For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been hard on myself. I was that kid who would get chest pains and nausea before a big state exam, a job interview, or whenever I was asked to read out loud in class. If you watch NBC’s This Is Us, think Randall. That was me. I always thought, if it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t enough. Fortunately, I wasn’t as hard on myself when it came to my looks. But last year when my Dominican hairstylist told me it was time for me to cut at least four inches off my heat-damaged ends, all those feelings of panic and anxiety suddenly began to take over.
I had spent close to three years if not more, struggling with severe heat-damage. My long, luscious curls were now thinned out and awkwardly wavy. Whenever I’d cut just a few inches and lay low on the hot tools, they’d slowly start spiraling back. But since I refused to do a significant chop, they never fully bounced back.
“If you let me cut your hair to hit at your collarbone, most of the damaged ends will be gone and your hair will be twice as thick,” my hairstylist would tell me. Me with short hair? No way! I’d attached so much of my beauty to my hair. So months went by since my hairstylist’s initial recommendation and my long rattail-thin ponytail was no longer looking cute – not curly or blown out straight.
I’d occasionally find myself looking in the mirror debating a lob cut. But the words one random college classmate told me the one time my hair was short – over 10 years ago – wouldn’t leave my head. He had seen a picture of me with waist long hair the year before and couldn’t believe it.
“Your hair grows that long?” he asked surprised. “Yea of course,” I said confused. “Why wouldn’t it?” The dude was Dominican and in the Dominican Republic and many parts of Latin America, folks like to use terms like “pelo bueno/good hair” and “pelo malo/bad hair” to describe people’s hair. Homeboy was so used to associating Dominican women with short hair as having pelo malo, that he wasn’t actually sure if my hair could grow past a certain length.
As a Latina with naturally curly hair I grew up hearing these upsetting “pelo malo” conversations all the time. I was told my hair wasn’t “bad” because it was soft, curly but not too tight, and long. But I was also told by some folks, that it still wasn’t “pelo bueno” because it wasn’t straight. And while I never once believed I had “bad hair” or agreed with the fact that anyone’s hair should be considered “bad” for that matter, the thought of being confused for a Latina with “bad hair” because I had decided to go shorter, didn’t settle well with me. I grew it out shortly after that and never went short again.
“Long hair has been seen as a sign of femininity for decades. It has been valued by men and women in this way,” says clinical psychologist, Dr. Christine Adkins-Hutchison. “Hair length still impacts identity for so many Black and Latina women because of the messages and lessons taught to us by our mothers, sisters, and fathers. Images that are perpetuated in the mainstream media account for this as well.”
“A lot of Latinas and Black women grow up encouraged or even praised for wearing their hair long because long hair is usually associated with healthy “good hair” and hair that can’t grow past a certain length (especially if it’s curly or textured) is many times considered “bad hair,” says CEO of Fashion Psychology Success, Dawnn Karen.
There was this fear that if I went “too short” I wouldn’t look as pretty, maybe my face would look fuller and oh yea – someone might think I have “bad hair.” The second I recognized how unhealthy these inner dialogues were, the quicker I realized it was time to say “eff it” and cut this hair off!
One random day in February of this year, I stepped into my local Dominican hair salon and told her to cut it. “Cut everything that’s thinned out and damaged,” I said to my very shocked hairstylist. To my surprise I loved it and still love it until this day.
I was actually able to look in the mirror that day and see a beautiful woman with beautiful, healthy “good hair” and I have felt even sexier than I’ve ever felt with boob-length or waist-length hair. I almost wish I would had done this sooner.
“It is so important for women to acknowledge their beauty,” says Hutchison. “Inner beauty reflects on the outside, so a confident woman can rock hair any length, knowing that her hair is an ‘extension’ of her beauty, not the aspect that defines who she is on the outside.”
India Arie said it best – “I am NOT my hair!”