My mom asked me recently, “What do you want for your graduation gift?” I thought about it for a few days, considering what most kids asked for. A trip to Europe, a new car, a gym membership. After some thought, I asked for a membership to the Dry Bar. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a service that will wash, dry, and style your hair for $40 a session. This might sound like a vain request but, for most of my life, my relationship with my hair has been a huge struggle.
My mom is white and my dad is Afro-Latino. I inherited my mom’s fair skin and my dad’s curly hair––kinky, textured, curly hair. Growing up, I lived in a very white community. There was one Black kid in my high school and one in my elementary school. Curly was an anomaly. Hair stylists would have no idea how to work with it. Several complained about having to do my hair. My beloved mother used to French braid my hair to contain the thick brown curls. She’d let me pick out the colored ribbons she would tie into it. I loved that part. Pink, blue, purple. I felt so glamorous. But the older I got, my tangles grew thicker. She called the collection of gnarls in the back of my head a “rat’s nest.” The poor woman had to chase after me with a brush every morning as I’d cry and scream in protest until my face turned red.
Then, at the ripe age of seven, my mom said she was going to give my hair a little “trim.” An inch or two at most. A nice little touch up. But you can probably guess what her quiet plan was all along. That’s right. She cut it off. My hair didn’t even reach my ears. I looked like Bruce Bogtrotter (pictured on the right). Retrospectively, I can appreciate how frustrating it must have been for her to battle with the stubborn little girl that I was. But at the time, it seemed like the end of the world. For two years, I was repeatedly mistaken for a boy. The ring-leader of my fourth grade class told me, “Sorry, but we don’t hang out with ugly people. Your hair is ugly so we can’t hang out with you.” Finally, when it was finally long enough to wear up, I would slick the curls into a bun. I did that for six years until I discovered chemical straightening treatments (its own journey of hair loss and harsh chemicals that made my eyes water and burn).
When I was 20, I moved to New York for a summer and made my first visit to a Dry Bar. The woman doing my hair was Hispanic. It was the first time a person of color had worked with my hair. She combed it through and said, “Wow, you have beautiful hair.” She didn’t know, but I was choking back tears after she told me that. I was used to professional stylists complaining about my hair, I’d never had one compliment it. It took an hour and a half for her to style it and by the time she was done, I was grinning ear to ear. I ran my fingers through it––soft velvet. That’s what it felt like. I’d never felt my hair feel so silky.
I love my curly hair. It tells stories I hold close to my heart. It tells the story of a loving mother who always told me my hair was beautiful and who let me pick colored ribbons to tie around it. It’s a piece of my father and my Black and Hispanic heritage. Both of which, I’m very proud of. But it has been hard to accept my hair and even harder to find ways to work with it. It may sound silly, but the Dry Bar has been a godsend. It means the world to have stylists who understand curly hair and treat it with love.