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.