How White Beauty Standards Changed My Relationship With My Curly, Middle-Eastern Hair

Curly Hair Deena

I’m wearing my hair curly today, and every few minutes I touch the curls in various spots to make sure that they’re tame, calm. When I pass by a window, I quickly glance at my reflection to check that the curls aren’t too big or frizzy. My shadow on the sidewalk deceives me, and I wonder if my hair really looks that wild.

The idea of leaving my hair down and curly terrifies me. I ask myself if I even like curly hair at all, and I have to check the insecurities that have built up over the years, much of them tied to race and white standards of beauty, ideas passed down from society, the media, and my own mother. I am Egyptian, and my hair is undoubtedly Egyptian as well. For much of society, hair is a marker of beauty and femininity. We’re inundated by ads for hair products, all claiming to boost volume and shine, and white women with long, luscious locks that are usually blonde or light brown appear on our television screens as they wave their perfectly styled hair back and forth, telling us all they did was use shampoo and conditioner.

Deena ElGenaidi

My hair has never looked like the hair in those TV commercials. For starters, my hair is dark. It’s black, but growing up, I believed my mom when she told me it was dark brown, and anytime someone said I had black hair, I’d grow offended, as though the darker the hair, the less attractive you were. My mom tells me that when I was in pre-school, I said I wanted “yellow” hair, and she had to convince me that my natural hair color was pretty on its own. My Barbies all had long, straight, blonde hair, and I truly believed that was the ideal of beauty. Now, I know that that’s nonsense, but it’s telling that even at such a young age, the shame and insecurity I felt was already so pervasive that I wanted different hair — the hair of a blonde, white girl. Today, I am comfortable with the color of my hair, though I still can’t shake the insecurity I feel towards my curls. They are unpredictable and prone to frizz, lacking the silky smooth texture you can just run your fingers through without getting them caught in a web of tangles.

With my "yellow" hair barbies / Deena ElGenaidi

I’ve been straightening my hair since middle school and haven’t worn my hair down and curly since fifth or sixth grade. When I leave my hair curly, I almost always put it up in a bun or ponytail, keeping it tied back to maintain control. 

Growing up, no one ever taught me what to do with my curls.

 My mom would brush the tangles out after every shower, tugging at my wet hair as I winced in pain. When I’d stay with my dad, he would sometimes brush my already-dry hair, leading to a ball of frizz that no one could really tame. On those days at school, I spent my time focused on nothing else but how terrible and out of control my hair must look—not at all like the smooth, calm hair in magazine ads or on television. Today, I’m told that you should never brush curly hair. It stretches the curls and ruins the pattern.

Because I have Egyptian hair, my curls are not like those of a white person, but they’re also not like a black person’s curls. It’s difficult enough finding a hairdresser who knows how to deal with curls, let alone my Middle Eastern curls — thick, dark hair prone to a very specific type of frizz. Even most curly hair products found in stores are not made for my hair type, and it’s a matter of trial and error to figure out what works. When I was younger, my mom, tired of dealing with detangling, decided that my hair should be shorter. Even through high school, it was always her decision when I would get a haircut, despite my own resistance. In fifth grade, she told the hairdresser that I wanted shoulder-length hair, and the hairdresser, for some reason not realizing that curly hair shrinks when it dries, cut my hair shoulder length wet. When my hair dried and reached just below my ears, I cried, wishing I’d never listened to my mom about cutting my hair. Not only did I have un-tameable black curls, but now my locks would never be as long as those of the Barbie dolls and the models I saw on TV.

