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You Go, Curl! How Hair Makes and Unmakes a Black Woman at Any Age

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That's me with my curls and all.
That's me with my curls and all.

Now I've gone and done it.

I know that things begin to fall apart when you turn 50, as I did last week, but I hardly thought they felt like this. I'm not talking about any physical deterioration (though I did slip, fall and crash hard onto my side at a Westside Ralph's grocery store just before Christmas--another blog). I'm talking about doing something for the first time in my life meant to be daring and affirming, something calculated to rage against the dying of the light, only to realize after doing it that I feel distinctly less affirmed, infinitely more foolish and far more mortal. Not too mention more broke--it cost $150.

I uncurled my hair.

This is no small procedure, as any woman will attest. And as any black woman will attest, taming curl to any degree by pressing, hot-combing, weaving, chemical-treating or flatironing is a political statement. It is a regular capitulation to a beauty standard not ours, a standard that's we've absorbed so fully that we usually fail to see its politics at all anymore. But I've always seen it clearly because my hair, while curly, is straight enough to be considered "white" hair that always had the option of being left alone. I could go au naturel, unlike the other black girls I grew up with who regularly endured the medieval tyranny of hot combs on Saturday night in order to look presentable at church on Sundays and for the rest of the week; I remember sitting in their kitchens silently watching that procedure with a strange mix of fascination, envy, horror, sympathy and guilt.

My mother washed and set my own hair to beautify it, but she never tampered with the curl. And neither did I, until last week when, approaching 50, I decided that I finally had the right to straighten my hair just a little bit for the sake of convenience. I liked the curl still, but I had always fantasized about making the unruly top of my head just a little straighter, tamer, just so that it would lay down and stay out of my eyes for once. Was that little alteration so political? A little political? Was that like being a little bit pregnant? Would anybody even be able to tell?

I decided that one of the good things about becoming 50 is that you don't give a damn about what anybody thinks anymore. That is very liberating, in theory. So I kept my birthday appointment with my stylist for something called an anti-frizz treatment. This is generations away from a hot comb, though it's also a euphemism because it essentially does the same thing--breaks down curl or kink by any means necessary. But Larry, my stylist, assured me that my hair would not be straight, merely less curly by about ten percent. Maybe a bit more, but just at first. The whole treatment would only last three months anyway; it was temporary. That fact more than anything convinced me to go ahead with this. Whatever the results, they would be reversible.

Three months can't come fast enough. My hair is straighter for sure, but it's characterless. It literally hangs between curly and straight, traumatized for all to see. It's out of my eyes (sort of) but hardly beautifying. I feel like I delivered a punch meant to only stagger my opponent, but gave him (or her) a knockout punch instead. I feel sorry for my original hair, which I didn't mean to hurt but did, and now it's off somewhere trying to recuperate.

Meantime, I have a new look. New is not necessarily good, as any impulse shopper will tell you. I have to suffer it for a while. Another good thing about being 50 is that you know that time truly heals--in this case, curls--all. I and my hair will be back.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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