The Politics and Anxieties of Curly Hair, Part 2: What I learned (and didn’t) from my parents

The other day, a completely innocuous thing happened while I was at work: my coworker complemented my hairstyle. She and I have just about the same hair in color and texture, but that day we had opposite styles – hers was in full fabulous curl, and mine was braided down against the sides of my head. When she said she liked my hair, my first thought was to say “oh God no, I just did this out of practicality”. I had braided it while it was still wet the night before, since it’s growing longer and it keeps getting really tangled while I’m sleeping. But I stopped myself and just told her I liked hers too (which I really did). It is, after all, an accepted greeting among curly-haired women that we assess each other’s hair and then trade styling tips. In my usual manner of overthinking things, this interaction led me down a line of thought that wove together a few different things that have been on my mind lately, and so I thought it was time for a follow up to the last time I wrote about curly hair.

Despite how much I think about my hair, and curly hair in general, I have never really thought about when, why, and how I braid it. But when I braided it entirely for reasons of convenience that night, I started to think back. When my hair has been very long, I have often worn it in a single long braid as a “second day” style – meaning I haven’t washed my hair and it looks messy so I need to put it back in a way that won’t get too frizzy. The concept of a second day style for curly hair is particularly predicated on the fact that you can’t brush or comb curls without product, otherwise the hair becomes enormous and the curls come apart. But even when my hair was really long (down to my low hip) I typically didn’t braid it. I had a particular hairstyle that was in huge part inspired by Nicole Kidman’s hairstyle in the movie The Hours, in which she played Virginia Woolf. Long before historybounding, I was drawn to this imitation-Edwardian hairstyle, and also generally Nicole Kidman and that movie. That hairstyle was very forgiving and did a good job of tucking away the hair at the nape of my neck that is especially prone to painful knots. I had a single particular hairclip I used for it, and I did everything in that hairstyle, including sleeping and swimming.

I did braid my hair when I wanted it to look cool, since I had so much of it and so many styles were open to me as a result. I often did a few tiny box braids with beads (an act of cultural appropriation that was very in around the late 90s and early 00s, and I’ll come back to that), and my holy grail hairstyle was the Princess Leia braid crown that became mainstream popular about ten years ago.

There was pretty much only one time that I braided my hair out of practicality before I had kids (you know, back when I had time to care for my own body regularly). I spent a few weeks on a hiking trip where I knew I wouldn’t have regular access to a shower and I didn’t want to lug around hair product. So I did a full head of box braids and mostly wore them tied back (and boy did a lot of people comment on them). I didn’t do these things very often, I thought, because I have very poor circulation and so keeping my arms up to style my hair is difficult and uncomfortable. But I realized there’s another element to it, which is the cultural inheritance of my hair.

I fundamentally didn’t learn how to care for curly hair as an Ashkenazi woman. There isn’t really a tradition for it in the community I was raised in, and there are some very revealing and complicated reasons why. Just in my immediate family, there is a gender barrier. I get my hair from my dad. My brothers, dad, and I all have the same hair and apart from me (and, for a brief period of time, my oldest brother), no one has worn it long. My mom, on the other hand, has slightly wavy and fairly thin hair, which she wore long until she was about 40, and then kept in the same style that most women wore in some variation around that time – layered, shoulder-length, blown out. Despite not having a female role model for curls, I loved my hair from a young age. In particular, I loved the barber shop. My dad went to what would now be considered a very old-fashioned barber shop, which had the classic adjusting chairs and a huge steam tank for hot towels. This place was just one of many iconic features of masculine life that I soaked up watching my dad as a kid, on par with the ritual of putting on a suit. I loved it so much that I insisted on getting my hair cut there when I was 2 years old, to the tremendous dismay of my mom, since it was my first haircut and a completely impulsive decision on the part of my dad to let me do it. Now, all the men who worked there and almost all the ones who got their hair cut there were Ashkenazi. There was one Puerto Rican woman on staff, and she was who I saw. She taught me everything I knew about how to care for my hair as a kid. To give you an idea of how little that was, she introduced me to the very new concept of this thing called “conditioner”. From an early age, then, curly hair was implicitly masculine in my life. Even as a teenager, I was initially afraid to cut my hair short because I thought the tighter curls I would get without the length would make me look like my brother (they did, and that wasn’t a bad thing).

So where were all the curly-haired women in my family? On the one side, there was my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who wore her hair in a very mid-century coif, which included done curls. I’m not sure what her natural texture was, but my guess is slightly wavy. In that context, her curls came attached to expectations of what she would have called “being put together”. Her routine in the morning involved curling her hair in plastic curlers (with maximum hold hairspray), slathering vaseline all over her legs, hands, and face, and penciling in her eyebrows. It was interesting to watch, but not something I wanted to do myself. On the other side, there was my Orthodox family. My savta, my dad’s mom, did have curly hair, but she also wore it in a typically 1960’s style: cut short and precisely curled. She was the only woman in my family whose hair I saw. All the other adult women in my family covered their hair, either with a wig or a full-head cap. The wigs, of course, were always stick-straight. I could see pictures of some of these women as kids, but their hairstyles were so outdated it was hard to relate to them. I once saw my aunt’s hair when I was at her house and I was upstairs with the other kids. She had just showered and I felt like I had caught her naked. But of course she was fully clothed, just without her cap. I was getting this consistent message from the older generation that a woman’s natural hair, unless it was straight, wasn’t acceptable, and that even if you wanted to wear it curly, you had to style it with heat and product.

As for girls my age, I got a similar message. I didn’t have many female cousins (there was no acceptable gender fluidity in Orthodox Judaism at the time, and gender roles were very strictly enforced), and most of them either didn’t have curly hair or their moms straightened it for them. It was the same thing at my predominantly Jewish high school a few years later. I thought I was the only kid with curly hair, and it just turned out that I was notable because I was the only one who didn’t straighten it. Girls in my class would ask me if my hair was ever straight, which I found so confusing as a question, like they thought hair texture could randomly change of its own volition day to day.

As I wrote in that earlier piece, there wasn’t really a model for natural curly hair before the late 00s. At least not for white women. And that’s where my mind has been ending up lately. Because the first person I saw who had hair like mine, pretty much in any context, was Beyonce. And she wasn’t even wearing it natural. But her “done” hair was my texture. She aspired to the texture that all the women in my life were telling me was unacceptable or, really, only acceptable for men. As my classmate told me late in high school, I had “good hair”.

This is where I come back around to braids. There’s been a lot of good public discussion (or, at least, discussion in white-dominated spaces) recently about the practicality of historically Black practices of hair braiding. It’s now common knowledge among white people that braiding is an aesthetically-informed style, but it’s also something that helps preserve textured hair. Now, I imagine that once, maybe not even so long ago, Ashkenazi women had their own braiding practice. Or maybe not, maybe we always just shaved our heads after marriage. But whatever tradition we had historically that kept our hair clean and comfortable, we don’t do that anymore. And I never really thought about that until I watched this video.

Because the first thing I thought after I finished watching this was “what about anyone who wasn’t white?” That is, in all of these historical hairstyles, curling was, as with my grandmothers, an intentional style, not a natural texture. And as I learned when I used to do my own Princess Leia hair, curly hair really changes your ability to execute a hairstyle intended for straight hair. Just look at the creative workarounds Black women made in the 18th and 19th centuries to wear European and white American styles. Historical interpreter Cheyney McKnight talks about the building of uniquely African-American hair traditions in this video. Between the ingenuity of Black approaches to hair and the creativity of historically white hairstyles in Morgan Donner’s video, the thought really started nagging me of what women with a hair texture in between typically did. Frankly, I’m not sure I can know. My family certainly didn’t teach me that tradition – they either assimilated to white hairstyles (by which I mean, styles of women who expected to have straight hair) or got rid of that hair all together. If you try doing a google search for historical Jewish women’s hairstyles, all the results are either about Orthodox practices of covering the hair or the men’s practice of payos/payot, which is a manually-curled sideburn. So the reason I’m stuck in my thinking about this completely unimportant issue is that it’s confronting me with the feeling that I lack tradition and that trying to adopt my own understanding of that tradition unavoidably leads to cultural appropriation. I guess for now I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, but something is probably going to give soon.