My childhood was an ill-fated attempt to control my wiry, frizzy, unruly hair. I grew up with people who took hair-care advice from Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but my hair didn’t respond to conventional methods of coiffure known to white folks in rural Upstate New York. Just as Ma Ingalls had done, my own mother would brush, brush, brush in a futile attempt to tame my hair into submission. The excessive brushing stripped my hair of its oil and infused it with static electricity and unimaginable knots.
I would weep as my mother brushed my hair, not only because the process hurt but also because I longed to look—and be like—other girls. But I 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 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.
Years later in college, a friend introduced me to chemical straighteners. She changed my life the first time 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. With these chemicals, I was no longer a phenotypic anomaly. I learned to rub Vaseline on my hairline, temples, and ears to protect my skin from the noxious compounds that unraveled my tangled tresses. I deftly unscrewed the plastic jar, added the activator, swirled the contents around, and smeared the potion on my head. Thirty minutes later, bada bing, the kink was gone. I repeated this process myself every four to six months for fifteen years.
But 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 its texture. At age 40, my hair now looks and feels almost like that of other people. I can leave the house without putting product in it, and I can get caught in the rain without having a panic attack.
I spent my early adulthood straightening my hair and learning how to straighten out myself. I struggled to self-censor, to swallow my opinions and bury my feelings for the sake of “professionalism.” I was called out for ruffling feathers at work and challenging the status quo. I cried in my 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. 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.
I originally stopped straightening my hair because I thought I had the confidence to manage my difficult mane, but instead I discovered that the march of time and the whims of hormonal change had given me the hair that I had longed for as a child: orderly, manageable, wieldy. Because I know that I need professional references to list at the bottom of my resume, I have become a much more docile woman. Our world wants women to be cooperative and manageable, to avoid tangles and chaos, and that’s what I have done. 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. Because of this self-regulation, middle-aged white men now consult me about their decisions. By swallowing the quiet, insidious misogyny and learning to be less candid in the workplace, I have earned myself 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 EMT and part-time semi-professional creative person. When she is not splinting broken limbs and driving people to the emergency room, she works as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. For the previous 17 years, however, her primary breadwinning came from teaching English language and literature at the high school and college levels: she taught in Romania; Washington, D.C.; Qatar; Oman; Honduras; and China.