Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The giant spider: reflections on beauty, hair and race

Last night I dreamed that an enormous spider was in my bedroom trying to both attack and hide away from me. I was absolutely frightened and upon waking up I hit the Internet for nuggets of wisdom regarding the meaning of that nightmarish manifestation of my subconscious. Although there were several interpretations ranging from good fortune to terrible omens looming in the horizon, one particular description vividly resonated with me (these days I’m leaning towards intuitive vibrations). I learned that spiders are associated with major, powerful feminine energy. With eight legs and bodies shaped like the number 8 they “symbolize the infinite possibilities of creation.” Because they are also master weavers who build a web to sneakily catch prey, I learned that I need to examine my life to see if I’m about to get stuck on a trap of my own. It is no coincidence that this dream arrives during a period where I’m reconsidering my ideals of beauty, including rediscovering my natural curly hair, with the backdrop of the COVID-19 quarantine and the protests for racial equality post-George Floyd’s murder.

Since a very early age, concern with my physical appearance has occupied an enormous amount of mental real estate. We all have our own history and stories around beauty, and quite often our relationship with it is a complicated one, a rabbit hole of idealization, unmet expectations and fear of not fitting in to what the establishment dictates that beauty should look like. My story is no different. Growing up in a small and quite provincial Brazilian northeastern town in the 1980s and 90s, the male narrative about women’s looks, bodies and behaviors was pervasive, if not outright dominant, embraced by both men and women alike whether consciously or not. Being pretty and desired felt like a prerequisite for living. A man’s gaze was one of the ultimate goals of my youth along with getting good grades and traveling the world.  As shocking as it may sound in today’s age of #metoo, in my teens my day was ruined if I walked past a construction site and didn’t hear a laborer whistle ei gostosa (literally, “hey, delicious.”). Back then, construction sites were notorious for catcalling. I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in being dependent of such archaic beauty thermometer. In between ballet classes and study sessions, my friends and I would commiserate about our damaged little egos in such “atrocious” situations. 

Interestingly enough, my parents were academics who valued books, intellect and careers. My mother was a professor, but to make ends meet in the financial reality of an unequal Brazil she often worked three shifts that included two to three jobs. She was practicing body positivity decades before it became a movement: she was fuller than most, often self-conscious and yet never hid behind her curves. She had an authentic fashion style, a mix of bohemian and classy as accounted by my childhood eyes. A self-proclaimed feminist highly encouraged by my open-minded father, she was an activist who took me and my sister to street marches to protest the rampant violence against women in our town. She also told us that beauty goes away with time and in the end it’s your brain and character that will be valued, not your looks. Nonetheless, she spent part of her hard earned salary making sure that her daughters wore stylish, fashionable clothes and adornments, although I cannot say that we were always truly satisfied, little brats we were.

The author and her natural roaring curls at age 14
I was considered a pretty girl for local standards, but all of that went away in flames when I reached puberty and became a classic example of teenage insecurity. Not only I was considered too thin in a society that valued strong legs and big butts, but around the age of 12 my long, super straight hair started to morph into unmanageable waves and frizzy curls. I panicked. I could see beauty in everybody’s curls but my own. It didn’t help being called a monkey by a friend and his girlfriend with long, straight, natural blond hair. It didn’t help that the majority of soap opera actresses, TV presenters and cover models of my go-to teen magazines looked nothing like me. They were mostly fair skinned with blue or green eyes and soft, velvety hair. And that is how the internalization of being “less than” due to my new hair texture paired with my brown skin was sealed. My mother, of course, intervened: “you are beautiful, your hair is beautiful and darling, embrace it: you’re ⅛ black and this is how your afro ancestry is showing up in your body now.”

At age 7 with grandpa Januário (and my very own 1980s mullet!) 
I have very few memories of grandpa Januário, my father’s father. When he died, I was 9 and he was almost 90. His skin was very dark, although mixed for Brazilian standards and its massive palette of infinite shades of brown. After his first wife passed away, he married my grandma, 20+ years younger, porcelain white skin. Grandma never admitted that grandpa was black: “he was a dark moreno” she would say. She would hold her infant children and grandchildren in her arms for hours, touching their nostrils as if shaping dough to ensure they were “refined,” not wide. I wonder about grandma’s own internalizations on race and class. She died over the age of 90, semi-illiterate just like her husband, barely knowing how to write her own name. Her four children went on to graduate from college and my uncle and godfather João, who I know guides me from heaven, even became a medical doctor, the ultimate small town prestige.

