The Culture of My Hair
a personal essay by Prerna Kulkarni
Dear Asian Youth,
I've always had a rocky relationship with my hair. Sure, I love the way it is now, but have I always been this way? Definitely not. A few hours ago, I was tying my hair up in a braided crown, my fifth hairstyle of the week, and I asked myself why I could never stick to one style, why I have to change it several times a day. While I do love art and I consider hair styling as a form of art, maybe the reason I style my hair constantly is to make up for the number of hairstyles I could have done but never got the opportunity to do so.
You see, I have really curly hair. Not 4c hair, but curly to the point of a four and a half hour washday once or twice a week. I always thought my hair was “frizzy,” not “curly,” but this was because I was not taking care of my hair properly. And how would I know how to take care of my hair? No one in my family ever taught me how to. I get my curly hair genes from my dad's side of the family where most of the males have curly hair even though my paternal grandmother has straight hair. All my non-bald paternal male relatives have pretty short hair so curl cream has never touched their hair, for they did not find the need to use it.
So here I was, a 13-year-old, growing up with no hair guru in my life. What did I do with my hair then? I was tempted to chop it all off. So I did. Eighth grade was not the first time my hair was introduced to the pixie cut, and it wouldn’t be the last time. Throughout the years, my hair has always been cut short, so it would be easier to maintain. My frizz-filled and untamed hair was always prone to shrinkage. I love pixie cuts, don't get me wrong, but was I happy with my hair after it had been snipped off? Definitely not. I felt as if I was chopping away a part of me not because I didn’t care, but because I lacked the knowledge of how to care more. My family immigrated from India, where a wide variety of curly hair products were unavailable; the only things in stock regarding hair care are oils, and that’s pretty much it. The “ideal” hair in my culture is long, straight and dark. My hair lacked two of these three qualities. I was offered no suitable hair treatments as a “cultural tradition”; the only “treatment” I ever received was having my mother douse my hair in Amla Oil every Saturday to wash out on Sunday. The curls that started to form after washing my hair would be quickly frizzed out by a hairdryer (no diffuser attached) on high power and heat mode because the highest settings meant the quickest way to dry, “unproblematic” hair. My mother would brush out my hair with the biggest hair brushes on the market, and I would live with the frizz every day as my classmates wore their hair in fishtail braids, long and loose waves, and space buns. When I first asked my mother to put it in French braids, she was unable to do so, but as my hair grew, we were able to find ways to braid my hair, painful as the process was.
When I entered eighth grade, I learned how to use a hair straightener, and you could imagine my surprise when I saw that my hair was chest length. I entered a cycle where I would straighten my hair every day, maybe even twice a day, and was I happy? Yes, I was. Only until my hair started falling out. I was too afraid to lose the progress I had been building up since my last haircut in 6th grade, so I stopped straightening my hair. My hair reverted itself back to its usual frizz, but I was used to it. I despised it, but what could I do? A few months later, I made the decision that the best way to make my hair healthy again was to cut it short and let it grow out with time. Turns out that was one of the best and hardest decisions I have ever made concerning my hair.
On the one hand, I was told short hair suited me and that I should keep my hair in a pixie cut. On the other hand, many people made fun of me. I was referred to with he/him pronouns, I was too often glanced at in the women’s bathroom, and my sexuality was questioned several more times with my hair shorter than before. Oh, freshman year of high school, what a memorable time. Peers would call me “lesbian” as an insult and laugh about it too. And I was called “Amanduh” so many times that I forced myself to laugh whenever a boy with a big ego called me that. I hated myself for laughing, and I found myself constantly thinking, “Just wait till your hair grows out, and you will be alright.”
When my hair did grow out, I was still insecure with myself. I saw other women in my life rocking short hairstyles, while I moped about my own. That was when I realized that women don’t cut their hair short to please other people: they do it for themselves, and as a personal statement. Reflecting upon this now with my shoulder-length hairstyle, I regret laughing at the derogatory jokes that people made about my hair, about my sexuality, and my identity. I wish I stood up for myself and prevented those comments from putting me down because now that I look back on it, I did look really, really good with short hair. Now that my hair is longer, I don’t have any intentions of cutting it again, but if I ever did cut it to a short length in the future, I know I wouldn’t mind.
Furthermore, on the curliness of my hair subsequent to my cut, I decided that instead of pitying myself for not having any knowledge or help on how to take care of my hair, I’d find a way to care for it myself. I did my research, tested products both good and bad, and over the course of the past year, constructed a hair routine that I find perfectly suits my hair. As I write this, my hair is tied up in a half-up, half-down style, and I have never been happier with how it looks.
If you have read any of my previous works, you probably know that one of the constant themes I apply is “acceptance”. But it’s not the type of acceptance where you feel loved amongst others, rather an acceptance of yourself, by yourself. Identity has always been important to me, and over the past few years, I have learned to accept the attributes of myself that some might think are trivial but mean all the world to me, like my name, my stature, my skin color, and my hair.
- Prerna Kulkarni