It was midday when I arrived at a very acclaimed stylist in some middle-class mall in suburby Caracas. My aunt had made the appointment for me weeks in advance, so they were ready and waiting to see me. As soon as I sat in the chair, a hairdresser started applying some unidentified substance to my scalp. Mirtha had yellow-bleached hair and fingernails that had to make her daily life just a tiny bit harder. She was slow and thorough, letting the gooey chemical take charge of my scalp and then settle for about an hour. Its smell was thick and pungent, burning my nose and my skin as it took over.
After washing it off, Mirtha plugged in the heating iron. She ran a towel through my hair as she waited for the magical utensil to heat up enough. It was then that she proceeded to comb my humid hair with it. Strain by strain, slow and thorough, I felt the vapor burning my ears and my scalp and my face. When I complained, she laughed it off, didn’t even dignify my reaction with a reply. This went on for at least a couple of hours. I was 14 years old.
Whoever met me as a baby would probably be surprised to see how much hair I turned out to have. Until the age of two, my hair resembled that of a balding man who hadn’t given up just yet.
My mom resorted to every method in the book to announce her baby was, indeed, a little girl. A collection of rotating pink Velcro bows were usually the ones who did the job. Sturdy and solemn, always up to the task; the ribbon holding up its part of the bargaining while the Velcro held for dear life to my three standing hairs. I was also introduced to headbands: pink cute elastics that let the world know not only is your baby a girl, she also has an impeccable sense of style.
Mama was convinced that if she took me to the hairdresser enough times, my hair would eventually start growing. So around every full moon —when farmers and stylists believed hair grew the healthiest— she took me to the hairdresser so he could take care of my almost-bald baby head. Mama would then sit on the chair with baby me on her legs, her thick straight brown hair to her shoulders, her mauve lipstick hinting a smile as the man trimmed my ends. He was always hopeful as if his reputation depended on it; as if my future success depended on it.
It was only as I grew into a toddler that my hair decided to join me. When I was three, it evolved into the haircut of a divorcée who was trying to spice up her life with a pixie cut, following Ellen’s footsteps.
I was the only one of my cousins who didn’t have long hair. Valeria —only five months and 30 days older than me— had a luscious mane, bangs and all. I swear bangs were the only thing my toddler heart desired. Bangs and long hair that would move with the wind like in the movies, or like in those photoshoots people do in front of fans.
My curls started forming around that time; slowly at first and then all together. They were thick and tight and brown and bright. They didn’t look like anyone else’s. Not my mom or my aunts or my grandma, who all had very straight hair. After waiting patiently for years for my turn at awesome hair, I was stuck now with curls that proved me different. After wanting so desperately to have hair that’d make me fit in, I’d managed to stand out even more.
Straightening it was always encouraged. During Holidays and special occasions, a visit to the salon was almost a guarantee for every female member of my family. The appointment would be made days in advance and it was a trip to look forward to. Their nails would be trimmed and painted in bright colors as their already-straight hairs were blow dried and ironed; as if the static added by the heat and the extra products were the style every female in the world should have strived for.
I caved into it as I craved to be more like them. I was hesitant at first, but the compliments would flood every time, so I’d end up going along with it.
“You look so pretty with straight hair. You should do it more often”, grandma said as she squeezed my hand after a successful hair-frying session.
“Oh, but it hurt” I complained.
“If you do it all the time, your hair might stay straight forever…”
“You think so?”
“Maybe… Do you want some plátano horneado?”
“Yes, please. With cheese,” and that’d be all any of us said about it.
It didn’t stay straight forever, though. Most of the times it didn’t stay straight for over a couple of days. Under the unforgiving tropical humidity, my hair would fight its way out of its rigid prison and surrender to its curls sooner than my family could finish snapping pictures.
The process wasn’t a walk in the park either. My tiny ass would be seated for forty minutes in some salon chair as an expert combed my hair over and over: big round brush in one hand, blowdryer in the other. My eyes clenched and my ears turned red as the hot air scared any wave out of my scalp. “Do you want the ends inside in or out?” they would ask; the logical answer being out —like Sandy before John Travolta corrupted her in Grease— because that’s how pretty hair was supposed to look.
The salon was only half of the process. To maintain my style and fight humidity, Grandma would sit me down before bed and fix my hair to my scalp; a task that required a lot of patience and even more bobby pins. She called it la vuelta, or the turn, which meant my hair would go all around my head until it was nice and flat.
For la vuelta to work I had to sleep in it; dozens of tiny metal pins pressed against my head as I tried to rest. What a joyous day I would have the next morning, though, right after I removed the artillery to unravel my newborn straight and shiny hair. “Wasn’t it worth it?”, my grandma would ask. I was never convinced on the answer.
Every time I complained of pain, mama would announce, “Remember what the misses say: para ser bella, hay que ver estrellas.”
“The ones in the sky, mami?” I’d ask.
“Little stars from pain, hiji,” mama would clarify. In a country where female beauty was considered the ultimate goal, pain was only a small price to pay.
Venezuela has made a name of itself as the world’s powerhouse for pageant queens, and with good reason: we’re the proud holders of 19 international beauty pageant crowns. The pageant isn’t only a way to showcase the world how our society seems to prefer beauty over intellect, it’s a modern Venezuelan staple: followed and adored by millions year-round. It is also a catapult to the entertainment and modeling industry, which means every major product is backed by a set of fake white teeth and a shiny plastic crown.
Not only did the Miss Venezuela create ridiculously unrealistic beauty expectations, but it also made beauty procedures a blooming industry ready to squeeze any cash people were willing to give away. “There’s no need to be ugly anymore” the thousands of ads would yell from papers and screens every day, “for a small fee, you can be a Miss too.”