Although the majority of girls in my hometown looked like me — morena, brown — in racist and classissist Petrolina, a microcosm for what’s good and evil in human behavior, having money or power, being formally educated in private schools and displaying “good hair” were all indicators that you didn’t belong to the povão, the masses. And the way that 12-year old me remembers, straight hair was more desirable than curly, textured hair. To be fair, curly hair was appreciated and desired, but with caveats: your roots had to be straight and volume had to be tamed. Frizz was always the enemy. In casual conversations it wasn’t uncommon to hear blatantly racist sentences such as “she’s so pretty, but she definitely has a foot in the kitchen” when referring to other women because of their hair texture. A “foot in kitchen” translates to being a cook, a domestic worker, an occupation loaded with negative connotations from Brazil’s troubled history with slavery, which wasn’t officially abolished until 1888. 

I learned how to tame my curls with military diligence, engaging in weekly sessions of coquetel de frutas (“fruit cocktail,” the ultimate deep conditioner of 1990s Petrolina), squeezing leave-in oils and practicing 15 daily minutes of intense, hard core headbangs in the quest for perfectly soft, frizz controlled curls after shower. My headbangs were so entertaining that friends and family would watch me shake my hair up and down just to laugh (in-home blowdryers and heat styling tools were not widely available in that era). Up to this day I don’t know how my neck didn’t break. Ultimately, I ended up accepting my hair and at times even liking it. I carried my curls all the way through my early college years, but regardless of how many times I was told they were beautiful, deep inside I was always conflicted. When my college roommate taught me how to use a blowdryer to straighten my hair, I felt sophisticated and powerful. For the next 20 years, I relied on a round brush and hot air to tame my mane and my innermost fears. On a side note, we women are taught to be tamed, to behave, to be pretty, to agree, to conform. Even though I had strong, rebellious women in my family and friendship circles, other powerful voices cluttered my sense of self.  

My niece Lais and I and our strikingly different Barbies
Then one Saturday afternoon in 2018, three months before our wedding, my soon to be husband looked at me astonished: “do you have naturally curly hair?” I was too preoccupied with something I don’t even remember. In an extraordinary exception to my beauty routine I ended up air drying my hair. Not that I ever consciously tried to hide my curls from him, he just had never seen them in our two year relationship. He told me on the spot that he preferred my hair natural and has been putting in frequent requests for more curls ever since. Needless to say that at first I didn’t believe him. In the subsequent years, more pieces of the ever evolving puzzle called maturity started to fill in the holes of my relationship with myself. Movies such as “Nappily Ever After” and “Self-Made,” focused on African American women and their relationship with hair, race and self-esteem, hit home. Donald Trump and his war on immigrants and latinos also shook me up, evoking greater awareness of my physical appearance. I’ve channeled my growing anger and disappointment with the toxic political climate into a sense of personal empowerment, wearing the immigrant latina label more vocally and consciously. I also made sure to give my 6 year old niece a Barbie with hair similar to hers (and a curvier body). This was 2019 and she was being bullied at school for her gorgeous curly hair. Her mother thanked me and said that representation matters. It does. No girl should internalize that her hair texture or the color of her skin should determine her self-worth. As racial tensions in the U.S. continue to rise, I am also getting in touch with my own brown privileges. For most part, I fit in in the bubble of cosmopolitan values of my adopted home, Houston, and in the rare occasions that the police stopped me in traffic, I never feared for my life.

