What I Learned About Racial And Gender Roles By Shaving My Head

That’s me five months ago. Monday, August 22, 2016 to be exact. The day I cut all of my hair. I look pretty bad ass. Don’t you think?

Truthfully, that photo is not an accurate representation of how I really felt that day. It hadn’t settled in yet and my sister was hyping me up about how fearless I looked. So we went out and snapped some photos for ‘the gram.’

Allow me to explain what it meant for me, an Afro-Latina, to shave my head.

I remember the day vividly. I walked into Sana Beauty Salon on Junction Boulevard and 35th Avenue in Flushing, Queens with a messy bun and a mission.

The Dominican hairdresser begged me to rethink my decision, telling me that I’m young and beautiful, implying that cutting my hair would strip me of that beauty. I finally convinced her that I was serious and wasn’t going to back down.

In the blink of an eye it was all gone. I couldn’t speak. I just smiled as I looked in the mirror thinking to myself, “You’re effin’ crazy.”

My mother eventually picked me up a few minutes later. As I walked towards the car she saw me through the left mirror and covered her face in disbelief. I had mentioned to her before that I was going to go short, but not that short.

I entered the car laughing nervously saying, “It’ll grow back, it’s just hair.” The drive home was pretty quiet.

We arrived home and I was still laughing like a maniac.

The first words that came out of my father’s mouth were, “You look like a boy.” He would jokingly greet me by saying, “My son!” from time to time. I love him for that.

For the first couple of weeks it was difficult looking in the mirror. I’d come out of the shower and leave the mirrors fogged. I noticed I started giving my outfits more importance and applying makeup frequently in order to ‘boost’ my femininity.

Everyone asked me, “What made you do it?” I could tell from their expressions that it didn’t I hadn’t supplied them with a sufficient answer when I’d say, “I’ve been wanting to do it for over a year now.” Although it was a spur of the moment decision, mostly I just wanted a fresh start.

Growing up I was taught to believe that my hair was tough to manage, that hair is an extremely important feature that determines feminine beauty.

It is the norm for Dominican women to press their hair on a regular basis. Short, kinky hair is considered a defect, ‘pelo malo’ (bad hair).

I had my first perm at the age of 12 and I naively thought that it was the best thing that could happen to my hair. Around the same age I was introduced to what I believed was the magical and all-powerful flatiron.

I wanted permanently straight hair more than ever. All the way through high school I would straighten my own hair almost every single day.

Heat damage, dryness, and hair loss was the obvious outcome. Over the course of about six years my curly hair texture was no more. My roots were so dry and wavy, while the rest of my hair was spaghetti-like.

I believed I was prettier when I straightened my hair. In time I learned I was just another victim of European notions of beauty.

By the time I entered undergrad this ideal was increasingly being challenged and social media gave the natural hair movement a platform to flourish.

Instagram and Facebook accounts emerged full of images with females of the African diaspora rocking their natural hair and it sparked the journalist in me to do research.

I wanted more knowledge. I wanted to understand my biological make-up, the anatomy of my hair.

Melanin, oh melanin. You know… the key to life, the chemical that demonstrates your phenotype, culture, behavior, and more. Much like a plant, I was destroying my roots and stem.

I was defying nature, weakening my strong and coarse hair every time I fried it with the flatiron or dumped a crazy amount of hair gel to tame it. Long story short (not really), there comes a point in life when you realize, “Crap, everything I’ve been programmed to believe is the norm, is a flat out lie.”

Despite the compliments, the shocked faces with messages of disagreement, or the fact that the haircut actually grew on me, from this experience I learned that my hair, my image, does not define me.

The words bold, fearless, and beautiful were often used to describe me, but I truly believe I am all those things regardless of what’s on top of my head.

These past five months have been a tremendous fun learning experience. I came face to face with society’s gender roles and found courage I never knew I had.

I played model for a few photographer friends, I was mistaken for a boy at a Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work, and I realized that my hair grows crazy fast.

BUT! I’ve decided it’s time to let it grow for good.

I’ll be posting more frequently, documenting the process, even the awkward stages. I don’t know much about hair products or other hair care options. As of now I’m using essential oils here and there. If you have any hair tips or advise please send them my way!

My curls are going to be poppin’.

Stay tuned!

This article originally appeared on Zerline’s blog Currently, by Z

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Zerline Alvarez

Zerline is a freelance writer and documentary photographer based in NYC. Her most important mission in life is to enhance the lives of others and create social change through activism and her craft. She enjoys reading, being among family and friends, and collaborating with creatives.