“The Curly Headed Dilemma” – by Olivia Cooley

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I wanted to do it before I changed my mind. Before outside influences could affect my decision and before I had the chance to overthink. Something as simple as a haircut is not typically considered drastic, but cutting my hair went far beyond the looks. I was born with big, thick, curly hair and a personality that matches my crazy locks. My hair often made me stand out because it got so big and wild; however, standing out came with the burden of insecurity and anxiety that quickly followed. In my early childhood years, the self-observed differences between others and me were not obvious, but when I entered elementary school, the differences became more prominent. When I was six years old, my family moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Milford, Connecticut, where we lived in a predominantly white community for the first time. Upon my first waltz into Mrs. Troy’s first-grade class, one thing stood out to me right away: all of the other little girls and boys looked nothing like me or my brother. I was in a new school district and town, making the experience even more foreign. As I took my seat and adjusted my thick locks of hair, I noticed the hair of the girls around me; they all had pretty waves, or pin-straight strands, complementing their lighter complexion and reminding me that I was different. I began to believe that white was the norm and standard of beauty and I was an oddity. I often longed for straight hair and would get excited when I got the opportunity to get my hair straightened so that I could roughly resemble those around me.

Over the next ten years, I made numerous trips to the hair salon, applying chemicals and heat to my hair, damaging it to a point where the ringlets that had once been so prominent when I was little were almost unrecognizable. But the true damage was not just being done to my hair, but to my identity as well. Among most people in my social circle, I became the staple black representative. My “job” was to speak on behalf of a race with various complexities and differences that one person could simply not hold all the knowledge of. When people told me racist jokes, I laughed it off and avoided causing a scene; I felt like approaching the topic would have been more problematic. I believed that the gateway to fitting in meant hiding a part of me, and I dealt with the damage that resulted. Conforming to the popular beauty standard made me feel like my natural self was inferior.

In the summer of 2017, I realized that the years I spent carefully redefining myself had made me feel lost, and I became determined to make a change. I called my hairdresser and told her that I was going to cut off all my damaged hair to let my natural hair be free once again. The next day, I was at the salon, awaiting my new look. I had my back facing the mirror so I could not see what was happening and I did not want to psych myself out. As my hairdresser grasped her scissors, I closed my eyes and thought of the times I felt like an outcast because of my appearance. Listening to the scissors snip and watching hair flow to the ground, I imagined the years of hurt and damage flowing away as well. When everything was set, my chair was twirled around and I faced the mirror to see the big, thick curls that had been hidden through the years. I walked out into the world with a new perspective, understanding that being different was not a burden, but a bonus in creating who I truly am. My racial identity is an adaptation that I made room for to become a part of me, and like my big hair, I own it.