Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.

By Lola Méndez
Aug 26, 2018 @ 5:00 am
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When I step out of the shower, my stick-straight hair begins to dry almost immediately into a shapeless, shiny form. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see the bouncy sun-kissed hair of my Latina idols. I also don’t see my white American mother’s thick, wavy hair. Instead, my thin, dark strands descend from my father’s indigenous-Uruguayan roots. My hair and I have struggled to fit into these two worlds that aren’t quite ours — the oversexualized stereotype of what it looks like to be Latina and the modest Midwestern women I grew up around. Navigating identity in a multicultural household can be complex, and that goes for the beauty standards you're supposed to live up to, too.

When I was four my family moved back to the States from Uruguay to my mother's hometown of Kansas City. We lived in a predominantly white suburb that skirted farmlands and lacked any sort of diversity. There, I was hyper-aware that I didn’t look like my mother or her white family members, especially when it came to comparing our hair. I remember overhearing my mom say that I didn't look like her, or that she didn't see her reflection when she looked at me. Perhaps many other mothers and daughters in America face this struggle; 43% of interracial marriages in the United States are couples that are one-half white and the other Latin American. 

When I was seven I wrote in my diary that I believed I’d have blonde hair and green eyes when I grew up. I wanted to look like everyone around me, especially my mother. I thought light hair, skin, and eyes were the traits of a beautiful woman. I started looking into the things I could do to change my appearance to fit that ideal. I’d beg for a perm to get the bouncy waves I coveted; I asked for highlights, green contacts, and even plastic surgery to rid me of my cleft chin.

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I obsessed over photos from my mother's youth to try to find a resemblance between us. The black-and-white snapshots from the ‘60s were my favorites, as it was impossible to decipher her exact coloring in them. At the time, she’d lay her hair across an ironing board and have one of her sisters press it straight. In those photos, and only in those photos, her hair almost looked like mine.

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When I was 11, I realized that there were things I could do on my own to alter my appearance, especially when it came to my body hair. One afternoon I plucked my bushy eyebrows down to a thin line similar to the way my mother wore hers.

Sometimes I could convince my mother to set my hair in hot rollers and release an entire canister of hairspray on it to give me a fluffy hairdo. My hair would always fall within a few hours, and be left sticky from all the spray, and back to stick straight. As a preteen, I was finally allowed to get a perm in hopes of having wavy hair like my mother. I was devastated when it fell out within a few days. It seemed I was destined to have straight hair no matter how I tried to change it.

My mom knew representation was important so she’d find me Latina idols to look up to. This was before Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez. She’d buy me every Jennifer Lopez album and take me to see Jessica Alba movies. But their images were rooted in sex appeal; setting aside that my body didn't look like theirs, their hair was often presented highlighted and layered into face-framing waves — bountiful and nothing like mine. It was just as impossible to live up to the beauty standards set by them as it was to assimilate with the stark whiteness all around me.

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I finally started to embrace my natural appearance as one that was uniquely beautiful when I moved to New York City and was surrounded by diversity for the first time in my life. With the world of Manhattan salons stretching out before me, I finally got that buttery blonde look I’d always dreamed of. I looked just like my mother did when she was my age, but I was also coming into myself. As my community in New York grew, my hair was less of a focus for my own insecurity; not to mention it wasn’t such a stark point of difference setting me apart from everyone else. And so as the ombre faded, the confidence I had gotten from it stayed. I let my naturally dark brown hair grow back in and ditched the hot tools and bottles of hairspray I had been relying on to bully my texture into something it would never really be.

Today, I have a few highlights, and I do still curl my hair from time to time — I’m not opposed to trying out different styles when the mood strikes. But I have learned that I feel the most myself when I walk out of the ocean with salty hair, and it dries up as straight shapeless as it always was growing up. I’ve learned to cherish the physical traits that I received from my Uruguayan father. I'm proud to carry a resemblance to our Charrua ancestors with my straight hair, tanned skin, and high cheekbones. Physical traits like this may show the world a little bit about where I’m from — but I get to tell them who I am.