“Your hair looks so cool,” a friend said to me at a party about my unruly mane. “Did you do something to it?”
“Cool” was not exactly the adjective I was looking for, but it was a start, and I was relieved. After years of yanking at my frizzy ringlets with brushes and blow dryers and wrapping them in a tight bun when I didn’t have the time—heaven forbid someone should know the truth—I’d decided to reveal my natural tresses. Finally, I felt comfortable enough to let my curly, Jewish hair loose.
But it took me 21 years to feel this way. For most of my teens, my natural hair had been an unwelcome guest to my mirror that just couldn’t take a hint. I wasn’t sure how it got there, but it inevitably returned.
By some unfortunate combination of recessive genes, my curly hair bears no resemblance to anyone in my family. It’s unkempt and wild and I’ve always felt like the hair genies had conspired against me. No matter how much I braided it to tame it (just like the magazines said!) or styled it with the latest “No. 1-rated hair product to define your curls and reduce frizz” (thank you hairdressers), humidity and other forces of nature would have different plans.
I decided my only option was to become an in-the-closet curly-haired girl. This entailed weekly blowouts, owning every straightening tool in the books, and even coordinating my social and exercise schedules around when I could plan time to straighten it. My blow-dried hair, styled to a T, transformed me. Unless, of course it rained, or if I sweat, or if I left it unwashed one day too many. Aside from a circulating myth and a rare sighting if we were really close friends, no one ever knew I had curly hair. I planned to keep it that way. Profile pictures and cover photos alike revealed nothing. Some might call it crazy; I’d call it survival.
“How does your hair always look so perfect?” my friends would ask me. I’d smile and thank them. Sometimes I’d shrug and reveal my secrets and tell them that I blow-dried it (for five minutes? Maybe ten?). Little did they know about the frizzy ringlets hidden behind the hour-long straightening sessions, hours I prioritized despite my hectic life.
But as any curly-haired girl knows, this routine soon becomes exhausting. Rain became my worst enemy and sweat my nemesis, which is quite difficult when you live in a city subject to random downpours and heat spells, and when one of your favorite activities is spinning. I was a low-maintenance girl trapped in high-maintenance hair and I’d had enough.
One day, I washed my hair, scrunched in gobs of one of those allegedly life-altering hair products, and marched out my front door, curly-haired and all. No braid, no bun, no ponytail. Walking from my apartment on 98th to 116th in the New York summer heat, my hair quickly dried, growing larger and larger as it assumed its God-given form. My glances alternated between my reflection in store windows and the smooth, perfect hair it seemed all of New York had. Still, I’d come out of the curly-hair closet and it felt pretty good.
That one day turned into a week which turned into a month. One friend, one dinner, at a time, I showed the world whatever variation of hair humidity had decided to bestow upon me that night. The true test came one night at a friend’s birthday. Determined not to straighten it, I entered the bar curly-haired and all. And that’s when I answered my friend’s question, if I had done something to my hair.
“No, it’s my natural hair,” I replied. “Which do you like better?” He thought about it for a moment and smiled.
“Well, don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but you look a lot more Jewish.”
I can live with that.