On Hair and Healing

Few things in my life have been as fraught and defining as my hair. My hair is among the top two to three physical features that I have consistently longed to change.

Snagging brush bristles in tangled knots and fighting frizz are some of my first memories of my hair. Though photographic evidence proves that I did indeed have straight, silky, manageable hair as a youngster, that changed permanently and drastically around third grade. That year, I also fell off my bike and broke my two front teeth. You’ll notice I’m not smiling in most of the photos in this piece, and that’s why. My teeth were temporarily repaired after the accident, but I was advised to wait until age 18 to have any permanent cosmetic work done, so I just didn’t smile for about a decade.

With a permanent grimace framed by unruly locks (first image, left, below), I never looked in the mirror without immediately thinking of how I wanted to change the face staring back at me. The next two decades were marked by a number of memorable (usually terrible) hair experiences, toxic self-talk, and poor self-image.

When I was 11, I thought that perhaps embracing my curls was the way to go, so I asked for a perm. I got one. I had my whole head wrapped in the tightest perm rollers imaginable and chemically treated to create curls. The tension on my scalp and the chemical smell were so strong that I fainted in the restroom of the salon. Luckily, I managed to fall directly between the sink and the toilet, narrowly missing hitting my head against either fixture on my way down. The perm didn’t solve anything, and I couldn’t find a photo of it (which, honestly, is the real tragedy here!).

At 13, after a hair stylist told my mother that I had “ethnic hair” (her words, not mine) and that a relaxer would solve my problems, my mom purchased a DIY relaxing kit and applied the treatment at home. It burned my scalp so badly that I had bleeding sores for a week. I do not have hair that is appropriate for relaxing. Earlier this year, while listening to Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair on audiobook, I finally learned why I developed those painful sores. Scratching the scalp creates little lesions that burn when relaxer is applied. Women who know this will pat their scalp if it itches rather than scratch it. Young Marina did not know this. She regularly and vigorously scratched her scalp (I had, and still have, a scalp condition called sebhorreic dermatitis that is INSANELY itchy).

By the time I reached high school, I had determined my only option was to straighten my hair. I opted for a short hair cut, and spent about 45-60 minutes every single morning straightening my hair before school. This means I also spent a lot of time in front of the mirror hating the way I looked (last image, right, above).

In college I forked over several hundred dollars for a series of Brazilian Blowouts. In this rancid smelling treatment, chemicals were painted onto my hair by a stylist wearing a mask and then blow dried and hot ironed in to preserve the effect for 6-8 weeks.

Overall, these experiences supported my negative beliefs about my hair: that something was wrong with it, that it needed to be fixed. I internalized the idea that I needed to pay for something expensive, chemical-laden, and painful in order to make my hair manageable and to look a certain way… to look beautiful and to feel good about myself.

And the truth is that I did feel pretty when my hair was long and straight. It usually lasted a couple of days, and then I’d be upset when my hair returned to its natural state.

  Feeling myself (for about a day). This blow out  took my stylist 90 mins to complete, using two round brushes and a high powered professional blow dryer (that is to say: this is not a look I could replicate on my own). This big smile brought to you by $10,000 in dental implants and multiple surgeries spanning 4 years. I smile A LOT now, because this smile has been hard-won.

Feeling myself (for about a day). This blow out  took my stylist 90 mins to complete, using two round brushes and a high powered professional blow dryer (that is to say: this is not a look I could replicate on my own). This big smile brought to you by $10,000 in dental implants and multiple surgeries spanning 4 years. I smile A LOT now, because this smile has been hard-won.

This pattern repeated until my mid-twenties, when a friend of mine was treated to a DevaCurl wash and style at her salon and she blessedly recommended it to me. I learned from a curl specialist how to care for my hair (sans chemicals!) and I began a journey of curl recovery. I could say SO much about the Curly Girl Method and what a miracle it has been in helping me to work with my hair (instead of against it) and accept the way I look. For now, I’ll say this: I learned that frizz is not a problem to be fixed, it is a “check engine light” indicating need for moisture, I learned that chemicals of all kinds damage curls and disrupt natural curl patterns, and most importantly I learned that my natural hair is not a nuisance to be endured/dealt with/fixed.

  Long hair, don't care! My curls and I were much happier after a few years free from harsh chemicals treatments and daily heat styling. It took just three products (and several hours of air drying) to style my curls at this length.

Long hair, don't care! My curls and I were much happier after a few years free from harsh chemicals treatments and daily heat styling. It took just three products (and several hours of air drying) to style my curls at this length.

The current chapter of my hair journey is happening right now. This year, on my 30th trip around the sun and with the support of a truly gifted hair stylist, I feel as though I’ve finally found the hairstyle that I’ve always been meant to have. It embraces my natural curls in a way that’s also a bit edgy and non-traditional.  

  FEELING MYSELF. Happy inside and out.

FEELING MYSELF. Happy inside and out.

For me, hair is complex. Having hair that I understand, that I embrace, and that I love translates directly to how I feel about myself. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’ve noticed that when I look in the mirror, I am no longer filled with frustrated thoughts about frizz, scalp issues, or anxiety about how much time I need to set aside to tame my mane. Now, I usually just smile at myself in the mirror, tousle my patch of curls, and move on with my life. I can already feel the shift that this kind self-talk is having. I feel pretty when I look in the mirror, and I like what I see staring back at me more than I ever have before.