Roaring again in June 2020
Time...with it I am learning how to be more gentle with myself. On a very intimate, vulnerable level there is less dependency on the gaze of others, more acceptance and acknowledgement that in this lifetime I get to experience extraordinary moments of pleasure and fun in this human vessel called body. An awakening of self. Leaving home makeup-free or showing up without makeup for work video meetings is now the default mode. Nonetheless, I do find tremendous enjoyment in dressing up and wearing bright red lipstick from time to time, even if my COVID-19 audience in my daily neighborhood walks is now composed of squirrels, doves and earthworms. I found an incredible community of proud curly hair women in my social circles and online, and am back to embracing my wild, frizzy, textured and unruly mane that roars. My own gaze is my primary judge and these days I like the reflection in the mirror. Age is turning out to be the conduit to unweave years of emotional traps, a giant spider that shines in the horizon with infinite possibilities of creation. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Quarantine




In that apocalyptic spring of 2020 when the world stopped on its axes and humankind moved indoors, when hoards of humans caught themselves diving and drowning into the depths of their fears and souls, Delia realized that her marriage had been pulverized from the outside in and the inside out. It was the end of romance, the end of lust, the end of tiny gestures that could keep alive the flame that brought them together. Somewhere between raising child number two, the money that never came, her morning breath and his overconsumption of television, their story was the clone of all other marriages that flatten into a dumpster of colorless tediousness. Now it was only the two of them and their silence, if not for the occasional sound of someone spraying disinfectant in the boxes that came in the mail. She didn’t even have the strength to create an escapist illusion. “Live in the present,” she kept hearing from her colleagues over Zoom. So she did. Her present was now a pan of boring stewed chicken simmering for supper. That is, until he showed up with those clippers. 

 “Can you cut it?” he asked. She gasped. That was a first. It was week eight of the quarantine and Sam hadn’t yet had a haircut. His now long thinning hair that grew erratically in uncoordinated patches didn’t frame his skull in any means attractive. She googled “how to cut hair with clippers” and watched tutorials on YouTube. She brought a mirror from upstairs, used a blanket as an apron, pulled up a chair and the kitchen turned into a barber shop. She was nervous but didn’t want to display any signs of an accelerated pulse. She made a joke to break the ice, but he couldn’t break a smile. She then remembered how small he could be. 

She started from the base of his skull with clipper blade number three and kept climbing up in circular motions. It had been months since they had this much skin on skin contact. Chunks of coarse hair touched her hands before they reached the floor and she felt a jolt of light electricity in the pit of her stomach. It rained the first time she touched his hair back in the day. Her mind now played Leonard Cohen’s she tied you to her kitchen chair/she broke your throne and she cut your hair/and from her lips she drew the Hallelujah. Why couldn’t he just passionately throw her on the kitchen counter and have a feast with what was left of each other? “Oh my gosh, what are you doing?” Sam shouted as he moved away from the chair. “I...I...I’m so sorry, I didn’t…”, she tried to explain, but he interrupted her: “You gotta be kidding me.” Delia somehow had managed to switch to blade zero and there were now chunks of baldness all across his head. His face was flushed in red spots and he had to gather a colossal amount of strength not to explode in rage. To her surprise, he stared at her, sat back in the chair and asked her to keep going. She paused and looked deep into his eyes thinking of all the roads she could take. In minutes, his head was as smooth as an egg. His expression was a mix of shock and delight as he studied his new completely bald look. “Can you smile for me now?,” Delia asked, smartphone in selfie mode. He wouldn’t. “My goodness, it’s just a smile. It won’t hurt.” Instead, he mumbled: “your legs are hairy.”

With her heart shattered in pieces after another blow of passive aggressive punch, she took on the self care advice from her earlier Zoom meeting. “Me, I will focus on me now.” She filled up the bath tube with warm water, drops of rose oil and Epson salt, lit some candles, pushed play on Pandora, closed her eyes and allowed her aching body to float weightlessly in darkness, if not for the heaviness of her thoughts: “how did I end up here?” That’s when Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen’s song started playing and Sam entered the bathroom. Well your faith was strong but you needed proof / You saw her bathing on the roof/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw his wife naked. He stood there for a few minutes examining every inch of her, from her large calf muscles to her shoulder length hair with overgrown gray roots. She was glowing in the clandelight, definitely heavier, plump winding curves that could shape a coastal highway. And like a Samson in reverse, Sam found his strength. Quietly not to disturb her, he undressed, entered the bath tube, grabbed the razor and gently started shaving Delia’s legs. 

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah