comments 76

When I Accepted My Hair, I Accepted Myself

As I walk through the neighborhood I was born and raised in, I hear the word “pajonua” yelled at me from the mouths of old fashioned Dominican men. The Dominican slang word pajonua signifies a woman with messy and unruly hair.

As the daughter of a Dominican salon owner, my mother always took the time to “fix” my hair. Every morning before school she would wake up early and take up to 20 minutes putting my hair in a ponytail or doing some last minute straightening. Because my mother took so long fixing my hair in the mornings I rarely had time to eat breakfast, so every day I would go to school with my hair in a ponytail and my stomach growling. In my culture, having tamed hair is top priority. It is only now that we are witnessing some changes in the way we view curly hair. Change is coming because other cultures have started to acknowledge our Afro-Caribbean roots. However, we ourselves still have a long way to go.

When I was younger, my mother would always take her blow dryer with her every time we went to the Dominican Republic. It never made sense to me that after traveling to a hotter climate, we spent hours torturing ourselves by aiming hot air at our heads. The saddest part about this was that once my hair was straightened, I was not allowed to go into our beautiful waters. While my brothers enjoyed the beaches and lakes of the Caribbean, I sat and watched with the dreaded fear of having to sit under a dryer once again, should my hair touch water. My hair was my prison.

qv

There was one summer in particular where I was so against touching my hair that I did not go outside for 3 days. I was a hostage in my own home. This was all because my mother was adamant against me leaving the house without my hair being in a tight ponytail or having it straightened. When my hair was in a ponytail and a strand was out of place, it was as if I was hiding a secret from the world. I felt like a baby born with a tail in the middle ages. My mother would rush to me and pull out the hair gel, brush and bobby pins. The world must not know of the mess I was born with. The world must be kept safe from it all.

My hair was the first thing that made me feel like I did not belong. Not only did I not have European hair, but unlike other Dominican girls, I loathed the process of getting my hair straightened. I hated the way it looked when it was straight, I hated the daily rituals of maintenance and I hated the fact that I was separated from my brothers constantly and not allowed to enjoy my youth to the fullest extent. My hair was my first realization of the inequalities I would be facing for being a woman of African descent. Inequalities perpetuated by my own culture.

It is Dominican salon protocol that every woman washes her hair once a week. This wash includes three shampoo sessions, one deep conditioning treatment and a lot of heat. If you know anything about caring for curly hair, you know that you should never over-shampoo your hair. I have not shampooed my hair in months. Instead I pre-poo and co-wash my hair. Curly hair needs as much moisture as possible. This weekly wash stripped my hair of its moisture. Every time my hair dried without the aid of a dryer it immediately turned into tumbleweed. It was an endless cycle.

qv

Growing up, my hair was relaxed every year and straightened every month. As I got older I refused to have my hair straightened so my mother made me put it in a ponytail. My hair was rarely loose.

It was only after attending a university where white people made up 85% of the population that I began to embrace my curls. While attending New School University, a campus once described as a “vanilla school” with “very few sprinkles,” I felt like I was constantly having to stand up for my race. As someone who was looked down upon by her own culture for not liking the same music, dressing the same way or “fixing” her hair regularly, this was new to me. My existence alone has always been revolutionary. Being in a predominantly white school made me proud of my ancestry. Who would have thought? After years of feeling like I did not belong anywhere I began to finally be my full self. I began to embrace the clique that is me. After attending a school unaware and sometimes even just straight up ignorant about my racial identity, I realized that it was up to me to create my own identity. I realized that my butt is big and so is my hair. Why should I flaunt one thing and hide the other? That being Dominican, or human for that matter, is about being true to the best that is in you.

Whenever someone calls me pajonua, I now think of my frustrated social studies teacher in junior high. He was well aware of how much physiological harm us Dominicans are doing to ourselves by culturally suppressing our natural hair; in the way we accept and view each other. I remember him telling his students, “Whenever someone asks you if you are Hispanic, Latino or Spanish, if you ever feel any confusion, just know that one thing that you are for a fact is Afro-Caribbean and you should accept and love this fact.”

