It was wash day and I was sitting at the table two-strand twisting my hair (protective styling is the way to go in the Peace Corps ladies) when my host cousin’s girlfriend asked, “I think your hair would better if you straightened it. How come you don’t straighten your hair?”
I have what a lot of Black women call “natural hair.” If you’re not familiar with this term, it just means that I choose not to straighten my hair with a perm/relaxer. Now just hold on my straight haired folk – usually when African Americans refer to their “permed hair” this is referring to the act of permanently straightening the hair through a chemical process. The terms “perm” and “relaxer” are also often used interchangeably. Historically, Black women have opted to straighten their hair through heat and chemical methods often believing that without this their hair was unattractive and/or unmanageable. Even though I never had my hair chemically straightened with a perm (my mom wouldn’t let me), I was addicted to my flat iron and definitely felt more attractive with straightened hair. I only stopped habitually straightening my hair about 4 years ago when I realized I was frying it to death. Since then I have indulged in a little more self love, embraced my curls and haven’t looked back.
Additionally, lack of information and lack of products available on the market to properly care for natural hair kept a lot of Black women from experimenting with it. However, in recent years there has been a surge of blogs, books, articles, and products that cater to women who want to care for and style their hair without using straightening methods. Consequently, these days it is very common to see a Black woman rocking their natural curls and coils with confidence.
Okay, back to the story.
Now, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – Here many of the celebrities are lighter skinned with straight (often blonde) hair that don’t accurately represent the diverse skin tones and hair textures of Peruvian people. As a result, a lot of young Peruvians aspire to an unrealistic, more Eurocentric standard of beauty. Sound familiar?
The most frustrating thing about this situation to me was that I knew my language level was not equipped to explain all the varying reasons why an African American woman may choose to not straighten her hair. How do you explain the politics of black hair to an 18 year old Peruvian girl who, before me, has never met a black person before – not even an Afro-Peruvian? I mean, there are whole books and PhD dissertations written on the topic and I have to sit here and attempt to explain it in Spanish? Oh joy.
Luckily, my host cousin (her boyfriend) has a decent handle on English and with his help I was able to explain. I tried to make it as short and understandable as possible. I told her that while I’ll straighten my hair every now and then and I like the way it looks, I also
don’t want to do it so much that it damages my hair. I also explained that I disagreed that my hair looked “better” straightened and said that I love my first and foremost the way it naturally grows out of my head. And finally I threw in a quick line about historically being shamed and feeling shame for our hair and that I didn’t want to feel that anymore.
So she’s sitting there silent and I’m feeling rather proud that I just crammed a topic worthy of scholarly journals in a nutshell and she goes:
“I still think your hair would look better straight.”
And just as I was about to say, “Lawd Jesus, just go on ‘head and take me now,” my host cousin swept in with, “No, you missed the point. You thinking straight is better and prettier is just all in your head. You saying that is proving her point.”
Truth is that isn’t the first time someone has said that to me in Peru (or in America for that matter) and I know it will happen again because although Black women wearing their natural hair is more popular and more visible than ever, cultures all around the world still put the European standard of beauty on a pedestal – that’s just the world we live in, unfortunately. The best I can do is stay level headed and try my best to explain why, as Black woman from the United States, embracing and loving my natural hair is bien importante to me.
If you want to read another Peace Corps natural hair story – check this one out here. Made my little heart as warm as a Krispy Kreme doughnut straight off the conveyor belt.