I grew up in a culture where “Fair & Lovely” lightening cream and perm-straightening hair products’ commercials were all over tv screens and street billboards. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, beauty in the Middle East, or at least in Egypt, was often measured by how blonde a woman is. Most brunette women would dream of straight, silky hair, fair skin, and colored eyes. I remember how my classmates in high school used to wear colored lenses, highlight their hair and spend fortunes on lightening creams. As a result of the media and social pressure, I grew up despising my curly hair and olive skin. Because according to the Middle East beauty standards, I was not beautiful!
I still remember the tears I used to shed, in the bathroom, when I was a kid, every time my mother washed and combed my hair. It was like a battlefield. The neighbors used to hear us and sometimes would come knocking on our door to rescue me from my mother’s brutal combing. At times, I wondered if she was visualizing my coarse hair as a wild animal that needed to be tamed and conquered. I recall finishing up this weekly battle feeling exhausted and suffering from severe headaches.
Feeling so bad for me, my mother took on the first opportunity to relieve herself and me from such distress. One day, we were at the hair salon when my mother overheard the hairdresser talking about this hair treatment that would straighten the coarsest of hairs, and make it super silky. I could see the spark in her eyes. Immediately, my mom adjusted herself on the seat, straightened her back, and turned both ears on. The treatment was about this muddy-textured herbal paste that should be left on the hair for 24 hours, while wrapped in plastic bags until it got washed the following day. This treatment was to be done once a week for a whole month. My mother didn’t even bother to consult me. I was 13 years old. On the spot, she booked four appointments with the hairdresser. Every week, for a whole month, we would go to the hair salon on Friday night, where they put the hair paste on, wrap it in five-six grocery shopping plastic bags, dry the back of my neck with towels, as my hair was dripping, and send me home till I come back, same time, on Saturday. It was the worst four weeks of my life. I was mostly sick with a cold due to sleeping with wet, muddy hair on a weekly basis.
Little that I knew, my real worst days were ahead of me. Even though, after this treatment, my hair was straight and soft, it’s color drastically changed to pitch black. The straw that broke the camel’s back is when my original hair, espresso brown, started to grow. I ended up with half curly, espresso brown hair from the front and half straight, pitch-black hair from the back. No matter how many times I would swear my hair wasn’t dyed, no one believed me. I was in high school at the time; you may picture how bad it was. One day, I could not take justifying my hair color and look any longer. I grabbed the scissors from the kitchen cabinet, handed it to my mother, and asked her to chop it off. My hair was two feet long!
I cried over my hair for so long. I had never cut it before. I was always known for my long hair among family and friends. But I had no other choice. After this incident, I made a promise to myself; I won’t let anyone touch my hair, even if it was my mother, and regardless of her genuine intentions. However, at the same time, I didn’t have the guts to wear it naturally still. Natural is not favored where I grew up. Instead, I began the journey of straitening my hair with the flat iron. For fourteen years, I wore my hair straight. It was long, silky, and flattering. But it was not natural!
One day, I didn’t have time to do my hair, and I was forced to wear it curly. I remember how embarrassed I was that day. My eyes were fixed on the floor the entire time while at work. I was trying to avert looking at my co-workers in the eye. I thought everybody else had the same hair mindset; soft and silky is beautiful, curly and kinky is not! I was not feeling beautiful as I used to. In my head, I was blaming my parents, my genes, and where I was from. Amid these resentful, bitter thoughts, I heard a co-worker praising my hair. At first, I thought she was trying to be nice until almost everybody, in the office, shared the same reaction.
The hair that I was ashamed of had earned the admiration of whoever saw me that day. Definity, this gave me a boost. Since then, I was encouraged to wear my hair naturally more often. The more I received hair complements, the more confidence I gained. I started to research the web, educate myself, buy specialized products, and watch videos on how to take care of this frizz ball. In 2018, I stopped straitening my hair completely, and I have only worn it naturally ever since, except for a few times due to special occasions. No day passes by without people at work, on the street, in the mall, or wherever stop me to tell me how gorgeous my hair is. My hair had never received this much acknowledgment when I used to wear it straight. A lot of women would die for hair like mine, according to them. This coarse, curly, frizzy, unmanageable hair is to die for!
The lessons I have learned along this journey are way beyond my hair. They are much more profound than wearing it curly versus straight. This hair dilemma has taught me to love and accept myself the way I was created. I have learned that beauty is not subject to certain looks, if it should be by appearances at all. I have learned that humans are different across the globe, and our differences should bring beauty, strength, diversity, and unity. Beauty is also variable, not fixed. It differs from one individual to another. Every person is beautiful in his/her own way; because what God created is so beautiful, no matter what. If we were all to look the same, how we would have known what beauty is! And finally, I learned that no one nor culture should set expectations or dictate how to look or what to do in life.
For whoever is reading this; you are beautiful that way you are, the way God created you. Embrace this beauty and cherish your differences