It’s Hairy: A Short Memoir of Ethnicity, Otherness, and Self-Acceptance
About the series: It’s Hairy
Hair is one of those things that’s always, well, there, whether we like it or not. It grows, it shifts in color and texture, it pops up in places we don’t really mind for. But more importantly, it tells a story about who we are, whether previous childhood memories about it pave a complicated journey or current feelings towards our follicles say a lot more than just a hair style. It’s Hairy was created to encompass these complex stories for several identities: Black, trans, Middle Eastern, nonbinary, lesbian, and more. Each piece, written by the people who personally go through these hair journeys, tells a story of how hair is always about more than hair, where hair acts as a lens for diverse narratives, revealing that no hair journey is the same.
Below is Jade Hurley’s story, who inspired the beginning of the series, which will be shared in weekly installments • Cover collage courtesy of Emma D. for Rookie Magazine.
When I was three years old, we were assigned to make paper doll representations of ourselves. My small, curly, brown, short-haired self got to work making a pale-skinned, pink-skirted girl with long, straight blonde yarn hair, and no eyebrows. At the time, I was obsessed with Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, and having the silky, long blonde hair of my preschool peers—none of which even slightly resembled my Iranian-Italian look. I remember when I showed it to my mother, she was confused, saying, “But honey, this doesn’t look like you.” I fiercely insisted it did.
At age seven, I took it upon myself, after a ballet lesson where I realized I was the only one with a frizzy halo of baby hairs as a precursor to my bumpy ballet bun, to cut my baby hairs with craft scissors in my backyard. I proudly presented my cut, wispy hairs to my mom, happy I would never have to deal with them again, only to be met by the reality that they would only grow back, more stubbornly short and frizzy.
As I began to delve into the world of American Girl, I devoured “The Hair Book”, and tried to decide what hair texture I had from its pages—is it thick? Thin? Curly? Straight? I couldn’t truly see my difficult, mixed-texture hair in their glossy, bubblegum-pink images. I promptly decided it was thick and straight (it was neither), and began wrestling with my hairbrush and blow dryer every night.
At age nine, I had my first encounter with the all-powerful hair straightener, courtesy of my mom, who had begun regularly straightening her identical, Persian curls. I wanted to wear a high ponytail, like all the soccer girls did, but my hair was too bushy, and didn’t look like the silky, long ponytail I strived for. I would straighten my hair in order to put it into a high ponytail all day long, although after an hour in my foggy Northern California climate, it would go back to its bushy, messy self.
I remember sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the pavement in my blue basketball shorts, trying my hardest to position my arms to where no one would see my hairy legs.
During my first week of junior high P.E. class, somehow, every other girl got the memo that girls were supposed to shave their legs. My hairy self, and my equally hairy friend Laura, were the only girls in the class with a thick layer of dark, wooly hair. I remember sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the pavement in my blue basketball shorts, trying my hardest to position my arms to where no one would see my hairy legs. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. After the first week, Laura had shaved her legs. I was now the only one, and a red-faced pimply boy decided to point this out with a new, fun nickname—Sasquatch. When my mom picked me up from school that day, I sobbed in the car, begging her to let me shave my legs. Surprised at my dramatic reaction, she bought me a 12-pack of disposable razors, and that night—with no instruction—I had dolphin-smooth legs for the first time, as well as several chunks of my leg missing.
My eyebrows then became the center of my attention, as my wispy unibrow and naturally fluffy, thick eyebrows, signature of my Persian heritage, looked very different from the plucked clean, arched ones of my blonde, Anglo-Saxon peers. I began to hear whispers of “Frida Kahlo” and “caterpillar” from hairless girls in my classes, and I took it upon myself to find a way to at least remove the hair from the middle of my eyebrows, as my mother adamantly (and smartly) refused to let me touch my brows, for fear of me ruining their signature shape. Not understanding the value in shapely, thick eyebrows, I was left to my own devices, and took to pseudo-waxing with the end of a bandaid and shaving the middle with my razor, often nicking the sides of my eyebrows in the process.
As I entered high school, I only felt more pressure to remove, tame, and lessen the unruly hair on my body. I begin to straighten my hair everyday at 14, requiring me to wake up at 5:50 AM to get to school on time. On my fifteenth birthday, my mom finally allowed me to wax my eyebrows. I remember feeling upset afterwards, as even though my unibrow was finally gone, my eyebrows still looked thick. Simply waxing them would not make them look like the thin, white, arched brows I wanted. I realized I would never look “normal” like everyone else. I spent the rest of my high school career tweezing, waxing, chemically burning my skin to make my eyebrows look thinner, arch-ier, thick yet thin enough to still be “trendy.” I felt I could never win.
