As long as I can remember, my curly hair was more of a burden than a blessing, because I grew up in a Dominican family where my so-called “pelo malo” was something I had to learn to deal with. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much that mentality stemmed from racism and how much damage it has done.
Growing up, all I ever heard was Dominican hair stylists tell me, “Your hair isn’t bad, but it’s not ‘pelo bueno’ either.” Worse than that my abuela hated curly hair like you wouldn’t believe.
Until this day, if you ask her why she doesn’t like curly hair, she’ll respond with, “Porque no me gusta. No me gusta la forma en que se ve – y punto!“ She doesn’t directly address the taboo topic, of course.
“Pelo malo” is usually hair that’s considered curly, coarse, or kinky, whereas, straight, silky, or wavy hair is what’s considered “pelo bueno” – or good hair. Why is that? Because “pelo malo” is associated with African ancestry, something far too many Dominicans still have a hard time embracing when it comes to their identity.
Looking back now, I can see how the negative connotation surrounding my “pelo malo” impacted my self-esteem, especially in my teens. How could it not? It was ingrained in my mind that curly hair was “bad.”
“When a woman is told that she has ‘bad hair’ she feels injured and devalued,” says Dr. Christine Adkins-Hutchison, a clinical psychologist at the Kean University Counseling Center. “Beauty and the way that someone attends to their appearance is often a reflection of how confident that person feels internally. When the commentary about the outside is bad, it can directly affect the feelings on the inside.”
As a little girl my mami would leave my hair curly on regular days, apply some leave-in conditioner, and slick it back into a tight ponytail. But for special occasions like birthdays or picture day at school, my mom would blow dry my hair, making it sleek and straight. This was to make me look more “presentable.”
If you look through my family photo albums, you wouldn’t be able to tell my hair’s natural texture because I was never photographed with curls. This trained me to only feel my prettiest with straight hair. I wore it like that if I was going on a date, to a party, or even to a job interview.
By the time I got to high school, I tried everything under the sun to get my thick, waist-long hair to look pencil straight: I’d give it a once-over with a flat iron every day, and I got a relaxer behind mami’s back.
But then, my hair pretty much fell out the next time I washed it. Needless to say, I looked like a hot mess! So before going to college, I decided to start all over.
I chopped my hair off to a bob, put the flat iron down, and let my hair be its curly self. Now, fast-forward to when I finally landed my first full-time job as a beauty and style writer, where I felt pressure to look polished all the time. That’s when I went back to straightening my hair.
Instead of getting a blow out once a month or on special occasions, I began hitting up my local Dominican salon EVERY single weekend for that one-of-a-kind blow out.
Little did I know all the damage I was doing to my natural texture. Finally, one day I decided to wear it natural and realized that my hair would just NOT curl. It. Was. Awful.
It’s been almost two years – and one hell of a hair journey – of slowly transitioning back to my natural hair. Not only has it forced me to handle my curls delicately and use way less heat to avoid further damage, but the situation has taught me a lot about myself.
My heat-damage journey has allowed me to finally appreciate my curly hair so much that I’m even considering doing away with heat-styling all together.
My whole life I was conditioned to believe that there was something wrong with my hair, and I refuse to pass down that dysfunctional mentality to my future daughter. The "pelo bueno/pelo malo” cycle ends with me!