The average contestant goes through at least four basics: breast and butt augmentation, liposuction, and rhinoplasty. They’ll also need to weight no more than a hundred pounds —is there such a thing as skinny enough?— so if diets and exercise don’t help, a medical professional will recommend the girls to sew plastic mesh to their tongues. That way they will only be able to eat liquids which translates to skinniness, which translates to beauty, of course.
Heavy eyeshadow and contouring touch up whatever plastic surgery couldn’t. Their hair is the cherry on top of the misogynistic pie: long, luscious and wavy —which is the least you could expect after hours of blow drying, ironing, and adding extensions. Rarely will organizers let natural hair make an appearance, it is too much of a reminder that the European features they fiercely defend are nothing more than a facade; a scam that can only survive in a controlled environment.
“Can I be a Miss, mami?”
“If you grow to be six feet, maybe”
“Oh…” the thought of missing out on such a great opportunity made my six-year-old heart uneasy.
“We can do your hair like the misses, though.” I would oblige every time.
Keeping my curls healthy and my scalp pain-free began to feel like a battle. Combing my hair became my grandma’s favorite request, “bai, mi amor, echáte una peinaíta” —like combing dry curls had ever made anything better. The only solution that satisfied her ended with me in ponytails or braids or buns. Having my hair down was automatically classified as messy and needed to be corrected no matter what.
It was during those times that Sedal became the shampoo everyone wanted; “el shampoo de las Misses,” the campaign announced in a bright yellow font. Underneath, a before and after pic of a lion winked at passersby from a billboard adorning the highway. The before featured a lion with sad eyes and a big mane. The after pic, meanwhile, had a smiley lion, proud about the trip he’d made to the salon right before his photo shoot. His mane had been tamed through some shady chemical process and was now silky and tame, ends facing the sky and all. The message was clear: the smiley lion was the goal, the tameness had to be achieved no matter what.
I wondered what the lion thought about his new looks. I wondered if he’d question his nature and natural beauty. If he had decided to change his mane on his own or if someone had pressured him to make some money out of it. I wondered if the decision was his at all or if, like the misses, he was willing to do whatever it took to be universally applauded as beautiful.
In my Catholic private school, my hair continued being out of place. My classmates weren’t the problem, though, the indiscreet staff was the real issue. Graciela, our middle school Vice Principal, was a tall bulky woman with long black hair whose tips pointed outside and became unruly when exposed to humidity; the biggest teller of a blowdry.
It was early in the morning, right after prayer, and I was following my grade to the classroom. I had washed my hair only hours before and my curls were exploring their regained freedom when our eyes met. “Sofia, you look like a lion!” Graciela yelled from the other side of the hallway, half a smile on her face. “The before or after pic?” I thought but didn’t ask. Misses were never compared to lions, maybe to a Maltese or an Afghan Hound. Even a Yorkshire, tiny and cute, with straight flowy hair.
I didn’t have what it took to be a Miss, then, at least Graciela didn’t think so. What I wanted was only a side note. My hair was not my own and my opinion didn’t matter: popular consensus had agreed they knew beautiful, and beautiful was something else. According to this woman I wasn’t a Yorkshire, I was a lion. One that needed to be domesticated.
I swallowed my pride and hid my blue Nokia in my sweater sleeve to text my mom. “Graciela said I looked like a lion,” I sent it and dried the tears on my cheeks before anyone else noticed.
“I love your curls!” mama said that night, as she ran her fingers through my hair, my head resting on her legs.
“I wish it was straight like yours...” I lamented.
“You can have both whenever you want. That’s way better.”
We both stayed quiet for a minute.
“I’m sorry Graciela was mean to you, hiji. I’ll go to school tomorrow and talk to her.” The rude adult never apologized, but she didn’t dare to repeat the joke either.
That’s how I spent the rest of middle school with my hair in a ponytail. I would straighten my bangs and tie everything else up. My baby hairs never seemed to cooperate, popping out from different places, refusing to stay stuck to my scalp the way pretty hair was supposed to look. I started growing it out because long hair, I was told, was heavier and weight turned curls into waves.
It was during that time that I did my first straightening treatment. The process was tedious and painful, leaving my scalp full of open wounds that would heal over the next month; these were the stars mama had been talking about. My hair became wavy after that, flowy enough that my fingers had no trouble picking the scabs that the treatment had left. This is what people kept insisting I should do to myself over and over. This is what they wanted: for me to suffer silently in a salon chair for hours so that I would look like the version they wanted of me. I never went back.
It wasn’t that pain what bothered me the most, but how alone I felt in my battle. I was the only one rooting for my natural hair. I didn’t understand how what was labeled as “the best version of myself” made everyone happy but me. If the lion felt any way about it, I’m sure he would have agreed.
I chopped off most of it after I graduated high school, and the reign of the curls officially began. I learned to ignore rude comments and give sassy answers to inappropriate questions. As I started college, the people around me seemed way more worried about calculus and physics than about my hair journey. For the first time, I made friendships that didn’t seem superfluous or circumstantial.
“Do you notice anything different?” I asked both to my study group and to no one in particular an early Spring afternoon, bored after hours of doing homework together.
“The fact that trigonometry is killing us slowly?” Rafa replied.
“How we’ve been trying to figure this out for hours with no success?” Manu joined in.
“Is your hair shorter?” Isa had nailed it.
I found their lack of attention to be a blessing I hadn’t had the opportunity of enjoying before. It was then that I was able to separate myself from the stares. I finally started letting go of the pressure of other people’s expectations. I ended up switching careers, but it was that academic environment that allowed me to think of myself as so much more than a full head of hair.
I only wish the tiny version of me could’ve learned this earlier. I wish she would have known her hair isn’t curly due to dryness or lack of care. That she doesn’t need chemicals to be prettier, but more importantly, that her hair does not define her.