I’m Finally Embracing My Natural Curls This Summer

I’ve spent most of my life resenting my curly hair for being unruly and hard to manage. I often keep my hair straight to save time looking “polished” for work and events. Yet in practice, maintaining heat-treated straightened hair isn’t easy at all: I stress over sweating out my blowout, I have to wrap it in a doobie to preserve it, and it not only taxes my wallet but damages my hair. This summer, I’m challenging my internalized need for straight hair and reclaiming my natural curls.

Growing up, my mom’s and aunts’ lives and schedules revolved around their next hair appointment. Growing up Dominican in New York City, I watched as the women in my life got perms, relaxers, and keratin treatments to smooth and straighten their hair, which they referred to as “pelo malo,” or “bad hair” (also referred to as “cabello duro” or “hard hair”). It’s a racialized term common across Latine cultures to describe Afro-textured and curly hair as the opposite of “pelo bueno,” or “good hair,” which is ascribed to looser-textured, wavy, and straight hair.

Not even the hot and humid summers of New York City or the year-round warm climate of the Dominican Republic would keep my family from sleeking down their natural hair. If we weren’t spending hours in Dominican hair salons, we were at my aunts’ or godmother’s, where the women spent hours under la secadora (a portable hooded hair dryer). When it was warm out, they would keep their hair up in rollers, bound by a hair net, and let the heat air-dry it. I felt left out of their hair rituals, but I didn’t realize how free I was in other ways. I loved running through the fire hydrant sprinklers, diving into pools and beaches, and playing outside. I didn’t overthink how easily my curly hair dried on its own.

Compared to my mom, aunts, and cousins, who have type 4 hair — which includes kinky and coily Afro hair that has little to no curl definition — my sister and I have a combination of type 2 and type 3 hair, which includes wavy and tightly spiraled curly hair. Growing up, we were told we were privileged to have “pelo bueno,” given our hair was easier to manipulate into straight hair. Despite being told I had “pelo bueno,” I still wished I had naturally straight hair.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, pin-straight hair reigned supreme, and you couldn’t visit a mall without someone offering to straighten your hair or trying to sell you a flat iron. We had the guy in Queens Center Mall with the straightener, who was so famous for trying to straighten people’s hair that he garnered over 22,000 followers on Facebook. Even for many of my generation’s TV characters, curly hair was equated with being quirky, nerdy, or too normal: think Ginger from “As Told by Ginger,” Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus,” Anne Hathaway’s makeover from curly-haired commoner to straightened-hair Princess of Genovia in “The Princess Diaries,” or the straight blond wig that hid Miley Cyrus’s normal curly hair when she transformed into Hannah Montana.

As an adolescent, I felt confused that I only received compliments when I wore my hair straight. Did my natural hair count as “pelo bueno”? As journalist Natasha S. Alford notes in her memoir “American Negra,” “Imagine the cognitive dissonance when you realize that in one culture, you have ‘good hair,’ and in another, your natural hair is too wild, in need of taming. And yet both of these cultures are supposed to be yours.”

I walked into every job interview with straightened hair as a young professional, and my fear that my unkempt curls or frizz could turn off recruiters wasn’t unwarranted. Hair discrimination is a real problem in this country’s workplaces, so much so that activists and lawmakers have fought to make it illegal through bills like the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair texture and protective hairstyles.

It wasn’t until the 2020 shelter-in-place orders took effect and my work became fully remote that I discovered newfound relief in rocking my natural hair every day. Hair salons were closed, so I had no choice but to learn about my hair type and build a routine at home. Even my mom and aunts stopped using hair relaxers, revealing their natural 3c, 4a, and 4b hair textures for the first time in decades. I was inspired to see them break free from assigning moral value to their hair and embrace their natural textures. It also marked the first time I appreciated my natural curls not just as a hairstyle, but as a way to feel connected to my family’s roots.

That’s why I’m so excited to reclaim my curls this summer. That will include curating my hairstyling products, maintaining my curls between wash days, investing in a cut with a curly-hair specialist, and trying out new curly hairstyles. My grandmother already helped me get a start by making a batch of her homemade panela scalp and hair treatment, which helps hydrate and fortify hair.

I’m ready to fall back in love with my curls and enjoy the heat of the summer — instead of the heat from blow dryers.

Zameena Mejia is a Dominican American freelance writer born and raised in New York City. She is passionate about storytelling and uplifting diverse voices in beauty, wellness, and Latinx lifestyle. Zameena holds a BA in journalism and Latin American studies from the State University of New York at New Paltz and an MA in business reporting from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

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