My hair did not need taming, it needed to be understood, accepted and loved much like a misunderstood child. It was with accepting my hair that I came to unconditionally love and accept myself.

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76 Comments

  1. B

    Amazing blog post! Your hair is poetry. I saw a post on instagram this morning that said “my mood depends on how good my hair looks.” #nope. Sometimes my mood is best when my hair looks like shit, because there’s a good chance I had a good night’s sleep or a really fun time.

    I like to subscribe to the idea that hair is the antennae to our mind and intuition.

    When I stopped bleaching my hair and let my natural color shine through for the first time in a decade, I realized how precious nature is when it’s growing out of my mind.

    – from the girl with the flattest (natural) hair and flattest ass in Texas, Blair

    • Thank you soo much for sharing! I love your wording. YOU are poetry. I agree completely. We feel our best when it is all natural. 🙂

  2. Beautifully written and you have beautiful hair. I understand your story too as I had a similar issue before. Continue to embrace it all 🙂

  3. Melissa k

    This is something that has bothered me for a long while, why are curls thought of as messy or “untamed”? Why do haircare commercials use models with beautiful natural curl as the ” before ” picture? It doesn’t make sense.

    • Very true Melissa. There was many ways in which American Culture in it’s subtleties degrades anything that is different from the norm. It’s a shame.

  4. beastjones

    Im sorry for what you went through and Im proud of your strength to break free from the negative brainwashing. Its time we wash ourselves with some Positive Love soap. – BEAST

  5. Smudgey Paw

    Amazing. I love hearing the cultural backstory and find it a funny juxtaposition to growing up a white girl with straight hair which my mom was always trying to curl. At some point in my early teens I stopped the chemical-induced, curling madness she put me through regularly, and while I have a deep love and desire for the beautiful curls a girl like you has I’m much happier just living with what I’ve got! Great post and insight!

    • Thank you for reading and sharing your story! I think it is natural for most of us when we are younger to not appreciate what we have. I’m happy we have both learned to love our hair. 🙂

  6. Hi,

    I actually enjoyed this piece.

    I too did not learn to swim because at a young age I had a perm, and that hindered me from swimming. Chlorine and perm and our hair wasn’t a good combination. As an adult I am here addressing my pain through poetry and I posted one on youtube (jenspoetryden) called Nature at it’s Best

    So glad I am following you.

    Good read.

    Have a great weekend.

    Jennifer

    • Thank you for reading Jennifer! When something like hair stops you from achieving your highest potential something has to change mentally. Lovely Poetry!

  7. AMAZING Blog!
    It always fascinates me that we allow our perception of what is attractive, to be dictated by someone else’s preference. If we do not meet the standard we go to extreme lengths to try to transform into something we are not. Someone’s opinion is just that, their opinion, and for every ten people that agree, there will be ten people that don’t.

    I am unsure who it is that decided that curly hair is not currently ‘beautiful’, but I am happy to say that in my 30th year I have finally decided, that I will not longer torture my hair with straighteners, chemicals full of false promises and hair brushes!

    Not only have I began to love the fact my hair requires such little maintenance, it is truly empowering to embrace exactly who you are, what you look like and love it!

    It creates a complete buzz to love something you have been trying so hard to hide.

    And to let you know my opinion, final comment and my personal preference, which is not intended to sway the masses to only see beauty through my eyes – You truly have the most incredible hair!

  8. Wow what an awakening Ana! And to think of all places it took happened at a predominantly white school, how ironic. I love the fact that you are embracing YOU! period. In general if you love and embrace your hair, ethnicity, body, whatever it is then love and embrace it…not that it matters but that self love and confident representation will have others drawn to love and embrace it too.

    Even if you preferred your hair straight that would be fine to, as long as it was what you wanted and you weren’t trying to fit in or shamed into pleasing anyone else. Thanks for sharing Ana, this is a great post. And by the way I love the look of your curls;=) au Naturel ;=)

    Be A Blessing!

    LaTrice

  9. I have curly hair well. While I didn’t go the lengths you went to keep it straight, I know what it is to wake up in the morning and see a mass of curls.

  10. symonae

    Loved reading this article. I wish I knew why any thing else but straight hair seems hated on by my family. I may just have to tell them that they should be grateful they don’t have to deal with it.

