1. [pelo, hair] → tousled, tangled, matted
2. [asunto, affair/situation] → messy, complicated
My hair is curling again. When I step out of the shower, little ringlets fall in front of my face. They’re not quite as tight as they used to, but I can see that they’re getting their form back. I say again because the curling stopped for a while when I put a relaxer in my hair. I can hear the outrage from a distance, but this was not a decision I made to adhere to European beauty standards. I have always loved my mestizo features: my wide nose, high cheekbones and fat, protruding lips. I also have nappy hair that swallows up my round face. I love the shocked looks when I pull on a curl and people realise my hair is twice the length it appears to be—my own party trick. But I gave them up, temporarily.
I decided to put the relaxer in before going travelling for a month. In the rush to plan a last minute budget getaway, I wasn’t willing to weigh myself down with the six hair products I would usually need. It felt excessive, and I wanted to become the me that didn’t need all these things. So I did it. And to my own surprise, the thought excited me—I wouldn’t have to deep condition once a week, I wouldn’t have to sleep with coconut oil in my hair, I wouldn’t have to spend hours detangling it to keep the matting at bay. No. Hassles. A whole new world.
My excitement lasted right up until I began the five-hour process of pulling my curls out at the hairdresser. My phone was at 15% battery so my options were limited to flicking through a battered 3-year old copy of Marie Claire or watching my hair change in the mirror. I opted for observation. Seeing the life leave my hair was one of the saddest things I have witnessed, but the disassociation I experienced kept me there, like an outsider looking in.
Every day since then, I have felt obligated to justify to myself how beneficial it was and just how badly I wanted it. But regardless of whether that was true or not, it doesn’t change the fact that I betrayed my beliefs.
I have always been certainly and unapologetically proud of my ethnicity. Yo soy Salvadoreña, through and through. I bleed salsa y curtido. My hair is a part of that identity. But there is a sour taste that I’m left with every day that I fight for who I am—it’s the part that made me do this for more than convenience. I had wanted to salvage the small fragment left in me that didn’t feel so bitter about the state of the world, the part of me that could look at my hair and feel like I could leave it because I loved it, and not in order to make a political statement. I had forgotten what it felt like to wake up without calculating every move I made. I wanted to wash my curls and that sour taste out. In the end, only one succeeded.
I was 15 years old when I learned about ‘isms’—sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and feminism. My high school literature class shaped me in more ways I can count, but the way it shaped me most is in how I saw the world. I remember telling my teacher that from the time she taught me how to analyse texts to consider all these ‘isms’, I couldn’t unsee them in everything surrounding me. I would leave class angry, hating the world.
‘Yes, once you know it’s there it’s hard to turn a blind eye to it. But hopefully it will fuel you to be better, and make the things around you better too.’
I stopped straightening my hair that year. In a class discussing race we had spoken about how the colour black always personifies evil.
‘Doesn’t anyone else here get offended that the villain is always wearing black, with frizzy hair, with an accent, and a large menacing body?’
I hadn’t considered any of that before—nobody had asked me to. And the fact that nobody had brought it to my attention is probably the exact reason why I had seen all of my features as ‘bad’ and tried to make them ‘good.’
Before then, I’d never left my hair curly, trying desperately each day to hide how untameable it could be, how untameable I could be. I have lived by my teacher’s words ever since—seeking to be fuelled by what I see around me, trying to make things better. I remember them when the world weighs me down, that I must do better, be better, show better. From then on I stopped depriving myself of myself.
But it wasn’t until I watched my hair losing its curl in the mirror six months ago that I realised how exhausted I had become, and felt for the first time like I couldn’t take the pressure anymore.
It takes a toll, bearing the responsibility of trying to be a good cooperative citizen while also seeking to educate people on why a lot of the things they say and do are shit. And then, when you stop and look in the mirror, you wonder, is this really me, or is this the me I think I’m supposed to be? Is this the person I would’ve become had the world been less cruel?
Maybe I would do things differently if that white lady didn’t treat me like a novelty and tried to touch my hair while I wasn’t looking. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if I stopped being greeted with ‘Hey Vato’ by ‘friends’ who think they’re funny. Maybe, just maybe, I would be a normal functioning human without various defence mechanisms at every turn because someone somewhere will remind me why they are normal and I am ‘other.’ I could be me, but only if I was like them.
Being ‘woke’ means carrying baggage. It means having tough conversations with people you love because you are not able to see past the casually racist thing they just said. It’s having to walk away from your co-workers because how dare they talk about the woman they went on a date with last night like that. It’s avoiding small talk with the stranger behind the Coles checkout counter because you can’t bear the thought of having to listen to another ignorant thing someone has to say at the end of another day of the world breaking your heart, over and over again.
There is a Spanish saying, ‘tienes que mejorar la raza’ which means, you must better the race. In other words—make your children whiter than yourself. My grandmother used to say it, and it makes me wonder if that’s why she married and had children with a Spanish man as opposed to a Salvadoran one. I wonder how often she was told that she had ‘pelo malo’, bad hair, or if she was made the villain for her dark skin. Perhaps she was her own villain. I wonder if my own mother felt the same, and if that’s why she married a half-Spanish, half-Salvadoran (although completely white-passing) man to have children with. It didn’t work. I still adopted their accent, with rolling r’s, and my skin is darker than my father’s. I wonder how deep-seated the trauma of having brown skin is, how often it has dictated the decisions of the women in my life, and how much of it they passed on to me. Is this why I straightened my hair until I was 15? Is this why I never took to the fake-tan trend? The more I look into it, the more burning questions I ask about how much of me is authentic, and how much of me is the result of everything external.
This is not meant to be selfish reassurance for a shallow pursuit. But there is a powerful envy I feel burning in my chest for people who go through the world ignorant of all the unkind things that happen. For those who get to live their lives untainted. And while it feels like a disservice to my pursuit of knowing all that I can about the world, it feels like a cruel twist of fate that I’m the one that suffers for knowing better.
People say that knowledge is power, but if that’s the case, then it has the power to destroy you, the learner, too. You can study all the shitty things humans have done to never make those same mistakes, but the fact is you’ve still learned about a cruel history and corrupt people, people that hurt others like you, people who destroyed towns that weren’t theirs both in the pursuit of destroying you as well as making you like them. When you’ve given yourself the responsibility to hold on to this understanding, there is no undoing it.
This is the cost of knowing better, and doing better—it does not promise feeling better. It is the cost of carrying the world on your shoulders, and thick hair on your head.
Vanessa Giron is a Latinx freelance writer based in Naarm/Melbourne. She primarily writes on identity and culture, and how these things have shaped her as a woman in a country that is not her own. She is a member of the West Writers Group with Footscray Community Arts Centre as well as a contributor for Djed Press and critic for The Big Issue. You can find Vanessa on Twitter @vanesssagiron or www.vanessagiron.com.