The first time Amruta came to my parents’ house in Connecticut, she was fascinated by my seventh grade school portrait.
It sits in a large frame in our family room – a blown-up, close-up snapshot of me in all my 13-year-old glory. My eyebrows are bushy. My skin is pale, nearly translucent, dotted here and there with a stray pimple, made all the more obvious by my inept use of a CVS concealer stick. The rubber bands on my braces match my striped Old Navy cardigan (not a coincidence – I’ve always been completely committed to outfit coordination, no exceptions for orthodonture.)
Most notable though, is my hair: dark, pouffy, frizzy, evidence of the lifelong battle I had just begun to wage against my curls.
A few months after seventh grade picture day, my friend Bridget tweezed my eyebrows for my bat mitzvah. Then the braces came off. I learned how to correctly use a blowdryer; I learned how to correctly use Jergens Natural Glow moisturizer. I sacrificed my sixteenth birthday present in the name of auburn highlights, and I discovered the wide world of flat ironing – in Amruta’s freshman dorm room, actually.
And that’s how I looked when Amruta first saw my seventh grade portrait, the summer after our sophomore year of college: skin a little tanner than it should have been, hair a little lighter than it should have been and nary a curl in sight. So I guess it wasn’t so surprising that she was struck by the picture.
“You look so…Jewish,” she said. I think some Holocaust jokes were made; maybe the nickname Rifka was thrown out there. I laughed it off.
But it actually was a pretty significant thing for me, a pretty big part of who I was. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be different, to look different – and that meant lighter, straighter hair. I remember falling asleep as a little kid, twisting a lock around my finger, convinced that if I could just make it a little softer and smoother, I’d wake up blonde.
It’s totally weird, I know. But to me, my hair represented all the things that separated me from most of the people in my school and my town: my religion. My parents. My looks.
Most of this was completely perception – after all, we’re right next to Westport, it’s not totally devoid of Jews. And while African American women often find their hair style of choice to be infused with political undertones, my curls definitely didn’t carry the same weight, weren’t as tied to my ethnicity. Still, I somehow came up with this image of what was right and pretty and perfect and it definitely didn’t have room for ringlets.
So I straightened it. Nearly every day, for nine years.
I wish I could say that one day I woke up and was all, I’m going to embrace who I am and make peace with my body and my genetics and stop wasting hours in front of a mirror with a round brush. But it didn’t really go down like that.
What happened was that my hair started getting damaged, looking flat. My highlights started getting expensive.
So I decided to lay off the styling a bit.
I still can’t really handle leaving my hair totally curly. But I’m ok with wavy now, with letting it almost entirely air dry, especially in the cold, dry winter weather. I’ve retired my flat iron. I haven’t colored my hair in nine months. And I’ve started to realize: hey, this is what I’m supposed to look like. There’s a reason my hair is this color, this texture. It’s me. There’s no point in fighting it anymore.