My entire childhood was an ill-fated attempt to control my hair: wiry, frizzy, unruly. It did not respond to conventional methods of coiffure known to white folks in rural Upstate New York. I grew up with people who took hair-care advice from Laura Ingalls Wilder books: just as Ma Ingalls had done in days of yore, my own mother would brush, brush, brush in a futile attempt to tame my hair into submission. The constant and excessive brushing would strip my hair of oil and infuse it with static electricity and create unimaginable knots.
And as a child I would weep as my mother brushed my hair, not only because the process hurt my scalp but because I longed to look – and be – like other girls. I, however, was a different species of girl, one with intractable locks and equally intractable opinions. I was intellectually precocious and overly sensitive, with a finely tuned sense of justice and an overwhelming desire to stick it to the middle-aged white men who ran our school, church, and community. The stuff sprouting from my head was proxy for everything that separated me from my peers, every aspect in which I fell short of the ideals of beauty and femininity that had been ingrained in me even before my age hit double-digits. I had bangs that looked like Brillo pads glued to my forehead, with an equally abrasive attitude to match.
But when I was in college a friend introduced me to chemical straighteners. She changed my life the first time that she used that big wooden tongue depressor to plaster my head with the concoction that looked like pink frosting and smelled like nail polish remover. Employing these chemicals, I was no longer a phenotypic anomaly, and for most of my twenties and thirties I repeated this process every four to six months. I would begin by rubbing Vaseline on my hairline, temples, and ears to eliminate the risk of contact between my skin and the noxious compounds that unraveled my tangled tresses. I would unscrew the plastic jar, add the “activator,” swirl that contents around, and then smear the potion atop my head – always in a well ventilated room, of course. Thirty minutes later, bada bing. The kink was gone.
In much the same way, I spent most of my early adulthood learning how to straighten myself out. Those years were a constant struggle to self-censor, to swallow my opinions and bury my feelings for the sake of “professionalism.” I was called out for ruffling feathers and challenging the status quo. I cried in the office. I learned that men who take the moral high ground are principled, but women who take the moral high ground are self-righteous and shrewish. Our world wants women to be cooperative and manageable, to avoid tangles and chaos. I was told that I had to tame my attitude and my tongue, and I did – just as I had tamed my wild, frizzy, unruly hair.
In my late thirties, I began to question why I was still slathering my head with toxic chemicals. I eventually stopped, bracing myself for a return to the mangled mop of my formative years. As soon as I stopped straightening my hair, however, I noticed a fundamental change in the texture of my hair. Some days (perhaps due to temperature, humidity, and wind conditions) I still have a head of bouncy curls. Increasingly, though, my hair looks and feels more like that of other people. I can actually leave the house without putting “product” in it. I can get caught in the rain without having a panic attack. I stopped straightening my hair because I had finally developed the confidence to manage a difficult mane, but instead I got the hair that I had longed for as a child.
And although I cannot construct a timeline or even identify any watershed moments, I know that the same gradual transformation has occurred internally. Sadly, I know that I have become a much more docile woman. I have accepted the lame excuses of those in power. I have rationalized my choices to “pick and choose my battles” in the name of “conserving my political capital.” I no longer have to be told to keep my mouth shut during meetings. Middle-aged white men now consult me about their decisions. The quiet, insidious misogyny that pushed me to be less candid in the workplace has earned me a seat at the table, where I am still not treated as a force to be reckoned with.
Maybe it’s time to shave it all off.
Becka Fergusson-Lutz is a full-time professional high school English teacher and part-time semi-professional creative person. Her primary breadwinning comes from teaching English language and literature at the high school and college levels: over the past 17 years she has taught in Romania; Washington, D.C.; Qatar; Oman; Honduras; and China. When she is not writing lesson plans and grading papers, however, she works as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. When she's not chained to her laptop with those side-hustles, she experiments with drawing, painting, sewing, printmaking, collage, and various combinations thereof.