I spent the rest of my high school career tweezing, waxing, chemically burning my skin to make my eyebrows look thinner, arch-ier, thick yet thin enough to still be “trendy.” I felt I could never win.
As I danced over fifteen hours a week at this point, my hair became a problem in the walls of my studio and on my dance team. I was ridiculed by teachers and teased by my friends for my impossible hair texture. Being that it was thin, frizzy, and curly, I needed several clips in my hair to keep it back, which was a far cry from the smooth, easy ballet bun generations of the ballet blanc (or identical, all-Anglo-Saxon corps de ballet) had dictated was a requirement of ballerinas. The curly baby hairs that lined the front of my scalp irritated teachers, and come performance time, they didn’t understand how on earth hairspray couldn’t keep them down. The baby hairs that ran down the back of my neck were the subject of comments like “wolf hair,” “mouse fur,” and “neck-burns”; they ruined the perfect line of my ballet bun, and seeing them in my studio mirrors or in my dance photos would make my eyes tear up from their other-ness.
The inability of my hair to go from a ballet bun to completely down when changing numbers exasperated show runners, and I felt guilty, as it felt like everyone else’s hair easily cascaded down from their cinnamon roll bun. These feelings led me to straighten my hair for every show, load it down with hairspray and shine product, and wrestle with my hairbrush constantly, simply to look more like my straight-haired and mostly white friends. I even waxed my neck to remove those baby hairs when I was seventeen, and I cried and cried while the European Wax Center attendant tried to reduce the redness and unimaginable pain. My neck was raw for 48 hours, but hey, at least my bun during my senior dance solo was neck-hair-free, right?
After wearing my hair in a messy bun for two straight years at the end of high school—as with AP classes, dance, and everything else, I no longer had the freshman year energy to straighten my hair in the morning—I decided to do The Big Chop. At seventeen, I cut my hair to my shoulders, and decided not to straighten it anymore. I discovered and definitely overused coconut oil, and I dyed my hair darker brown to match my eyebrows after a comment from my nonna. I decided curly just might be cool, and I even wore my hair curly for my graduation. I was ready to be myself in college, and try to embrace my curls.
At nineteen, I feel I truly became myself, physically and emotionally. I began to embrace and encourage my own ethnic otherness, from my new appreciation for my appearance, to my increased desire to hear the immigration stories of my family. I discovered DevaCurl, and began my journey with finding curly girl products that embrace my true hair texture. I am still figuring it out, but now at twenty years old, my hair is growing, moisturized, and has not been straightened or brushed in two years. I grew my eyebrows out all summer after my freshman year of college, then went to a Pakistani threader in DC (Rana, check her out), who finally understood my brows. She told me I was lucky, and had beautifully shaped and thick eyebrows. I felt good about them, finally. I stopped waxing the baby hairs on my neck—because frankly, it fucking hurts—and I try not to get worked up about them when I see them in my mirror in my college dance studio. I encourage my mom to return to being a curly girl, despite her Japanese perm, and my little brother, who has the same mop as me, to use my products and keep moisturizing.
I now love being a curly girl, my eyebrows are my prized possession, I don’t really care about shaving my legs, and I know that the hair on my head and my body is imperative to my look. It shows people who I am, who my family is, and it makes me special. I am lucky to have such unruly, annoying, puffy, frizzy, thick, curly, beautiful, bouncy hair.
While conversations surrounding body hair and the hair on our head may seem tired at this point, we cannot ignore that womanhood, ethnicity, and hair are inextricably intertwined in our development as young women—especially as young, ethnically “other” women. My hair tells a story of otherness, of lack of belonging, of sadness, of feeling ugly. My hair also tells the story of the women before me; of women crossing seas, of women leading and learning despite their gender, ethnicity, or religion. My hair tells people who I am, and I am so lucky to have hair that will spring no matter what I do, eyebrow hair that will never stop growing back, leg and neck and arm hair that, frankly, keeps me warm in the winter. Women, specifically women of color, must continue to talk about the politics of their hair, as talking about hair means talking about us.
About the Author
Jade Hurley (she/her/hers) is a junior studying Political Communication and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the George Washington University. She is interested in the intersection of reproductive justice, feminist history, and digital media, and can usually be found either reading Comics for Choice or dreaming up new recipes to recreate.