When I was very young, people in church lobbies and in long grocery store lines would often smile and jokingly ask whether I was wearing eye makeup, and compliment my thick eyelashes and eyebrows. I said thank you because that was what I had been told to say, but I didn’t care much one way or the other. The most important things in life were my storybooks, My Size Barbie, and hot chocolate before bed, not strange-sounding words like mascara. I was too young to be totally cognizant of the importance of physical appearance beyond making sure I wore the sneakers I liked with my socks rolled down twice.
The first time I can remember thinking of a part of myself as inferior was in kindergarten, when I started noticing that the majority of the other little girls in my class had long hair that swayed with their every movement and didn’t require the clips and baubles that my mother put in mine. When they pushed a hand through their hair, it would fall gracefully back into position, silky-smooth and long. When I would try this in front of my mirror at home, my hair would remain where my fingers had relocated it, stubbornly defying gravity. I looked like a cartoon character, but it didn’t make me laugh. I frowned, and wished, not for the first time, that my hair was different. I didn’t like it anymore.
I had no way of knowing how dangerous this yearning was; the desire for such a fundamental part of myself to be different. By allowing myself this dissatisfaction, I unknowingly began to chip away at the sense of self-worth I had learned by watching my mother apply makeup in the mirror, by being read and sung to every night by my father, by receiving hugs from my older brothers and sisters when they came to visit. So much of my comfort in my identity came from merely admiring the people who came before me who looked like I did. And it was so easily undone, bit by bit, when I allowed the differences between myself and others to morph into superiority.
It started with hair, but it didn’t end there. In middle school, I loathed my height and weight; I was too tall, too skinny, and none of my clothes fit the way they fit my more curvy friends. I felt cheated by puberty, which I thought meant gaining weight in previously flat places. I simply gained the suggestion of hips and a theoretical need for a training bra. My legs were still skinny and my feet big; arms lanky and awkwardly long. My spine curved in deference to my dissatisfaction, transforming my stance into self-conscious slouch. I still received compliments, which I appreciated but often didn’t understand.
Buying new clothes helped, getting my hair done helped. As I grew and my body continued to develop, my unhappiness developed with it. I found different parts of myself to criticize. If my clothing style stayed the same for too long, I would grow bored and unhappy. If my hair didn’t behave the way I had fantasized it would, I would put on a hat, or scarf, or just stay home. The older I got, the more agency I attained over my life, the more acceptable it became to avoid the outside world and all mirrors if my appearance didn’t meet my rapidly heightening standards. This compulsion morphed into a cloud of miserable narcissism and crippling self-hate that became difficult to control. Unbelievably, I still received compliments, which I still didn’t understand, and now resented. It began to feel like ridicule.
My good days, on the other hand, were really, really good. Sometimes everything just clicked and my reflection would smile, pleased. I had finally succeeded in looking the way I wanted to look, the way other people said I looked, and leaving my dorm, my house, my apartment was so easy I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been able to do it the day before. Sometimes it even went so far as to crack through the thick veneer of anxiety that shrouded me normally: the lipstick I’d chosen finally allowing my mouth to open, when usually I would be too afraid to voice my thoughts; the voluminous curls falling onto my shoulders helped me sit up straighter instead of longing for invisibility. Looking good – or rather, believing that I looked good was amazing, like magic, better than any drug. People would compliment me (and I would say thank you, as I always did) but now I inwardly agreed.
Those were the good days.
Beneath my perpetual dissatisfaction, beneath my complaints and self-doubt, I knew that what I half-perceived as deserved punishment for my myriad ‘faults’ was in fact incredibly damaging to my psyche. I had passed the point of self-deprecation for humor’s sake (“How is it possible that none of my jeans agree with me today?”) and succumbed to unadulterated self-hate (“I barely want to look at myself right now, so why would anyone else? It seems unfair to inflict myself on the world today.”)
I knew that if I uttered any of this to someone who cared about me, they would be worried, incredulous, or both. It was in silent defiance to this response that I jealously hoarded all of my neuroses to myself. And although I knew I should make some effort to change – how, though? Daily affirmations? Self-help books? Fake it ‘til I make it? – I didn’t know how to begin or if I even wanted to. Because the part that I didn’t even like to admit to myself was that I sort of enjoyed the psychological self-flagellation. It validated my misanthropy and nicely complemented my rapidly worsening social anxieties. It was the perfect cycle.
