Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Third Culture ... Hair?

I have a confession to make.  It’s something I have kept secret for years, although some of my nearest and dearest may know the truth.  I have fought to keep it private, but sometimes the elements around me scream for me to confess, to come out, to make amends in public.  So here and now, I will make it known to the world:  I have curly hair.

My earliest toddler memories are of my sisters calling me “Fizz Head”.  Photos of me show a meringue confection of tow headed curliness swirling around my face.  Waves and ringlets dance chaotic around me, every day looking like I have just rolled out of bed.  When it got long enough, my mom braided it every day; over time I left the house in progressively longer braids, so tight that I felt like my eyes were stretched into slits.  Towards the end of the day, wild tendrils would pop out of the braids, and the ends would swirl into perfect soft-serve Shirley Temple coils.  I had an enormous wardrobe of matching ribbons, grosgrain, satin, yarn, you name it, one for practically each outfit.  On special occasions, would put my braids into loops, and I looked like a hybrid of Heidi and Pippi Longstocking.  

Mommy, Mommy, my braids are too tight!
By the time I was 11, my hair reached below my waist.  I finally convinced mom that it was time to Stop the Braids, and went to the more grown-up ponytails.  At this time, it was the early 1970’s, when long, straight, parted-in-the-middle hair was the style du jour (think Marcia Brady).  My older sister Lisa, also of the curly persuasion, started rolling her hair on huge (empty) orange-juice cans, or wrapping her wet hair around her head, securing it with bobby pins until it dried.  (This was long before the era of the blow dryer).  I tried to emulate her; I was her apprentice, learning her craft.  I don’t think I ever actually ironed my hair, although it was long enough. 

Argh, where's my flatiron?  Oh wait, it hasn't been invented yet!
There was a product on the market in those days called “U.N.C.U.R.L” made by Clairol.  I think I only used it once, and there is a lovely picture of 7th grade me, a new kid at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, with long, straight, perfect hair.  But walk out the door on a humid Louisiana morning, and it was curtains (curl-tains?) for me.  The damp air was my enemy.  When we moved to the Philippines, I lived in a humid bubble, always chasing the air conditioning, dreading a rainy day (which was just about every day). 

The fear of curly hair was my nemesis.  At the International School Manila, sitting in the Student Lounge during recess would strike fear in my heart.  It was an outdoor pavilion, and if I was out there for half a minute, it was frizzy mayhem.  I think I volunteered to stay in class to help clean erasers most of the time.  I once had a semester of P.E. first period of the day, and we had swimming!  I think the bandanna became my best friend.  There was that awful day in Singapore (even closer to the equator!) when my mom made me walk to school.  Horrors!

11th grade, Manila.
I missed out on so much.  There were trips to the beach and pool parties with classmates that I skipped.  All because of the damn hair.  It was a curse.  I don’t know if it was because of the taunting and the teasing when I was young (“Fizz Head!”) or my devotion and worship of my sister Lisa.  When she died, perhaps I was continuing her legacy of elegance and straightness.  In a way I was trying to keep her alive in my mind.  Not so much trying to be LIKE her, but to BE her.  She had been ultra-popular in high school, cheerleader and singer.  She used to ride her moped to school in Belgium, her long straightened hair billowing from underneath her helmet.  Crowds of teenagers with guitars used to crowd into our house, motorcycles parked willy-nilly in the driveway.  My dad would tape their jam sessions on his reel-to-reel Aiwa recorder.  My mom would sit amidst them, one of the gang.  I would peep in from behind the door, loving the sounds of the twelve string, and admiring the girls with their long, straight hair.  I wanted to be one of them, but I was relegated to admiring from afar.  I probably got into Lisa’s makeup, again trying to transform myself into what she was.  She was the epitome of cool, and I always fell short of reaching her status.

I was always on the fringes (no pun intended).  My psychotic relationship with my hair kept me always on the outside, like the 12 year old me watching the jam sessions behind the dining room door.  Why couldn’t I just embrace the curls?  I had friends with beautiful curls.  I loved how it looked on them.  I envied their nonchalance.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
When you're the New Kid at school every few years, like most of us of the TCK ilk, it's bad enough when you're just new, not to mention awkward and angly, all knees and elbows.  But to add self-loathing and heightened self consciousness, it is that much harder.  I suppose that if it wasn't my hair it would have been some other minute imperfection that I perceived.  Like a lot of teenagers I would have found myself hideous no matter what.

I think I have finally made peace with my hair, although I recoil at humidity.  I still straighten my hair, despising the process all the while, but hating the alternative more.  Recently I went to bed with wet hair, too exhausted to do anything about it.  When I woke up, I looked like Cosmo Kramer.  Literally.  I am able to laugh at myself now, but I still won’t come out of the curly shell.  I have fantasies about cutting my hair completely short, traveling to the jungles of deepest Borneo and not having to worry about a thing.  

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