  11. Miss Tee

    “My hair was my prison” OMG that line hit me. Cuz I felt that way almost my whole life. Too much humidity , a drop of rain, the pool, the beach even sweating too much .. Everything was a no for me. The washing then blowdrying process I dreaded it so much! Even though I didn’t want to sit on the side lines while everyone else enjoyed the water , I preferred it over wash day FOR SURE. I had a loooooot of hair growing up im not afro latina, but I had what i call “growing hair” . This post i really connected with. THX

  12. Love this! As a Dominican/Chinese from Washington Heights, I too have a similar view on how acceptance of hair is so vital. My whole life, I wasn’t sure where I belonged and my hair definitely displayed this . My nickname in my family: Pajona.

    • Thank you for sharing Christine! Same with me. I am the Pajonua. I was born and raised in Washington Heights. It is one of the best places to live. ❤

  13. I have curly hair, boy do I understand!:D
    Most of all I loved this line.. ‘Embracing the clique that was me’
    🙂

  14. Descent

    Your hair is beautiful! …As well as just about everything else. 😉

    My niece is half-black with hair very similar to yours and I’ve often witnessed my sister straightening her curls in order to give her pigtails or whatever, much to the poor little girl’s agony. I never understood how the hell she rationalized doing it with how painful it clearly was. I always felt like, what the hell are you teaching her? That if she ever wants to be attractive and presentable it’s gonna hurt?! I guess it’s tough though, when you’re only six and the other kids in your predominately white school are already making fun of you for being the “brown girl”. At least she and her siblings are being homeschooled now though. Goddamn.

    • Wow, Thank you!! That is very sad to hear. The crazy part is that by trying to fit in that causes for more reason for the child to be made fun off. If she shows how proud she is of herself then others will follow and if they dont then she’ll at least have the confidence to rise above it.

      • Descent

        Luckily she’s pretty good at reassuring herself that they’re all full of shit, but it still has an effect. Hopefully, at the very least, it will teach her to be more single-minded than most of the other kids since she had to rely so much more heavily on affirming herself. It’s crazy though, she’s freaking gorgeous! Like when you can already tell a seven year old is going to have modeling potential. That gorgeous. It’s strange that being the odd one out can either make you more attractive for some kind of “exoticness”, or less so for not fitting into what you’re peers have been socialized to perceive as attractive. Goes to show how truly subjective it all is.

      • That’s beautiful!! I have friends who were home schooled for various reasons and they are very cool people with the ability to think outside of the mob mentality. I wish her the best of luck. Although she might not need it 🙂

  15. Pingback: When I Accepted My Hair, I Accepted Myself | moven5's Blog

  16. I LOVE your hair!!! Going natural was one of the most liberating decisions I’ve ever made. It did more than start a new chapter in my life, it created a whole new genre of a book. Many blessings to you!

  17. I like the unruly look better. It has character.

    My roots were French Canadian, Irish and other European NOS. Very fine fly-away hair and a sensitive scalp were the result. Hair easily slipped out of a pony tail, so my mother kept it short during most of my childhood. I was jealous of dark women with black hair who could fashion a hair style and keep it that way for a week without a hair going out of place.

    I have to wonder why there are ways in every culture that serve only to bind women. There needs to be a balance.

  18. Curls rule. Many with straight hair envy us. Stopped blow drying my hair years ago because in the summer humidity it would only ‘grow’ and I simply got tired of trying to tame it. Always embrace those curls. It’s wash ‘n wear!

  19. As the father of a 2-year-old biracial girl (and the son of an Afro-Panamanian woman who would have cheered your mother on–the hot curling iron on the stove is one of the enduring images of my childhood), thanks for this. When my girl gets older, I’m going to have her read this, and reread it every few years as an innoculation.

    • Wow, this means the world to me. I hope that your daughter does not have to endure as much as I did. The world is becoming more accepting of natural afro-beauty. You have made my day. I wish you and your daughter the best.

