“Why is your hair straight?” was the first thing my coworker said to me one Monday morning after noticing I had come into the office with my naturally curly hair blown out straight. “Is that really how you’re going to greet me? No, good morning?” I asked rather annoyed. I had gotten a cut earlier in the year and hadn’t straighten or heat-styled my hair in months, in efforts to get my curls to bounce back – and they did. I completely understood where she was coming from and her intentions were in the right place. She was simply concerned about me damaging my curls again. But it still bothered me, mainly because I didn’t want to feel like I had to wear my hair a certain way for anyone.
Growing up in a Dominican household, I was very much aware of the whole “pelo bueno/pelo malo” debate. I grew up most of my life wearing my hair both ways. My curl type always gave me the versatility of being able to heat-style it straight without the use of chemicals and without damaging my curl pattern. But years of weekly intense blow outs at the Dominican salon eventually started to take a toll on my hair these past few years. I had no choice but to cut my long damaged hair into a lob this March and chill out with the heat.
Most of my life I tolerated my curls because I was conditioned to believe that straighter was better. It wasn’t until college that I learned to fully love and embrace my natural curls. But again, I always loved the versatility and had the flexibility of wearing it both ways. So when I decided this spring that I was going to repair my curls, it was with the goal to get my curls to bounce back so that I can eventually wear my hair both ways again. I don’t get weekly blowouts like I used to. Instead I do roller sets that require minimal heat and I go every other week. I used heat-protectant products only and I’m obsessive about weekly hair masks. But having my curly-haired friends who had completely done away with heat-styling altogether judge me for still occasionally straightening my hair, really made me feel uncomfortable. I almost felt like I was being shamed for it.
It was like I had spent my life shamed for having curly hair and now I’m at a point in my adult life where I love my curls, but suddenly I’m being shamed for occasionally wearing it straight. Who would have thought, right?
“We (Black women or women with African ancestry) went through this moment where we were all using relaxers or weaves to meet certain beauty standards that were being forced upon us and yet we were also told we hated ourselves for conforming, “ says fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen. “Then came the 60s and 70s and we started embracing our natural texture, sporting fros, then the natural movement happened again in full force in the 2000s, but it’s been now more about choice. Like you can be a natural girl and still choose to straighten your hair, whether it’s often or occasionally. But the problem is we live in a society that wants to be part of groups because it gives us a sense of belonging. The problem with groups is there’s this pressure to adhere to that group’s rules.”
Karen explains how one of those groups is the natural hair community. Being a part of that community many times comes with rules – such as not straightening. It’s when those rules are not met, that one may feel like they are no longer part or accepted in that group.
“The psychology behind this is self-conformity and obedience in groups,” adds Karen. “You can be a part of multiple groups but there shouldn’t be shaming. You can still be a part of the natural hair community and still choose to wear your hair straight. No one in that group has the right to call you a traitor.”
Ana Patricia Coronado, is a 37-year-old Dominican graphic designer living in NYC, who is quite familiar with this debate. After having worn her naturally curly hair for nearly a decade, Coronado recently went back to straight by getting a mild keratin treatment done to her hair this October. The motive behind it wasn’t just a change in appearance but also to have the flexibility of being able to easily wear her hair both straight and curly. But she claims she’s fully aware of the fact that there might be folks out there that think she did it for identity-related reasons.
“I grew up in the Dominican Republic and migrated to the states when I was 15. Over there it was all about the lighter you are, more European your facial features are, and the straighter your hair – the more beautiful [you’re perceived]. I am the opposite of that but because of that type of social conditioning, I grew up most of my life straightening my hair.” Coronado went natural at 28 and hadn’t straightened her hair in years but recently was ready for a drastic change.
“This summer there were a lot of changes I wanted to make both personally and professionally and I wanted to switch up my appearance to reflect that. I love the way the hair looks straight but that’s not coming from a place of self-hate at all. In fact, that’s why I did the keratin instead of a relaxer because I wanted something that wasn’t permanent,” she says. “ I didn’t do this because I hated my curls. I love my curls. I love being Dominican and I’m proud to be a woman of color. This was just a style change for me but I did wrestle with it for a while because I was concerned about how others would perceive this. Yes, my hair is tied to my identity but it also doesn’t define me.”
“I believe there is a new group forming and it’s the natural hair girls who straighten their hair and choose to wear it both ways whether it be curly or straight. The truth is, you should be able to wear your hair any way you want,” says Karen. “As long as it’s not coming from a place of self-hate, but a place of self-love, then you can wear your hair straight, curly, permed, in locks – whatever you please. It’s really all goes back to how you feel about yourself.”