My mother possesses the most beautiful black curls I have seen. The closest I have seen it replicated anywhere then was in the Greek mythology book I own – I saw it vaguely in the grainy pictures of Medusa’s snakes coiling around her. But even the jet black ink of the printed pages failed to capture the essence of my mother’s hair. It is the black so dark that it almost looks blue, the black so bright that sunlight sits above it like a silent halo. I have not come across a lot of authentic curls as a child and my mother’s remains one of the rare few I see on a daily basis. Even within my family, her hair is an anomaly: she is the only one among four siblings to not have inherited the straight black hair so characteristic of my grandmother.
But my mother and I saw different mirrors in the past. In mine, every curl of hers only added to her identity. It was a little unkempt (just like hers), always boisterous and loud (oh, exactly like hers), and could never be tamed – neither with a straightener nor a comb. I was the enamoured kid who would painstakingly unravel curls from her brush just to dangle them in front of my own trademark straight hair, to get a glimpse of how I would look like if I was her. Her frizzy, rebellious hair was her in every essence. But this wasn’t the hair my mother saw. What she saw was an uncontrollable mess. She would go to battle every morning with her weapon of choice – the unforgiving brush – only to accept defeat after she has gone through enough pain. A six year-old me could hardly understand insecurity, of course.
But what a six year-old me did learn was that whatever I deemed was perfection could actually be hardly up to mark.
We pass down insecurity in subtle and troubling ways we hardly think twice about. Casual remarks about our weight become entrenched as body image issues. Watching our parents silently swallow abuse becomes us in a few years. Our older siblings throwing slurs as jokes normalises the practice. In the same manner, my mother’s very personal yet unhidden struggle with her hair was part of my inheritance.
I no longer remember the exact trajectory but there reached a point when I became intensely possessive of my own hair. I grew up hearing comments about how straight it was and its luminous shine and inherently understood them to be compliments – as opposed to people’s comments about how frizzy my mother’s was. It became a comparison, a race, a game. One that I’ve already lost in the first place, simply because I have never fallen out of love with my mother’s hair.
Until, almost inevitably, she decided to straighten her hair.
Those who have gone through rebonding would know that it hardly works on extraordinarily curly hair – it is best to use the straightener and live with the stray few curls. The chemical process destroyed the sheen of her hair, the previously lovely locks, the density of her hair. But that experience changed me and the way I saw myself: I saw a woman who changed an essential part of herself to fit into a well-received image and how she became happy as a result. Even after a few years, when her hair had stopped falling out in part due to the botched rebonding, she still lamented about how much a burden her hair was. There had never been a doubt in her head: my straight hair was the benchmark to strive to and I should protect it at all cost.
Years of shared insecurity followed. My mother and I relentlessly protected our hair and bought every mid-range hair product within our budget to satisfy ourselves. She would cut my hair just because no one else knew how to (layering is still an oft-butchered art). It was not explicit to outsiders but it was an unspoken secret both of us shared. She lived vicariously through me by maintaining her standard of perfection. The day I decided to let go of my obsession and dyed my hair, we stopped talking to each other for at least a month.
It’s a personal story that perhaps everyone can relate to in their own intimate way. In my story, I struggle to accept my own hair – it’s not something most people struggle with. In fact, it’s almost comical in how trivial it is. But I’ve seen my mother constantly wrangle with her identity and refusing to accept it, simply because how she looked like did not fit the perceived norm. It’s not the only struggle I’ve witnessed. There’s the constant issue of skin colour and how products have made us believe that fair is lovely, soaps that convince you that scrubbing your skin clear is the only way you can truly feel clean and razors who claim that they beautify you by removing a very human part of yourself. It gets amplified by our own family members, who reinforce this mentality constantly until you start to believe that you have to change every part of yourself to become the best version you could possibly be.
It seems clichéd and preachy to say that we are all imperfect versions and in that we should strive to find our perfection – it’s one of those Hallmark cards you read once before discarding it to some forgotten pile. But having seen so many of my close family members believe they’ve fallen short of their own expectations and deconstruct every part of themselves to achieve some illusion of happiness, I can only plead with the younger generation to not subject themselves to such narrow parameters of “perfection.”
Today, I’ve dyed my hair more times than I can count – to the point where it’s no longer the “Japanese doll” straight, as people used to compliment without a second thought. It’s been an act of freeing myself as well as my mother, who is still slowly learning to accept her hair instead of going to war with it every day. It’s been 50 years for her and yet some days are still a struggle; but every day she smiles at the mirror a little more.