My mom was 40 when I was born, and when I was in elementary school that felt to me like she was OLD! Add a few gray hairs on top of it, subtract zero role models for beautiful, vibrant women with grays and I begged my mom to dye her hair. For most of my childhood, she had hair like Snow White, the opposite of bleach bottle blonde, pure jet bottle black. I won’t go into the complex socioeconomic factors at play that made me beg for the style but, since home beauty and hair dying are part of Mexican culture, she was happy to do it.
Together, my mom and my sister gave me an irreplaceable gift as a girl: a shield of beauty standards armor. A force field that allowed me to deflect any criticism of my appearance (even as a tween) and use it against my foes. Even as an overweight 13 year old shopping in the “pretty plus” section, I felt impervious to kid cruelty and walked the middle school halls with earth-shattering confidence. On a Marine Biology field trip to Port Aransas, the cliche skinny tall popular Barbie brigade dared to say “haha look at Angie, she has back boobies!”. I instantly answered that it was better to have double than none and walked away hearing the bowling pins falling behind me. Huzzah!
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Even with my self-confidence at a 10, I couldn’t escape internalizing at least some media messages and a lot of them were about hair. I wore my curves in proud defiance of mainstream media, and wouldn’t process the lack of representation of Latinas until I became an aunt, and then of course mama, especially in regards to hair. When I looked at my beautiful niece’s curls bounce as she was learning to walk and run and soar, it started to click for me that I was spending beaucoup $$ on keratin straightening treatments because I hadn’t grown up seeing curls as beautiful. Where was my shield of armor?
Strong Eurocentric beliefs in Mexican culture means that even at home I got the message that curls (and the naturally accompanying frizz) weren’t predictable or presentable. Later in my life, they were unprofessional. I know as a mom it’s natural to be tidying and smoothing and polishing our kids during special events and photos, but visiting family would call a curly cousin “the ugly one”. Ouch.
My personal social justice journey is anchored in representation and visibility for all types of beauty. While curls were my first inner battle, fighting for representation and visibility of women as we age past our youthful blush or child-bearing beauty is the progression of that. We deserve to feel and be seen as beautiful at all stages of our life.
My grays trickled in at first, and in my early 20’s were like a cool science project. Now, at 33, they are taking over the lab. I found one the other day that stuck straight up in the middle of my head and was only an inch long. No amount of gel or superglue could have convinced it otherwise. I’m proud to say I know what my hair will look like when I have a full forest as my mom has come around to the grey side. Perhaps at the end of the road she passed on that silver shield of armor after all.
I don’t know if my baby daughter will inherit our family’s curls, but I know someday she’ll earn her own grays. I can only hope seeing mine bloom naturally will be the force field for the amazing chicas in my life. No matter what is around the corner for them, the natural progression of life can be as beautiful and powerful as you want it to be. And for all of you mamas dying your hair, more power to you—you represent your own beauty and traditions to your little wildflowers that they’ll be just as proud of.