By Canice Leung
Being Chinese, I’ve received countless compliments about how nice it must be to have pin-straight hair. Fair enough… I came of age in the flat-iron era, when every girl had a freaking ionic ceramic whatever Babyliss with which they enthusiastically straightened their curly/wavy/poofy/voluminous/mostly-straight-but-maybe-kind-of-textured hair into these swingy, horse-mane shags. Like, even the girls with mostly straight hair straightened, with irons or carcinogenic “Japanese straightening treatments.” Not just the white girls, either, but Asian girls too. It always seemed to me a bit like Hudson’s Bay traders selling beaver pelts back to the natives — our look had been fetishized, commoditized, and they were selling it back to you for lots of money (anywhere from $400 to $1,200). You’d sometimes see girls in the hallways of my high school and university with burn marks around their ears or forehead, or maybe one of them fretting about how she forgot to turn off their iron that morning, and was it going to burn her bathroom down? Her dad would kill her. Or trying to figure out how to get mom and dad to pay for relaxers.
And yet, the more they wanted my kind of hair, the less I did.
First I cut it all off when I was 15. Then I started putting wax and pomade in it to make it bigger, more textured, less straight. I hated the way my hair was limp, so flat, so thin, so… boring. (See above, on a family trip when I was 17, and my driver’s license at 16.)
Then I started dyeing it. I bleached it, and then sometimes had to bleach it again, because do you even know what a pain in the ass it is to lighten black hair? Then I dyed it red. Then blue. Then orange. And then sometimes green. If I had to tally up on the money spent on dye or style products…? $500, about the same as a relaxing treatment.
My hair habits were informed by my interest in punk music (a predominantly white, male subculture, but that’s another post for another time) — but also informed by a white culture, even if it was a different kind of white culture. My genes gave me a fetishized look that other women paid lots of money to have, but that didn’t matter. The beauty norms I paid attention to were not the kind that resembled what I look like. But that’s kind of what being young is about, right?
In any case, the flat-iron trend came and went, but if it’s not a rejection of our natural hair, it’s breasts, butts, skin colour, isn’t it? I dyed my hair to get away from my teen-angsty self, partly, but also because beauty is hegemonic concept that varies in every culture, era, etc. We mold ourselves to some other prevailing beauty norms because we learn that it’s okay to pathologize our natural beauties. Sometimes we grow out of it, but mostly we don’t.