On Hair…

A special post written by my big sister! 🙂

Hair and feelings

I have often heard that having a child forces one to reckon with their past traumas and current triggers. I was ready for the things I had prepared for (the mother wound, imposter syndrome, overall new mom pressure etc…). What I was not ready for was Mila’s hair.

Elementary School Hair
My own journey with hair is very straightforward: straight is best. I was mocked throughout elementary school for being ugly and having disheveled curly hair. One day in grade 5, I got home and was told  “if you don’t take care of your hair we will shave it off”. As a 10 year old, I didn’t even know where to begin “taking care” of my hair. I hadn’t even seen an example of an adult/child who had hair like mine to see what this “well kept” hair could look like.
The day came and my hair was cut off. I walked into school and the class clown sang: “in the army national guard, you can!”. Everyone laughed and told me that I looked like a soldier, a boy, and still: ugly. Every day that year, that same bully got almost everyone to do an army salute whenever I walked into class.

High School hair
Then came high school. It was difficult to be in a class where most of the girls matched the colonized standards of beauty: light skinned, blond/light brown hair, highlights/streaks, no split ends, bangs, thin hair that fluttered loosely off their ponytails curving their faces, etc. I would allow my classmates to throw items in my hair. It became a catch all for pens, paper airplanes, paper clips etc. I didn’t mind. I actually encouraged it. My hair was finally a source of fun (for others…) but I enjoyed feeling seen for the first time.
By picture day in grade 8, my hair was finally long enough to tie. It is my first recollection of a hair compliment “Wow your hair looks so nice!”. That was the beginning of the next 20 years of pony tails and buns. My hair could never be out. I couldn’t take the feeling of it touching my neck – a constant sensory reminder of everything I hated and all the ugliness held inside that curly puff above me.  In grade 9. my friends introduced me to a hair straightener. Never had I ever felt so beautiful as the day I got my hair straightened. At one point, they just had me flip my hair onto the ironing board and ironed away. I could smell the burning with every stroke. It smelled like social acceptance. I was called “Princess Jasmine”, “pretty” & on one special occasion “hot”.
I then tried finger curling little ringlets in my hair for a while. I confided in someone that I took a really long time in the morning to fix my hair. Her response was “umm it doesn’t show”. That was it. What was the point in even trying anymore? No matter how hard I tried, I would never look good.

Sri Lankan Hair
Then, I visited SriLanka! My aunt sent me to her hairdresser who completely understood my hair. I left there feeling so confident, for a number of reasons:

  1. My hair dresser looked like me
  2. His clientele was mostly people with my kind of hair
  3. He didn’t hurt me at all when brushing
  4. He was patient with my complete lack of knowledge as a full grown adult
  5. He believed I was beautiful before I even sat in the chair.

As a child, I remember going to get haircuts in a small salon in a Chinese person’s basement. There were pictures all over the walls of long beautiful blond hair on white women, and cute little bobs on Asian women. I kept asking the stylists to make my hair look like the white girls but they said it wasn’t possible. There was no solution for me but to accept that I can never be as beautiful as the girls on those posters.
Black beauty was not a thing I grew up seeing, so taking me to a Black owned salon was out of the question, but I know the hairdressers there would have understood my hair and offered me realistic images of what my hair could do and how to make it as beautiful as it was meant to be.

Motherhood & Hair
I am the mother of a beautiful little Black and Brown girl.
Every time I finish Mila’s hair, she stands up, looks in the mirror and says: “I love it mama!” and does a little twirl to try and see if the back is just as cute (it is by the way- no short cuts out here!) I can’t help but go back to a time when I could barely look in the mirror because it was too difficult. I would either attack all my flaws and just destroy myself, or I would have a good day and feel terribly guilty for being vain. That’s not the life I want for my daughter. I want more.
I woke up this morning (forgetting that I recently cut my hair short) and my daughter ran into the room & said: “look mama, my hair is just like yours!”. It occurred to me that in all the different ways I styled her hair, I have always just put mine in a bun. Today she saw herself in me and was so pleased. We walked around the house proudly with our curls bouncing over our shoulders and all I could think about is what could have been if I had understood my hair when I was her age. If I had had the luxury of someone who cared enough to learn, to bond, to empower a little girl who needed to feel beautiful, who needed to feel…seen.

Now what?
I often get statements in the realm of: “If I had your hair I would do so much with it” or “If I had your hair I’d leave it down all the time” “You’re so ungrateful for your beautiful hair” etc. Often, we don’t know why people do the things they do. Or don’t do. We don’t ask. And if we do, we don’t listen to the answer. 
The beauty some see in my curls was rejected by the people that mattered most to me.  There are 20 years worth of hair comments like sharp daggers in my self esteem that I continue to work through.  It takes time to see in ourselves what others see.
Where do I stand now? Honestly, I’m still working through it (clearly). I realize that many of the thoughts and experiences I’ve shared might be foreign to some of you. You may have had the luxury of never worrying about your hair at all. As for me, I’m really starting to appreciate my hair and believe people when they say they love my curls. I am grateful that Mila is always inadvertently pushing me to be a better version of myself and for that reason alone, I can embrace my hair and my version of beauty. She may face bullies the way I did, but we will certainly continue to empower her in our home and I will give her everything I can to believe in herself! But It starts me with me. I better get to work. Hold my jojoba oil while I get the spray bottle. 

Liza Selvarajah

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