All my life, my hair has been complicated. In 1992, my mother gave birth to me and my head of silky straight hair. She loved my hair then, letting it grow long down my back, brushing it lovingly and tying it in dainty pastel ribbons. Of her three daughters, she adored my straight hair the most.
Then, in 3rd grade, it all changed.
I asked my mom to cut my hair just past shoulder-length, à la Christina Aguilera in “Genie in a Bottle.” After some begging, she caved and chopped it off.
Excited, I ran to the glass door of a living room cabinet to find my reflection. But I looked nothing like Christina Aguilera, or Britney Spears, or Aaliyah. My mom cut my hair straight across the bottom, and suddenly my head looked like a triangle nacho chip. The ends puffed out, to my horror, and regret coursed through my young veins. How could one haircut do something like this?
My immediate reaction was, how can I revert everything back to “normal.” The late 90’s and early 2000’s were a time of stick-straight hair, and I had absolutely no idea that hair texture can change over time. Though just a child, I understood I was different, and I did not want to be different.
“Just brush it a thousand times a day! Like Marcia Brady,” my mom explained when I came crying for advice.
I don’t blame her — this was all we knew. While a wide variety of hair textures naturally occur in the Philippines, only one hair texture dominated the television screen, one hair texture on the billboards and magazines, one hair texture covering the walls of hair salons: straight.
My mom had always been more of a bookworm than a fashionista. While peers played in the streets and flirted with boys, my mom read encyclopedias and studied quietly at home. Her main exposure to beauty came from old reruns of The Brady Bunch. She saw me as the spitting image of a Filipina Marcia Brady, so she gave me the little advice she had.
While both my parents came from curly-haired families, my mother did (and still does) believe that straight hair just looks better. We grew up in a largely Filipinx elementary school, around peers who looked like us in most ways but didn’t look like us in one important way.
Specifically, the most beautiful, popular kids grew straight and flowing black tresses. I concluded that straight hair was the “natural” way all Filipinxs looked, and we just needed to “fix” ourselves somehow.
But my older sister? Different. Very different.
My older sister shouldered the unfortunate burden of growing the curliest, most defiant hair of our three siblings. Other kids picked on her for the “beaver tail” ponytail she sported since we honestly didn’t know how else to contain it.
We lost many combs those years while my mother attempted to tame my sister’s mane. Eventually, we decided on a more “permanent” option: hair straightening.
One of our first “experiments” into hair straightening was a literal clothes iron: my sister, hunched over an ironing board, eyes closed and hands clenched as my mom pressed the hot iron on her coils.
And it worked! Well, it worked in the sense that my older sister finally controlled her tresses. No more beaver tail. Thus began years of straight ironing and chemical straightening to achieve a sense of normalcy.
I unquestioningly got sucked into watching TV ads for blow drying and straightening products, endlessly watching “miraculous” infomercials on the next best hair iron that turned even the coarsest hair stick-straight and silky smooth.
Starting around junior high, all three of us began ruthlessly straightening our hair. My older sister chemically straightened her hair since only that method gave her real results. Every couple months, she’d return to the salon and spend hundreds of dollars maintaining it.
Since our family did not have the kind of money to chemically straighten everyone’s hair, my younger sister and I began using a straightening iron every few days. Every time my hair puffed up, I’d squash its rebellion with a hot iron and hair oil.
This lasted for almost a decade. And I never questioned it.
Straightening my hair became ingrained in my way of life. I made time every few days to sit for a full hour and a half to finish it all.
“Wait, an hour and a half?!” a friend exclaimed. Now midway through college, I needed to borrow her straightening iron since I forgot mine, and she could not believe how much time I needed to use it. Her hair is slightly wavy, and she uses the iron to tame some kinks here and there. But never for more that 30 minutes, and only on occasion. However, my ancestors blessed me with voluminous and very, very thick hair. And a single pass of a straightening iron never sufficiently squandered my mane’s fighting spirit.
This was the first time I actually considered how impractical this was, almost silly. I spent hours and hours every week wasting away forcing my hair to be something it’s not. But I honestly didn’t know any other way to deal with it. So I continued living impractically. Until I met Frances - a curly haired Filipina!
Though we met a few years earlier, I became close with my friend turned roommate when we lived together our last year of college. She experienced much of the confusion I did, but reached a place of loving and accepting her curly hair in a way I had never seen before. And she was the first person to show me how to do the same with my own.
In 2014, I stopped fully straightening my hair. After years of “rebellion,” I realized that my hair should be let loose and free. I became proud of it’s unapologetic volume and strange mixture of straight sections, bouncy waves, and fluffy coils. I am unique, and that in and of itself is a truly beautiful and special thing.
While I do use products to moisturize and care for my hair, I’ve grown to love the freedom and individuality it represents.
One of the products I use is Kaya Essentials' centrifuged organic virgin coconut oil, it can be tough keeping my curls hydrated in arid summer heat. The coconut oil gives lightweight and versatile moisture between my washes, not to mention, leaves me smelling like a tropical vacation. I've tried other hair oils before, but they're really way too heavy for what I need. My hair is thick and can get greasy and sweaty if I'm not careful.
I started this journey of embracing myself and my reality only after finding others living their own truth. For a long time, I didn’t love myself, what I looked like, what made me different.
I'm a proud Morena whose grown to love the freedom and individuality my curly hair represents. Each strand unabashedly lives its best life, and I should too. I am me — there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something incredibly refreshing and irreplaceably real about that.
Jay Tolentino is an Entrepinay and coder at Angelist Ventures in the Bay Area, CA. She's passionate about tech, entrepreneurship & curly hair. You can connect with her on @jaytolentino_.