I’m not quite sure what tipped the scale and told me it was time to properly rid myself of this poisonous inner voice. Maybe it came with my decision to pursue a career, and more or less settle down for few years, instead of chasing various versions of myself around the world, as I had more or less planned to do after college. Maybe it was the steady push of time, gently nudging me towards more social responsibility and decreasing opportunities for isolating misery. Maybe it was my status as an educator, thrust into the position of simultaneous mother and big sister and mentor to girls who were only beginning their journey to self-acceptance, or the horrifying lack thereof.
Maybe it was some backwards echo of my future self, watching my daughter struggle to settle comfortably within her own skin. Maybe it was my boyfriend, his frustration mingling with horror, when I would try to patiently explain why I couldn’t handle a party anymore or why I couldn’t look into the mirror. It was, of course, most likely a mixture of all these things. I grew weary of my claustrophobic, solipsist universe. My negativity benefited no one and hurt everyone.
Therapy helps. I avoided it for years, because of my whole no-one-must-know thing. For a long time I couldn’t imagine anything worse than sitting in front of a perfect stranger and laying bare everything I’d kept from the people I know for years. And then, suddenly, I couldn’t imagine anything more ideal. I still struggle with transparency, with finding the words to explain myself without feeling like each utterance is a betrayal. It’s a weekly growth process, but one that I need.
This step wasn’t enough, however. Professional help from an outsider is helpful, of course. But it wasn’t realistic to expect that I could dump my problems in her office every week and walk away from them until the next session. That’s not how it works. I wanted to take ownership over my recovery and growth, in some way that felt authentic and addressed any lingering areas of self-doubt that I continued to experience. And I started to think about my hair.
The obsession with my hair that began in kindergarten has remained a constant throughout my life. As a black woman, I’ve had access to a wide variety of hairstyles that afforded me the sort of freedom to tailor my coif to my mood and wallet. If I wanted long hair, I could perm it, straighten it with a hot iron, and/or have a weave sewn in. If I didn’t want a weave, I could get braids or twists installed. If I wanted it curly, I could do any of the above, but substitute curly hair for straight. If I wanted shorter hair, I could simply take out any synthetic hair and wash my natural hair, which would immediately shrink into tightly coiled ringlets when exposed to water. I could blow-dry my afro for a fuller look, or twist my hair in sections at night and, on waking, take out the twists and sport a curlier afro. The possibilities were endless and sometimes overwhelming.
And yet, despite the wide array of options, I was often unhappy, because no matter what style I had, I inevitably would tire of it, and want another. The constant upkeep was, at best, a labor of love; at worst, a drain on my time and money. (I have shamefully wished, on more than one occasion, that I could just have white girl hair, so I could wash it in the shower and throw it into a messy ponytail, like I so often see other white girls do. It seemed so blessedly simple and uncomplicated.)
More than any other aspect of my appearance, more than the relative flatness of my stomach or skinniness of my ankles in certain shoes, my hair is what demands utmost priority. It can make or break my mood, my outfit, or my week. I can slump away from my bathroom mirror, battered and defeated, bobby pins strewn about like so many dead soldiers, and go on to have a miserable day. Or, conversely, I can take off my silk scarf in the morning, effortlessly style my hair, and be absolutely ecstatic with the results, receiving a jolt of positive energy that will sustain me for the next twenty-four hours.
At any given point in the day, I’ve probably just stopped playing in my hair, or will again in twenty-three seconds when a stray breeze mislays a curl. From a psychological standpoint, I saw this as an aspect of my life that I should definitely attempt to change posthaste. And from a physical standpoint, my hair agreed. Years of impatient manipulation have made my scalp tenderer and my hairline thinner than they should be. It was time for drastic action.
I made the decision to begin growing locs this weekend, after wavering about it for years. I wasn’t sure I could handle the commitment to one style, to losing the versatility necessary for my rapidly fluctuating self-esteem. I was scared that I would look into the mirror and hate everything I saw and that I would be stuck with this, my short hair, my tiny starter locs, leaving my face so open and naked for longer than I could handle. Nothing to hide behind, forced to wait for my hair to grow. This may very well happen tomorrow or next week or next month. But I can’t help but feel some intrinsic connection between the deliberate permanence of this style and a final reckoning with my self-confidence. It’s time to stop vacillating between mental states that are based solely on my appearance and start learning to love myself, to love my hair, no matter how it long it takes to grow.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]
Carla is a teacher, writer, and serial to-do list creator. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and imaginary dog. You can follow her on Twitter @carlawaslike.