Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
“I’m so sick of seeing photos of your pube-like hair and sh*tty lipstick.”
Out of a short anonymous message berating me for being both a “bad” feminist and journalist, it was that specific description that glared back at me.
The message was to be intentionally cruel and pointedly personal.
Socially, pubes are unwanted and undesirable. As women we are bombarded by the narrative — from magazine articles to advertisements — that our pubic hair is something to be banished.
(Just look at the stats: Out of 3,316 women surveyed, 85 percent removed their pubic hair in some way. While 59 percent said they removed their pubic hair for hygienic purposes, 31.5 percent said they removed their pubic hair because it was “more attractive”).
So by saying my hair was like pubic hair, they were making a point that my hair was also offensive to look at — that I should feel ashamed of its natural state.
As most women who have any semblance of social media presence know, and more so for those of us in media, being subjected to trolling is nothing new. I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of hate.
More often than not, however, I can laugh it off as the rantings of some unfortunate person.
But while I’m at ease with my curls at 32, it was a long journey of achieving this level of personal acceptance.
The idea that my hair is “undesirable” was a belief I grew up with
My earliest memories of my hair almost always include physical or emotional discomfort in some form.
The male classmate who asked me whether my hair down there matched what was on my head. The hairdresser who berated me, as I sat in the salon chair, for neglecting the back of my head as they cut out chunks that had turned to dreads.
The numerous strangers — so often women — who felt themselves justified in touching my hair because they “just wanted to see if it was real.”
And those times when classmates had literally stuck random things into my curls as I sat in class.
Though my relatives insisted that I would learn to appreciate what genetics had blessed me with, there was still an unspoken gap between myself and the women in my family.
While my father and I shared the same tight curls, every woman in my family sported dark, wavy Eastern European locks. Though family photos made clear the disparity between me and my female relatives, it was their lack of understanding in how to care for hair like mine that really drove home the difference.
And so I was more or less left to figure things out on my own.
The result was often frustration and tears. My hair also played a huge role in exacerbating my many body-related anxieties, which would only get worse as I got older.
Yet looking back, it’s not at all surprising the effect my hair had on my mental well-being.
Research has shown time and time again that body image and mental health are linked. And I went to great lengths to make my hair less noticeable, to try and counteract my bodily hang-ups.
I emptied bottles and bottles of Dep gel to keep my curls as flat as possible. Most of my pictures from late high school look like I’d just stepped out of the shower.
Anytime I wore a ponytail, I would meticulously flatten the baby hairs that lined the edge of my scalp. They would nearly almost always pop back up to form a line of crunchy corkscrews.
There was even one truly desperate moment where I turned to my friend’s parent’s iron while getting ready for a semi-formal. The smell of burning hair still haunts me today.
Growing “up” only brought more opportunities for vulnerability and pain
When I began dating, the process opened up a new set of bodily anxieties.
Because I’m prone to expect the worst, I spent ages preempting all the different, mortifying, and very plausible situations that could happen — many of which were linked to my hair.
We’ve all read the numerous anecdotes about people being body shamed by their partner — the one person who, in theory, is supposed to love you, for you.
In my formative years, before the golden era of social media and think pieces, these stories were shared among friends as guidelines on how to act and be accepted. And I was very much aware of them, which didn’t help with my own anxieties.
I couldn’t stop myself from imagining my partner having a similar reaction to seeing my unkempt, out-of-control, first thing in the morning type hair for the first time.
I imagined a scene where I asked someone out, only to have them laugh in my face because… who could possibly date a woman who looked like me? Or another scene, where the guy tried to run his fingers through my hair, only to get them tangled in my curls, played out like a comedy slapstick routine.
The thought of being judged this way terrified me. Though this never stopped me from dating, it did play a huge role in exacerbating how acutely insecure I was about my body while in my more serious relationships.
Entering the work force also gave me more reason to stress. The only hair styles I had seen that were labeled “professional” looked nothing like what my hair could replicate.
I worried that my natural hair would be considered inappropriate in a professional setting.
To date, this has never been the case — but I know this is likely down to my privilege as a white woman.
(I’m equally aware that many people of color in professional settings have had vastly different experiences and are more likely to be penalized for their hair than their white counterparts.)
Bending for beauty is not pain. It’s hell.
It would take four years of flat ironing before I entered the harsh world of chemical relaxants.
I can still remember my first perm: staring at my reflection, dumbstruck, while I ran my fingers through my strands without a single snag. Gone were the wild springs that shot out of my scalp and in their place, perfectly sleek strands.
At 25, I had finally achieved the look that I so desperately craved: ordinary.
And for a while, I was genuinely happy. Happy because I knew I had managed to bend a part of my physicality to fit the standards society set as “aesthetically beautiful.”
Happy because I could finally have sex without scrambling to pull my hair back so I didn’t feel unattractive. Happy because, for the first time in my life, strangers didn’t want to touch my hair — I could go out in public and simply blend in.
For two and a half years, it was worth putting my hair through extreme trauma and feeling my scalp burn and itch from the chemicals. But happiness when achieved through such superficiality often has its limits.
Looking back, I can now only describe that experience as hell.
I hit my limit while working in Abu Dhabi. I had just begun a new role at the big regional English language newspaper and was in the women’s toilets when I overheard two colleagues talking. One had the exact same natural hair as I once did and the other remarked to her how amazing her hair looked.
And she was right.
Her hair did look incredible. It was a mirror image of my former hair: wild, tight coils cascading over her shoulders. Only she seemed entirely at ease with hers.
I felt a wave of regret crash over me as I recounted the time and energy I had spent loathing the very thing I was now admiring. For the first time in my life, I missed my curls.
From that moment, I would go on to spend the next two and a half years growing out my hair. Admittedly there were times when I was tempted to revert back to chemical straightening because my hair genuinely looked awful.
But this growth was so much more than physical. So I resisted.
I also decided to do my homework by reading up on natural hair blogs. I have many of these beautiful women to thank, along with the countless women I’ve struck up conversations with in public, all of whom have helped me learn how to care for my hair.
Thinking back to my former self and how I would have reacted to a comment that compared my curls to “pubic hair,” I know I would have been distraught.
But a small part of me would have also felt the comment was merited — that somehow, because I was unable to conform to prescribed beauty standards, I deserved this awfulness.
This is a devastating realization.
Now, however, though the comments were no less hurtful, I am at a point where I can clearly see that their choice of words were pinning me against societal beauty expectations.
By learning to ignore these toxic standards, I am able to tune out comments like these — both from others and my own self-doubt — and instead, I can now be at ease with all of what makes me, me, from my sh*tty lipstick to natural hair.
Ashley Bess Lane is an editor turned freelancer turned editor. She is short, opinionated, a lover of gin, and has a head full of useless song lyrics and movie quotes. She’s on Twitter.