{Maria Clara Speaks} I Am My Hair

Maria Clara Speaks is a sub-blog for my master’s thesis project, containing personal reflections and recollections pertaining to the research on the Maria Clara archetype. This is also where I will share some embarrassing stories about my life.

[Originally written on August 29, 2017; video recorded November 3, 2019.]



[Video description: No audio included. Snapchat filter applied: sparkles in the air, hair of the young woman is colored purple, heavy eyelashes are applied to her eyes. Young woman is looking into the camera, sweeps hair on one side to frame her face. She winks and smiles at the end.]

For more than 10 years, I had lied to people about who I am. It was a lie that often went unnoticed because it was something that could not easily be identified. It was taken for granted, and no one questioned if I was hiding the truth. But if you have not seen me in person for a while, then you ought to be surprised when I tell you: My hair was a lie; I do not have naturally straight hair.

I was born with wavy hair. Like, flattened curls the day after attending a formal gala. Like, shiny black waves that look faintly silver under fluorescent light. Like, my father’s hair in his youth, but kept short.

My hair resists plastic combs and brushes, elastic hair ties, headbands, hair spray/gel, and hats. There is that one baby hair that refuses to stay tucked under a few strands, whenever I put my hair in a ponytail or bun; it always sticks out and announces itself. My hair never stays put, no matter how many times I fuss over how it should be styled.

It was the one thing that I was always dissatisfied with about my body (besides being skinny and light-skinned). Because of that, I had spent more than 10 years hating the one thing that I should have been more appreciative.

There is this joke among our family about which genes my brother and I inherited from our parents. My mother had naturally straight hair; old photographs from her college and midwifery school graduations showed my mother with long, straight black hair. My brother inherited this trait from my mother, as evident in his high school professional photos: a super short bowl-cut that was parted in the middle. In his senior year, my brother decided to shave his head for the fashion show he participated in at school. He maintained a shaved head for many years.

I used to berate him for wasting such a “good gene” because I was stuck with the “curly hair gene”, which I inherited from my father (who has been balding since before I was born). Even if it was in a joking manner, simply calling my curly hair gene “undesirable” meant I was ashamed of my father’s phenotypical legacy. Who was to say that curly hair was “ugly”?

I did not like having thick, wavy my hair because it did not look like the silky, straight hair that the other Asian American girls had. At school, in public areas, even in the media. Growing up, there was very limited Asian representation in media–most notably, a lack of Filipinos. Whenever a female Asian person came up on screen, she usually had silky, straight hair. Never have I seen any of these women with hair like mine, and it made me feel resentful. I was not as “beautiful” as other Asian women and girls because of my hair.

In 6th grade, I was often called “The Grudge” or “that girl from ‘The Ring’” (mainly referring to the American remakes but no doubt also referring to the original Japanese films–an Asian girl with long black hair covering her face) whenever I wore my hair down. Those comments really bothered me, among other things, which made me more self-conscious about my appearance.

When I was 13 years old, I begged my mother to take me to the hair salon to have my hair straightened. It became a recurring thing: whenever we had a party or special event to attend, I would always go to the salon with Mom so that I could get my hair done at the same time as she did. It got to the point where the hair stylist had to teach me how to use the hair straightener so that I could style my hair on my own instead of spending so much money at the salon.

Throughout middle school, high school, and college, I would designate my own “hair days” in which I would wash my hair, towel-dry and air-dry it (my scalp was very sensitive to heat, so I never used a hair dryer at home), and finally straighten it for about half an hour. The whole process took 2-3 hours, depending on my schedule. But I was always adamant to set aside time for this specific ritual, in order to keep up with the appearance that I was another Asian girl with beautiful straight black hair.

At one point in my preteen years, I went to a hair salon in Queens, run by Filipino women. I do not remember the exact name or location of the salon, but it was the only one that my mother knew about that did the Japanese hair straightening treatment. Desperate to obtain that desired look of other Asian girls with long, shiny straight black hair, I sat through the long process of having certain products placed on my scalp and hair. (It took a long time, mainly because the stylist was fixated on a Filipino game show broadcasting on the TV, while the other women made chismis.) The result of the salon visit was having some damage on the top of my head, where I lost a few strands because whatever product was used, was left on my scalp for too long… I remember feeling fuzz on the top of my head, which I oddly liked the feeling of it on my fingertips.

The day before I graduated from college, I decided to do “the major chop”. I went back to the salon and asked for a pixie cut. It felt liberating to cut off long strands of the hair I kept trying to tame under concentrated heat. The weight of my hair felt lighter, and it felt like the back of my neck could breathe! By the time the stylist was finished, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw how “pogi” I was with my new hair. This was going to be my clean slate: I swore to never touch a hair straightener again; my hair was going to be its natural self, because it deserves that much from me, the one that tried to deny its beauty.

As I was undergoing my “Filipino awakening”, I was inspired by the natural hair movement that emerged among Black women in the past few years. Embracing your heritage through your hair is revolutionary, especially in a society that makes you feel ashamed for not having aesthetically pleasing hair texture.

I began to learn to accept certain parts of myself that were deeply rooted in my heritage, my culture, and my genes. I inherited my wavy hair from my dad’s side of the family, while my mom’s side mostly have naturally straight hair.

My mother always told me, “Your hair is your crown. Wear it with pride.”

For so long, I resented having wavy hair. But now, I accepted these, what I call, “waves of resistance”. They resist the beauty standard of having straight locks.

When people compliment me on my hair, it makes me feel happy and relieved, after many years of resentment towards it. When they say, “You have beautiful hair,” to me, it sounds like, “I accept your true form.”

I leave you with this song that helped me to learn to love the one crown I will wear for my whole life:

I just want to be free.

I just want to be me.

I don’t want to change.

I don’t want to be ashamed.

I’m the spirit of my hair–

It’s all the glory that I bear.

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