I recently found a picture of myself and my step-sister from when we were about 6. She’s dark and taller with long, stick straight hair. I’m fair and small with honey-brown curls. The photo is innocent; two smiling girls dressed up for church, holding dolls we’d gotten for Christmas that were meant to look like us, except the boxes apparently got switched and she holds one with light brown curls, and mine sports a dark, silky mane. I was happy with that doll. I liked her hair better.
When I came across the photo 40 years later, I had a sharp moment of surprise. Is that what we looked like? Surely I was plainer, more awkward… and my hair was wild, like the head of Medusa; out of control and horrible. According to my mental database, she should certainly be more beautiful; poised and airbrushed like a film star. Neither is true. We both look like cute, ordinary little girls. Why is my memory so different from this photo?
My mother married this girl’s father shortly before this photo was taken. My own parents had divorced when I was two, and I really have no memory of living with both of them. When this new ‘Dad’ arrived on the scene, I remember being curious and a little excited to have a dad that actually lived with us. He was nice to me at the beginning. I always thought it was because he just didn’t know me yet, and after he got to know me, he realized what a bad child I was and changed his mind. Years later, I realized he was nice because he was still trying to seduce my mother, and once he had her, he didn’t have to pretend anymore. Years of self-therapy, and analyzing him as a human person instead of the God of all that was correct has made me understand intellectually that none of his fury towards me was really about me. He was just a product of his own abusive childhood, but knowing that intellectually doesn’t completely eliminate the dark little cloud he left on my soul after living for 10 years with him. For the most part, I’ve gotten over the most obvious damage he left in his wake, but my feelings when I look at this photo make me realize there is one thing about myself that is embedded in my psyche as a representation of all that is bad about me: my hair.
My entire life with this ‘father’ was a harsh lesson in survival. He was moody and often violent, and the threat of a swinging belt was enough to make everyone in the house walk on eggshells. For a child who was naturally creative, and had spent 5 years of her life being mostly adored by female relatives, it was a sharp change in situation to realize that my existence seemed to be a problem. Anything I did or said was usually wrong. Any comment I contributed to a conversation might be called out as ‘stupid’. I was always too loud or in the way. Eventually, I became a bit reclusive at home, preferring to spend my time in my room alone with my records and books, but then I was often criticized for not participating. I learned early on to adjust my behavior at the drop of a hat to avoid conflict. However, one thing I couldn’t change was my hair. It was a constant source of conflict. My hair is fine and curly and easily windblown. My stepfather’s daughter, who would visit on holidays and in the summer, had straight, glossy hair that grew out of her head naturally that way and fell back into place after the wind had its way with it. In spite of constantly being pitted against each other with this comparison (and others that didn’t stick in my mind quite so sharply), we were friends when left to our own devices. We would play outside in the wind together, running and jumping and climbing trees with the happy, carefree joy that comes with youth and companionship. However, when we came inside after a summer’s day of sweaty play, I was always shocked back into the reality of my life by the nasty comments I got for looking like a ‘mess’, a ‘wild animal’, an ungroomed ‘heathen’- the very definition of what a girl should not be. She had not done anything differently than I had. It was just a fundamental flaw in my genetic makeup that made me so terrible, and he would pick at me about it, berate my mother for not making me be more feminine and threaten to chop it off so I could look like the boy I obviously wanted to be. A couple of times he even snatched up a brush and roughly yanked it through my tangled hair, practically pulling it out in his fury at my disobedience in letting my hair get into such a state.
In my research to adjust my thoughts about myself, I’ve read that a male role model in a girl’s life is essential. Unconditional love from a man is connected to self esteem, and the relationship is supposed to teach us what we are looking for in a partner later in life. The entire time this messed up push and pull was going on, all I wanted was to be able to do anything to make this man approve of me, even if I couldn’t inspire actual love. I concluded that the fact that it never happened was because I was just basically unloveable, and this conclusion has colored every relationship with a man I’ve ever had. I go in feeling optimistic and healthy, and run away the minute that messy haired little girl is resurrected by a comment or a behavior from the other person that pulls her back to the surface. After all, I’ve spent my whole life keeping my hair under control so I can deserve being loved. I have spent countless hours flat ironing it, squandered my money on smoothing products, straightening serums and hairspray. I’ve avoided pool parties, picnics on humid days and swimming in the ocean. I can’t have that little girl ruining everything by sticking her crazy Medusa head in and showing everyone what I mess I really am.
I look back at the photo and I realize that even though my step-sister also got the wrong doll, she was perfectly happy to keep the one with the curly hair, just as I was happy to have the sleek one. Though we’ve lost touch, mostly because of my own bitter feelings about that time in my life, I wonder if she had her own unhappiness that I didn’t see because I was so wrapped up in mine. To me, it looked like she was perfect, but I’m sure the whole situation affected her too. I think she loved me, and she shouldn’t feel bad for having the right hair. I’m ok now, and it’s all under control most of the time. Sometimes it rains, and I lose my grip on it temporarily, but now I just pull it back in a ponytail, put on a hat and move on.
by Jennifer Decker, 2017.