By Moira Shoush & Ysabella Titi.
We tend to praise America for being a melting pot of different cultures, but the very action of melting away our differences is exactly why this narrative is so problematic…
Frizzy. Poofy. Knotty. Ugly. For practically our whole lives, those were the only words we deemed appropriate to describe our curls. We accepted as an undeniable truth that our hair was hopelessly hideous, and absolutely nothing was going to change our minds. Subsequently, we set out on a quest to hide our hair. Whether we tamed our frizz with two braids, unlovingly piled it in a bun, or heartlessly burned our curls with a straight-iron, we were hoping to fit the beauty standards we let society define for us. These are our inherently different stories, told through the crossroads of hair, skin, and identity.
I plucked my eyebrows from the third grade, straightened my hair since the fifth grade, and always wore 100 spf sunscreen and avoided the sun. My childhood can be defined by the feeling that I was the “ugly” girl in my predominantly white town and I did everything I could to fit in with the girls that we all considered to be pretty. While my experience is not the same as a black girl’s, and I recognize that I did have many privileges in the society I grew up in, this does not invalidate the feeling of pressure from living in America that causes anyone who does not fit the look of the “girl-next-door” to feel like an outcast.
When I was in preschool, the other kids would call me and my older brother “poop-skin.” Though I didn’t understand much about the real world at the time, I was certain that life would be much more enjoyable if only I had blonde hair and blue eyes, just like the Barbie dolls that I not only played with, but idolized as the epitome of beauty. In elementary school, when we would learn about slavery during black history month, teachers and classmates would look at me partly apologetically, partly excitedly, as though I could relate to the experience of being a slave and assure them that it wasn’t that bad. I was “jokingly” called a lion throughout elementary school because of the frizzy baby hairs that framed my face like a lion’s mane. One day in second grade, when my mom convinced me to wear my natural hair down, I came home sobbing because of all the people touching my hair with disgust and laughing about how big and poofy it was. I was constantly asked why my legs were so ashy and why my hair was so frizzy. I would get so embarrassed whenever my parents would come to school and my friends would hear their accents and ask how my dad’s skin could be so dark. Going to stores with my dad would make me feel so anxious because I dreaded seeing the hurt and humiliation on his face when he realized he was getting followed. In middle school, a friend of mine told me that all black girls were ugly and he would never want to date one. He and our other friends then got annoyed with me for being hurt because I was “only partly black” so he was not really talking about me. When my friends would use “the n word” with eachother and in songs, I would feel powerless to speak up against it because I feared more than anything of associating myself with the stereotype of the angry, aggressive and unapproachable black woman. I poured all my energy into becoming “nice” enough, which in reality just meant passive enough, that my identity as a black person could be overlooked. By the time I got to high school, I had very little confidence in myself, a consequence of years of feeling as though the color of my skin and the texture of my hair undeniably defined me as inferior. My negative self regard was perfectly reflected in the way I treated my hair: spending hours every week destroying my curls with a straightener, hoping to reduce the unwanted visibility of a person of color in my small Pennsylvanian town.
My “skin-brightening” toner was a little green bottle of magic that promised me beauty when I was younger. I would use this product religiously, in hope of lighter skin. While gym was everyone’s favorite class in elementary school, I hated how every time we went outside I would get darker. To me each layer of tan was something more I needed to work to take off, to melt down into beautifully brighter skin. I would avoid the sun for so many summers, sometimes because my mom told me to, but mainly because I felt like I needed to. I was a kid who cared more about avoiding a tan than I did about having fun and enjoying my summer. As I grew up, the ethnic-ambiguity of my appearance often resulted in me being described as “exotic.” While dehumanizing, I also often took it as a compliment when people would ask me if I was from various European countries, as I associated these people as closer to the beauty standard that I wanted so badly to achieve. The melting pot of America meant that any background was possible, yet it still imposed upon us an image that we were supposed to conform to in order to be considered beautiful. But my curl’s roots are not in my head, they are in the waves of the Pacific and Mediterranean Seas, and they never fit into the the strictly cut highways that carved New Jersey’s suburbs.
It was not that our families did not tell us that we were beautiful, it was the world around us that made us believe that we were not. All we knew was “normal”, small-town America. Not even the TV shows I watched had black characters that I could relate to; instead, all of them seemed to be oversimplified caricatures of who a black person is. And just forget about seeing an Asian or Middle-Eastern girl in American TV shows. We had never fit America’s mold, so we straightened our hair so that maybe we could melt just a little. For girls of color, straightening our hair does not make us feel prettier; at the very root of it, it feels like a necessary step to make us pretty in the first place.
