Feminist comedian and actress Jenny Slate is one of my favorite celebrities. Her voice is forever immortalized in my head as Marcel the Shell; her 2014 comedy Obvious Child is one of my favorite films; and I think that her ridiculous role on Parks and Recreation as the absurdly JAPpy and overall insane twin sister of Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Mona-Lisa, is one of the best characters to have been created for contemporary television. (It was also my Halloween costume last year.)
In addition to being hilarious, Slate is frankly feminist in her comedy. Obvious Child tackles abortion and dating as a young single woman; it is acerbic and utterly unapologetic in its portrayal of womanhood. So I was delighted to read her recent article for Glamour, in which she talks about learning to love her natural curly hair. Although Slate (who grew up in a Jewish family) does not mention her heritage in the piece, she does show solidarity in challenging the beauty standards that Jewish women (see Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were), Black women (see Good Hair), and many other women and femmes of color have taken on for decades now.
In the piece, Slate talks about using her hair as a joke, which makes sense for a comedian whose shtick often draws upon physical body humor:
For so long I sort of forgot that my hair was naturally curly. When I was young, I used to brush it out really big for laughs, but at a certain point I started doing stuff to it so it didn’t look like a joke. I wanted to have straight hair like Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can’t Hardly Wait—that’s what I wanted my hair to look like.
Then, she opens up about being fired from Saturday Night Live and being “so sad that I didn’t want to look at myself or do anything”—which actually allowed her to come to an important realization about her hair:
When we came back to the hotel at night, I looked in the mirror and my hair was this giant big mass of curls; I remember thinking, I can’t believe that I have only ever thought of my natural state as something to use as a joke rather than something to be celebrated. Forever I had tried to tame the things that ended up being my greatest powers. That’s the main thing I’ve probably learned in my adulthood: My self in my most natural form is my secret weapon. It’s my warrior garb.
She’s quick to give the caveat that she’s still not always confident about her hair, and that sometimes she straightens it as an act of restraint. But she’s realized that in this hostile political environment, she has the right to take up space as a woman, and so does her hair: “this time not as a joke.”
I’m personally inspired by Slate’s comments. For a woman of Ashkenazi descent, my hair is not particularly curly, but despite—or, in fact, because of—that, I have come face-to-face with the issue of Jewish hair and how it does or does not adhere to mainstream beauty standards. There are many inspiring stories, like Slate’s, of Jewish women coming to terms with their curly locks. But my contribution to this conversation comes from the other side of that same shekel.
When I was in high school, my mother and I had a curious sort of disagreement about my hair. I am the third of four children, and all three of my siblings have much curlier hair than mine. My hair is only straight when I blowdry it, but only curly in very specific weather (“wintry mix” seems to make it coil up, like some sort of concession to my ancestors living in frozen Eastern European climes). Mostly, its problem is that the strands are not straight, but it’s also not particularly thick, so those curl-defining sprays and mousses weigh it down rather than giving me the pretty, bouncy curls the bottles promise. So I began straightening it in middle school, not because it was too curly but because it didn’t fit into any of the hair types the beauty magazines delineated, and God forbid I didn’t look like anyone else in my 7th-grade class. When I was 16 or so, I complained to my mother that the rest of my family’s hair was so much prettier and curlier than mine. She responded with something like, “Well, maybe it would be if you didn’t straighten it.” I am still not sure if she believed that every morning I flat-ironed away bouncy curls like those of my sisters, or just that I had damaged my hair by applying so much heat to it—the latter may or may not be true, but my hair was never as curly as my sisters’, even long before I knew what a flatiron was.
As a moody teenager, I was offended by what I perceived as a character criticism from my mother. Thinking back on this years later, though, I realized that there is something salient in what seemed to be her taking offense at the idea I didn’t want curly hair. My mother wanted me to love the look of curly hair, goyish beauty standards be damned—and maybe she wanted me to look more like part of the family, instead of ironing away what waves and half-hearted, limp curls I did have (and still do).
Slate may not be the first Jewish woman to talk about the learning curve of loving her crazy dark curly hair, but it is refreshing to see such a piece in a mainstream beauty magazine. Keep on taking up space, Jenny, wherever that may be.