How My Mom Taught Me to Love Myself Through Loving My Hair

Photo: Courtesy of Marianne Mychaskiw

"I Got It From My Momma" honors mothers and mother figures of every stripe, with one new essay appearing each day until Mother's Day.

Pinpointing the exact moment I became obsessed with the way I looked is a weird, revealing thing to do, but it probably took off around age five. Before then, I wasn’t super-conscious of the fact that being half-Filipino was different until we moved to rural Mississippi. I hated my nose, I hated how my hair was too curly to simply wear down, and I hated how I stuck out like a sore thumb in my classroom. I would sit at my mom’s vanity with my eyes shut just wish that when I opened them, I’d be tall, blonde with straight hair, and white—like the Barbies strewn all over my room.

Of course, when I opened my eyes, nothing had changed. But still, mom’s vanity was my favorite place in the world, and I’d usually get over it within minutes by breaking into her red lipstick stash. Dressing up in my mother’s clothes and playing with her makeup was my favorite thing to do, but sometimes I envied that even she was able to wear her hair down. Being full Filipino, her hair fell in a long, black sheet, which she wore parted in the center. By contrast, mine was unruly, took an hour to tame, and had to be twisted in a braid or worn up so it wouldn’t get tangled. Three times a week, I’d sit with her on the floor of my brother’s bedroom, where she’d patiently comb through individual sections with a bottle of detangler in hand, and then clip it into a bun once she finished.

It was our ritual, and we’d talk the entire time. I’d tell her about how I cried that day when a boy kept pretending to spit in my hair, and she’d console me. Boys were mean, she’d tell me, before relaying a similar story of her own when she was in elementary school back in the Philippines. Her hair was super-long and ran all the way down her back. One boy who sat behind her would always tie it to her chair, and she’d fall down into her seat every time she stood up, prompting her to yell at the kid. (Fight the good fight, mom.)

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Courtesy of Marianne Mychaskiw

Still, I’d whine about how I wanted to cut my hair off—to my shoulders, like a teenager, I’d say—but despite that, my mom maintained her stance that she thought I was beautiful. She told me not to listen to what everyone else said, and that all the things that made me so different would help me someday. She didn’t let any judgmental looks from our neighbors bother her (which happened more than once in my childhood, living in a mostly-white neighborhood). She pushed forward, joining social groups typically reserved for the blonder and fairer members of the community. When we moved to a slightly larger town, she found a Filipino group there and flourished, recently taking on the title as president of Jackson’s Filipino-American Association for two years.

I wasn’t so bold. I got sick of answering questions like “What are you?” and basically have to explain my existence. Regretfully, I’d try to downplay my background. I’d complain loudly about having to take part in these Filipino parties, and would whine when she would hang Parols—these bright, blinking stars from the Philippines, displayed everywhere at Christmas—on our front door. My mother didn’t care. That’s who we are. The rest of the neighborhood, and the rest of the state for that matter, could take it or leave it.

By the time my teenage years were in full-swing, I did what any other girl trying to cover up her cultural identity did: I dyed my hair stupid colors, completely flattened it with my CHI iron, and tweeze my brows into weird, punctuation-esque shapes. Although these were both things that my mom wouldn’t allow me to do, she never reprimanded me after I did them. She’d tell me I looked fine the way I was before and that she personally would have left it all alone, sure, but I was never grounded for it—even when I decided to lop inches off of my own hair over the sink in my bathroom.

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Now, seeing the photo evidence—my Volcom shirt and L’Oreal Feria on full display—kind of makes me cringe, but to her, learning to love yourself, or at the very least be okay with yourself, was possibly the boldest thing a person could do.

As I got older, I started to care less about what people thought about my background and started celebrating my differences. After I stopped dyeing my hair electric shades of red or yellowy-blonde, eased up on the foundation, and let my eyebrows grow back in, something funny happened: People started telling me how much I looked like my mom. I began to see it too, and I started noticing more of her traits in me. And you know what? My mother is more beautiful than any damn Barbie doll out there.

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