Before school the next day, my mom decided on a style where she put bobby pins in one side of my hair, keeping that side back and out of my face and the other side free. It looked okay in the morning, but as time passed, my hair grew bigger and frizzier on the non-bobby-pinned side. I found myself patting it down consistently throughout the day, mortified at my own reflection and counting down the hours until school ended. As I boarded the school bus that afternoon, a girl I sort of knew said, sarcastically, “Nice hair.” I didn’t say anything and quickly turned to sit in a row by myself. I leaned my head against the window for the remainder of the bus ride, hoping that the pressure between my head and the glass would tame my hair somewhat. When I arrived home, I told my mom of how awful my hair looked the entire day, and she responded with a chuckle, not taking what at the time felt like trauma at all seriously. Today, she says she remembers making me cut my hair short only once, thinking it would look cute, but afterwards felt terrible, as the haircut didn’t go as planned. My mom made me cut my hair short more than once, but I wonder if this incident in fifth grade is the one she’s referring to.

Mom in the 1980s / Deena ElGenaidi

In seventh grade, my mom decided to straighten my hair with her curling iron. It took her almost an hour, and when I looked in the mirror at the finished product, I almost couldn’t believe that was the same head of hair. I’d never received so many compliments as I had that next day in school, and it only confirmed what I’d already feared — curly hair didn’t look good. That lasted a few days until I had to wash my hair again, and it went back to curly. From then on, my mom would straighten my hair every week, so some days I went curly and other days straight. Her willingness and insistence on hair straightening only heightened my insecurities. Rather than learn how to style curly hair, my mom decided that straightening was the best option, although today she says that I’m the one who refused to style my hair curly, not her. But she straightened her own hair and dyed it a lighter color, too — a blondish red that isn’t natural in Egyptian women. This again confirmed for me that my natural hair was unmanageable and unattractive. Even with straight hair, though, I never left my hair completely down, keeping it usually in a half ponytail. My anxiety was too deep by then to just let my hair loose.

At some point in high school, my mom decided that I needed a perm. For those that don’t know, a perm for people with straight hair means getting big, '80s curls. However, for naturally curly hair, a perm is meant to soften the curls, or, according to my mom at the time, straighten the curls entirely. I was fourteen or fifteen, and though I typically felt more confident with straight hair, I vehemently protested this decision. I was fine with temporary straightness, but deep inside felt that putting chemicals in my hair to change the look was a form of giving in. At the time, I would not have been able to articulate what I was giving in to, but now I understand it as a giving in to society, society’s ideals of beauty, and my own mother who fully embraced those ideals.

Me & my mother with straightened hair / Deena ElGenaidi

Despite my protests, my mom took me to the hair salon, anyway. I remember the place now as dimly lit, with brownish walls and floors, though thinking back, I doubt that’s how it looked at all. Maybe my memory merely reflects my mood at the time. The hairdresser began her work, and we were there for what felt like hours. When she finally finished, I looked in the mirror, and my hair, to my relief, remained unchanged. The hairdresser and my mom were both confused, but the hairdresser herself seemed to like the look of my curls, even running her fingers through them to give them more volume. The perm clearly did not work. I went home that day quite satisfied with the result, and my mom continued to straighten my hair with her curling iron. When I bring up this perm fiasco today, she claims to have no memory of ever making me get a perm in the first place. A part of me, even back then, resented her for it. 

Though I wanted straight hair, it felt like she was forcing me to fit into a specific beauty ideal and that my natural hair would never be good enough. 

I wanted to keep the curls because I hoped that one day I would be able to confidently own them. Throughout high school, my mom continued to straighten my hair with her curling iron, and because she was the one doing the work, she insisted that I keep my hair short, allowing the process to take less time. Because of this, my hair never went below the shoulders.

Me with straight hair / Deena ElGenaidi

When I went off to college, I had my own flat iron, and I continued to straighten my hair myself. As my hair grew longer, my mom no longer around to make me cut it, I became more confident. It was beginning to look like the hair on TV — long, smooth, soft. Eventually, I took out the half ponytail and wore my hair completely down. I finally had the hair I wanted, but it wasn’t natural, and it took almost an hour of work each time. When my hair wasn’t straightened, I continued to tie the curls back in a ponytail, nowhere near confident enough to attempt wearing it curly and down. And how could I have been when my entire life I’ve been told that curls were unmanageable? When every image I’d see in the media promoted sleek, straight hair?