Spending my junior year abroad in Toulouse, France was the first time in my life that I would be living outside of my small town. My two best friends in class were named Cristiana and Rosimèle. Cristiana was half-Italian, half-Equatorial Guinean, and Rosimèle was half-French, half-Mozambican. Both had lived in Africa for most of their lives, a fact they often proudly stated. I am half-Sudanese, half-Egyptian, but because most of my American classmates had no idea where Sudan was and simply associated Egypt with pharaohs and mummies, my ethnic identity was not a subject I openly discussed. Seeing my two beautiful friends so confident in their dark skin, long lanky legs and big frizzy hair was eye-opening. I didn’t know that anyone who looked like me could be so confident in their own skin.
The first day of school here in Menton, the heat and humidity quickly made my previously perfectly straightened hair frizz and curl, showing its more natural state. My routine proved itself to be unsustainable, and I quickly learned that my natural hair would be something that I would need to learn to embrace. This sentiment was further fostered by the way that the diverse people on this campus wore their hair with so much confidence in all its natural glory. While I was burning and literally melting away my hair to fit in with what I considered to be beautiful, I failed to recognize the ugly side to fitting in with the people around me. I should have been proud of how I looked for years instead of straightening out my hair and hiding what made me different. Embarrassingly enough, I would straighten my hair for everything—even trips to the beach.
I began to wonder why I wasn’t as proud of my origins, and when I could not think of an acceptable answer, I came up with a new challenge for myself. Instead of hiding my frizz, I was going to embrace it—a feat much easier said than done. The first time I ever wore my natural hair down was one of the most terrifying days of my life. I had never felt so vulnerable. Walking into school that day, I dreaded the inevitable comments on the bigness and frizziness of my curls. As I braced myself for the countless unwelcome demands to touch my hair, I almost convinced myself to use the emergency scrunchie I had put in my bag. To my surprise, however, my classmates ended up finding my hair beautiful. Yet as much as it felt nice to have their approval, what was really meaningful about that day was the validation I gave to myself. Living in France was the first time I felt as though my physical appearance was not the main defining factor of who I was and of what I was capable of. I was asked about my “origines” and my “nationalité”, but never my race (a forbidden word in the French language). The sudden loss of race as my defining factor gave me the confidence to define my identity by my accomplishments and my actions. It was an incredibly liberating feeling that has had lasting effects on who I am today, for which I will forever be grateful. However, coming back to France for a second time this year has given me a more ambiguous view of this characteristic of French culture.
As a half-Asian, half-Arab American, I have finally been learning to accept that the thoughts I would have about the reflection I saw in the mirror were more than just wrong: they were grossly an unacceptable product of American society. I do not fit into the typical beauty ideal and I never will. I am not perfect, but I am learning more and more, each day since joining the diversity that is Sciences Po Menton, on why the world should not reflect impossible homogeneity. Instead it is our differences that make life beautiful. There should not be a look of an “American girl”—we should not all melt into one entity—but instead embrace the fact that we are all different.
While we are endlessly grateful for the confidence that we have gained since living in France, we have become aware that its mentality on race relations is problematic as well. In America, our differences in race are all that we are, whereas in France, these differences that have shaped our identities are completely overlooked. While appearance defines the American experience and racism is proven to exist, the word race is not part of the discussion in France—when it should be. We are not blind to race. In fact, if you do not see one’s race you can not see a part of their history in this world. Society is not blind, and race plays an integral role in determining our treatment in this world. While race relations may appear to be less prominent in France, a much bigger issue is at stake. In this country, people’s refusal to accept that race effects experience disguises French ignorance of a race problem under the pretext of promoting equality. We are not all treated equally and if we do not talk about how our differences have defined us and how we act in relation to others, we are even worse off. To not acknowledge an obviously present issue allows those who refuse to acknowledge its existence—our existence—to continue to enforce a harmful narrative that our stories and our experiences are inherently less valuable.
Our hair does not tell our full story of identity, it represents just a small aspect of the troubling mentality that to be “American” means to look a certain way that fulfills American beauty standards. America taught us to attempt the impossible task of fitting in, while France taught us that superficial acceptance does not always translate into a healthy relationship with identity. We still struggle today with how we define ourselves through the blur of race, ethnicity, and appearance, but one lesson that is clear is that we cannot pretend like we do not see the power of color in a world that is intrinsically diverse.