion spreads, advertising—I can count the natural tendril appearances on my hand. Curly hair, naturally curly hair, is just as American as straight hair. Why do we need to feel the pressure and expectation of physically altering ourselves so that we can fit into a more homogeneous picture of ideal or perfect beauty? How is hair straightening really any different from a breast lift or a nose job? You can argue that hair alteration is more temporary, but even boob jobs need some level of surgical maintenance. It’s not, and I think it’s seen as less severe because in plastic surgery, you see a lot of white women trying to look more refined. In hair straightening, you see black women looking more white. I have a way of looking at the politics behind appearance, and I think it’s the Iranian in me that brings that out. Iran is a country where one of the few ways a woman can express herself publicly is through her looks, so everything she does to it, from letting hair show to getting a nose job, is a conscious political decision. In a way, embracing my curly hair was my own conscious political decision. For the first time, I was consciously making the choice to depict myself on stage the way I naturally look, not alter it to accommodate to how mass media tells me I should look. David Mamet wrote that the hardest role a performer can play is himself, and it’s when a performer does so that we can see the vulnerabilities that make us approachable and understandable human beings on the stage. For me, that role came through my curly hair. What’s ironic is that audiences respond more strongly to the curls. My hair sticks with them. What’s more, I chose to label the image of my curly hair as American. Feeling like I belong to this country shouldn’t lie in how I look, but how I act.
I haven’t straightened my hair since then, and quite honestly, I don’t really care to. To many people recognize me this way now. Now that I’ve moved from straight theatre to one-woman shows that are written by me, there’s no need to alter my appearance to better fit into potential roles. I’m the one who writes them now. My hair has now become my trademark, usually the first thing people notice or remember about me. Isn’t that what performers (and people) strive for? A definable characteristic that sets them apart from the crowd? Turns out, I had that all along, and fight it I did, until I realized that self-esteem, at least in performance lies not so much in portrayal as it does in self-acceptance. Perfection, or ideal beauty is really a distraction, especially amongst minorities, because instead of guiding us to look inward, it manipulates us to focus on outside projections that tell us how we should look and feel, and we become white-washed, so to speak; formulaic, sterile. The more Euro-centric you look, the easier it is to get taken seriously. Think about all the hair health that’s been compromised, and for what? Assimilation? Attractiveness? I don’t find anything attractive about chemically-burned hair. Just because you can cut it doesn’t make it any less traumatizing than burned skin. Appearance is either in compliance or reaction to dominating media images, which is destructive, because it gives one margin the entitlement to marginalize anyone who doesn’t fit in that clique. What a boring landscape to see America dominated by the same hair type, which goes deeper to imply that we ‘re also the same (white-dominated) racial landscape and the same personality.
I can go on an on about the problem, but the solution is an action that one person can’t take on alone. Collectively, we need to see more images of ethic Americans in their natural state. By that I mean no weaves, no airbrushing to make everyone look like they have a ballet body, but a media movement that redefines the aesthetic appreciation of the human figure, the most basic common denominator every race shares. Don’t portray the differences; accept them. “I am not my hair, I am not this skin,” goes India.Arie’s hit single I Am Not My Hair, “I am the soul that lives within.”