Recently, I asked my mom about her own hair, trying to determine if she felt a similar insecurity herself. She tells me that she isn’t insecure about her curls. She likes her curls, but she doesn’t like frizz. It’s the frizz that bothers her.

“You straighten your hair a lot,” I say on the phone.

“Not anymore,” she says. “Not since I started keratin treatment.”

“To straighten your hair…” I say.

She says no, the treatments don’t straighten her hair — they merely eliminate frizz. She doesn’t like the frizz. I move on from this, knowing full well that the treatment is meant to loosen the curls, eliminating frizz by making your hair less curly. Instead, I ask my mom if she straightened her hair as a kid, too. She says yes. She grew up in Egypt and tells me that everyone in Egypt used to straighten their hair.

“In Egypt, if you have curly hair, you’re ugly. You have to have straight hair.” She pauses. “Well, not ugly.”

My mom tells me that Egyptians want to be white. Western beauty ideals permeated Egyptian culture, even in the ‘70s, and women did all they could to conform. In order to fit into what society deemed beautiful, my mom began straightening her own hair in high school. I ask her, too, why she dyes her hair a lighter color, and she says it’s to better hide the grays. Perhaps that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that her hair no longer looks Egyptian, and I recognize in my mom the same hair anxiety I’d felt all my life.

My own curls are thicker and fuller than my mom’s, and every day, they behave differently. Curls are unpredictable. On some days, my hair looks more wavy than curly, and on other days, the curls are tight, frizzy, and out of control. It depends on the weather, the shampoo I use, and I suppose my hair’s mood at any given moment.

My former roommate has curly hair, and in telling her of my experiences growing up, she nods along, telling me of her own shared experience. When we first became friends, she straightened her hair most of the time, but now she wears it curly more often than not. She tells me that I need to experiment with different products. It took me a while, but I finally listened to her. The first time I wore my hair curly, I noticed that the ends of my hair were straight. Something looked odd about hair that’s curly from the roots right up to about three inches from the ends. I researched why this might be, and most articles I found spoke of heat damage, which makes sense. I also have pretty terrible split ends, and I know that’s caused by heat damage as well. I worry that when I’m older, my hair will be frail and weak, damaged and broken from all the times I’ve run a flat iron over it.

 I tell myself that I need to finally embrace my curls. I need to make my hair healthy again.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of friends tell me to wear my hair curly, that they wished they had curly hair. I’ve even had friends scold me for straightening my hair, saying that I was causing permanent damage, that I was trying to be white, that I probably looked better with curly hair. When complaining about split ends and hair damage, I had a friend tell me that I should cut my hair short in order to grow new, healthy curls — practical advice, I suppose. But it’s usually people with straight hair that provide me with this unsolicited advice. They have not lived with this deep sense of insecurity since childhood, so it’s easy for them to tell me how to wear my hair. It’s easy when you’ve lived your whole life with hair that fits neatly into society’s beauty standards to claim that curly hair is wonderful. Those people have lived a life generally unburdened by hair anxiety. Even when they intentionally go against the traditional beauty norms of long, straight hair, it’s cute and edgy. They can rebel against hair norms because they’ve been blessed with the privilege of hair that fits into the standard of beauty — a privilege I don’t have as a person of color with naturally curly hair. I’ve been anxious and insecure my entire life. I’m not about to add to that by chopping my hair off or wearing it in ways that go against societal norms, though I fully support women who are able to do so.

I’ve left my hair down while curly a few times this past summer. Few enough that I can probably count the number using one hand. I’m not ready to stop straightening my hair entirely, and maybe I never will be. It takes me under thirty minutes now. I like how my hair looks straight, and I still feel better about myself with straight hair. I will probably never cut my hair short. However, it’s important to recognize the problematic ideas that society and my own childhood have ingrained in me. As I work to break down my hair insecurity and accept that I don’t have hair that fits into white beauty standards, I might in the end learn to embrace my own curls.

My mom and I end our hair conversation with her saying, “You need to take vitamins for your hair. Your hair is really thinning, and you’re too young for that.”

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