  20. Isn’t life strange. My hair is so straight. I was forever told that it had no pigment and needed a body wave. But, whenever I relented (I knew from experience that it would not accept a gentle wave (such as I always wanted) but it would react to any waving by going totally kinky. There was no half-way. Now that I have accepted straight hair, young student stylist can do what they like with it (other than a perm) and I leave the salon in a glorious head of style, but only until I am out of sight of the salon (a training salon). Then, my hair seems to say, “Now can I go straight?” and immediately does so, with or without my permission.
    Perhaps women have more of a problem than men in accepting and learning to love their hair and body (I won’ t even go there). Our forms were designed for some reason beyond my understanding. Perhaps it’s to teach us that we are more than our body but, since it is ours, we should use it to express our inner essence through it, suspecting that we may have chosen the body and the community we were born into, to help us become aware that it doesn’t change our personality – it can only distort it, for a while.
    I’m glad you’ve come to take pride in being who you are. After all, how could you be anyone else?

  21. I myself am of Greek descent. Growing up, I had very curly hair. I loved my curls, especially because they were in style when I was going to middle school and high school back in the 1980’s. My classmates never had a problem with it, but my father did. He always wanted me to straighten my hair and wear it pulled back into a ponytale, because that was how the daughter of one of his friends at our church wore it. Her hair was naturally straight. My father thought she was the best of all the girls in the world. He considered her to be better than me. If that wasn’t bad enough, he wanted me to be an exact replica of her, going as far as using force to make me style my hair exactly like hers. Straight and pulled back in a ponytail. He didn’t approve of my curly hair, because I was told that nice girls didn’t wear their hair the way I did. The more I rebelled against him and his ignorance, the more I was tortured and punished by him. I stressed the importance of my being an individual with my own personality. I also told him that no two people were alike. However, he only got more infuriated. If I didn’t comply to his wishes and demands, he often would chop off my curls, making my hair short. I hated short hair, and like you I hated having my hair straight. I wanted to be me. Everytime he chopped off my curls to punish me, I felt I was losing a part of myself. When I got away from him and my mother, I wore my hair the way I wanted to wear it, and proudly. It is important for people to be proud of who they are, not to hide themselves from the world. No one should be made to feel inferior to the world, just because their hair is a certain way.

    • Wow, This is a very interesting story. You should write more about your experience. Thank you sooo much for sharing!!! Such a strong person you are.

      • I might just do that. Thank you so much. it was my pleasure to share my experience. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement.

      • Yes, please do so. I am sure other people would benefit from hearing your story, I would love to hear more about it as well.

  22. geekylola

    I loved reading this post because, growing up as a mixed girl in a black community, I completely understand feeling like my curly hair was bad. “Nappy” that’s the word most often used to signify the distaste for curls. So they put on weave and slather on perms or texturizers, and buy the best straighteners they can find. For me, being so young and constantly being to I had “good hair” because it was easy to straighten, it “held heat” as they say, I hated when my hair was natural. I went through perms and terturizers and destroyed my hair to have it look straight. I recently cut it all off and went natural. I find that my hair is more beautiful now than it ever was with all the crap my mother and aunt put in it. I don’t blame them because they were raised the same way I was. But I do blame myself because before I let them influence my opinion of me I used to love the spring of my curls. That spring is coming back, and with each passing day I feel so excited to see it grow. And I just want to thank you for sharing because a lot of girls out there, girls like me and you, grew up thinking their curls were ugly and it’s wonderful to hear someone telling them that our parents and cultures are wrong about that. Curl or straight, our hair is beautiful.

    • Thank you! Our parents did not like their hair, because they were heavily influenced by Europeans ideal of beauty. Now we get to write the rules and love ourselves. Culture should be pride of all that we are, not re-living the slavery days where we were less than.

  23. Hello!
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my latest post. 🙂
    2. Love you hair! I also had moments in my life where I wished my “unruly”, “frizzy” hair would be different, but now, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    Keep smiling, laughing, and living!
    Sie ma!
    Julia

  24. Pingback: embracing my curls | with love, Gina

  25. So happy that through accepting your hair, you accepted and started loving yourself. Isn’t it a beautiful feeling? More power to you! Thank you for visiting my blog and liking one of the posts.

  26. Pingback: Building Communities: Afro-Latino Fest & Curlfest |

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