My dear readers, I want to talk to you today about hair. Yep, hair. That mass sitting on top of your head that keeps your noggin warm in the winter. Growing up as an Asian American female, I had a bit of a complex about the way I looked, especially around my hair. In it’s natural state, my hair was a frizzy, wavy, curly and an all-around tangled mess. Especially as a teenager, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to look like all the other pretty Asian American girls in my school and all the Asian/Asian American female celebrities I saw in the media [all three of them, that is]. And what did that desire mean? A long, thin body. Double eyelids. Clear, fair skin. And pin-straight black hair.
Oooohh, the hair. For some reason this was the one thing I couldn’t get over. I just wanted to blend in but let me tell you, the hair? It was uncontrollable. Refused to be tamed. I didn’t know how to deal with it so I just wore it up in a ponytail all the time. All. The freakin’. Time. Unless I took the hour and a half to straighten it. But you can be sure I was never caught with my hair casually down. No ma’am.
Having hair that didn’t fit conventional notions of what it meant to be beautiful as an Asian American female gave me serious doubts about what I thought it meant to even be ‘Asian American.’ There would be times when I would get the ‘oh haha you’re not really Asian’ because of my hair. It was usually said jokingly, but a felt hurtful nonetheless. The questions chipped away at any confidence I had in myself at that point and made me extremely self-conscious.
Fast forward to the present day, thankfully past those incredibly awkward adolescent stages, I’ve learned to love and accept the way I look, especially my hair. My hair has actually become one of my favorite physical attributes because of its uniqueness.
But why do I bring any of this up? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been thinking more and more about the significance of hair and about the stereotype of Asian American women all having long, straight hair. Sure, it might be wavy/curly some days and dyed brown/blonde other days. But in the end, it’s generally straight and black. Most Asian American women I came across in mainstream media fit this profile: Lucy Liu, Michelle Kwan, Ming Na, etc. These reinforcements solidified my previous idea that in order to be a ‘real’ Asian American, I needed to have that kind of hair.
Digging deeper, I think about the different hair styles we adopt these days and how society labels people with certain hair dos. Long, usually straight, hair on women is generally seen as adhering to cultural female norms while very short hair is deemed as unfeminine and a kind of rebellion from the traditional female gender box. Or think about long hair on men. For men, long hair, typically anything longer than chin-length, by and large represents a break from male hair stereotypes. Hair may initially just seem like another physical aspect of ourselves we indulge in superficially, but it also helps shape our identity; it is one of the easiest ways we can mold how we look and how we decide to present ourselves to society.
Thus, to my pubescent, teenage self, having long, straight hair not only meant I was fitting the mold of being a ‘typical teenage girl’ but also being a ‘real’ Asian American. But since I didn’t have that, I decided to hide my hair, to adhere to societal guidelines the best I could and present myself accordingly. Now, while I do straighten my hair on occasion, I definitely do not care as much about my hair as I did before. I love that it’s different from the usual standard and you could say that this is my own way of ‘rebelling’ against what might be expected of me. I will forever be answering the question of ‘what it means to be Asian American.’ As a part of my response, I wear my hair just as it is.
Bet you never thought this much about hair, huh?
*This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival*