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The Hair Covering Adventures of Me and My Rastafarian Beret: An Afro-tastic Report

My husband’s tribute to my good hair day and the hair covering that was swallowed up by it.

Most people are socially appropriate enough that they don’t or won’t comment on what’s going on with your hair unless it’s on fire. I think that’s pretty fair. I mean, if you’re having a bad hair day, aren’t you the first to notice anyway? Do you really need other people raining in on your frizzy parade?
In my case, because my afro-tastic hair changes depending on the weather, when I last washed it, when I got a haircut (which happens VERY rarely), on how much “product” or which product I did or did not put in it or what hair covering I’m wearing that day, I think some people really just can’t help themselves. To them, my head begs for attention. To some headcases, the very nature of how my hair grows is a “cry for help.”
But honestly, that’s really NO EXCUSE.
All (or most) of the following comments were made with the same yenta look on his or usually her face: 99% of the time.
Some of them were made with genuine concern and love: 1% of the time.
“Is that how you’re covering your hair?”
“Is that really considered covering your hair?”
Every Purim, as a “joke” from someone: “That’s a great afro wig!” (Teehee, teehee, NOT!)
“Oooooh, is there something different with your hair? Oh, it SEEMS like there is something different with your hair!” (Imagine Julia Child‘s voice now crossed with Brooklyn yenta.)
“Here, (subtext: I don’t like the head covering on your head) take this head covering I don’t use anymore!” (Funny enough, one time when this happened, the head covering was TOO big for my head. A miracle. The other time, I, literally, outgrew the head covering the next day.)
Even when pressed…when I don’t just walk, literally, right out of the conversation when I realize where it’s going (now you know why you’re seeing my back walking away from you) and I dignify the latest stupid comment with an answer and I mention that my hair and my head covering is between me, G-d, my husband, my “this is off-the-record” rabbi and his poor put-upon straight-haired wife, I’ve gotten:
“Oh really, so what does your husband say about your hair?”
“Why doesn’t your husband/his family buy you a nice sheitel?”
“Your husband really says he loves your hair?” (Look of disbelief)
“Oh really, what did your rabbi say?”
“Is that really a tefach of hair?” It’s not my fault my tefach looks bigger than yours.
“Does your rabbi…(nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)?”
“Have you tried straightening your hair?” (Or “shaving your hair”?)
This last one is almost always said in the same condescending, trying-to-be-helpful tone used by people who have “helpful” tips to offer about how to help my fibromyalgia. My favorite instance where this happened, a good friend standing next to me cut the person off and said, “Aliza’s tried everything. Thank you.” Case closed.
People have offered to do straighten my hair for me. Seriously. With a hair iron. B-A-R-B-A-R-I-C…especially if you grew up on Dominican hair stylists who kick it old school and use giant hair rollers, a salon bonnet-shaped hair dryer, a handheld hair dryer, a good round brush and only sometimes, chemicals (unless it makes your too “fine” or “sensitive” hair fall out before like mine did). Did you see the episode where Phoebe on “Friends” burns down the apartment she shares with Rachel…with a hair iron? Tsk, tsk. Don’t you know hair irons are evil?
I do know women with my hair type who do straighten it to be able to wear whatever hair covering’s most socially appropriate in their community. I don’t judge them even though I’m pretty militant about my curly hair. I don’t judge them because I know how things are. I know how many women (even white ones) have come up to me and confessed (I am obviously a hair priest) to relaxing their hair or straightening it under peer pressure. I’m sure you’re familiar with peer pressure, peer pressure like getting TEASED daily at school or at home or at SHABBOS DINNERS! How things are is that straight hair is “hot” (even mussed up and strategically tussled) and curly hair…is not.
But seriously, let’s just go there for a second, when a white woman with straight hair (natural, flat-ironed or chemically relaxed, I don’t care) has the audacity of telling me she thinks my hair needs to be straightened, all I can think is that she’s begging for a throwdown. If it’s a non-white woman, I just tell myself they got to you. They are very powerful. I forgive you. Stay strong, sistah.
But wait, my family is full of non-white women and I won’t even take that crap from my mother, my grandmother (a former Dominican hair stylist of the most hardcore kind) or my 98-year-old great-grandmother who can’t even look at my head without giving it a dirty look. So don’t presume to think I’ll take it from you. On Shabbos. Our day of rest!

Honestly, you don’t want to know how many times women have made a disgusted look over my natural hair and differentiated in MY PRESENCE between good curly hair you can run a brush/comb through and MY kind of hair. There are thoughts in your head that you’re never supposed to say out loud. I know this to be true because I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth, too, which is really hard when you have TMJ.

And then the same women have gone on to ask me why black women straighten it? Seriously? I’ve gotten this numerous times and every single time I’m incredulous. You think natural black women’s hair is abhorrent but you can’t figure out one reason why they straighten it?
Girl, did you miss the Glamour article where an editor got slammed after saying an afro was inappropriate for the workplace? Did you miss the clip from “Good Hair” where that poor black high school girl articulated the same damn thing?
And don’t worry, I won’t even discuss dreads, braids, cornrows or kinky twists as an alternative to hair straightening because again, with the throwdown bit. I know you think they’re “too black” and “too militant” because I also remember being brainwashed to think the only options for women with hair like mine are straightening your hair…or straightening your hair.
Please spare me the “why are black women so hung up on their hair?” Please. If you don’t, I will make fun of you for perming (means straightening for blacks, means curling for whites, means confusing to Hispanics) and/or doing strange things to your straight hair to make it FULLER, BLONDER and all related hairstyle malfunctions.
Now, I just tell clueless people to watch Tyra Bank’s very serious show (take a second to banish “America’s Top Model” from your mind) on natural hair. Thank you, Tyra! See it here: “Straight Hair At Any Cost?
If you need a little comedy, a little spoonful of sugar with your reality check, I recommend renting Chris Rock’s pretty informative but kind of disappointing documentary on the black hair industry, “Good Hair.”
If you’re short on time, you can just get a clue by reading what that off-her-rocker Newsweek editor wrote about Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s afro. This is what women with hair like mine (or hair even kinkier) are up against. The next person to presume to say out loud that he/she thinks my hair is knottier because it’s curly, well, there will be a reckoning. That’s for sure. If my hair’s so knotty, why do you have to brush yours all the time?
Now, dear friend, if you’re reading this and realizing you are one of those people who made these kinds of comments more than once around me and you’re turning red in the face (from either embarrassment or anger), let me set the record straight, I am talking about SEVERAL people and SEVERAL instances. You are, unfortunately, not very original in this respect.
But just to recap, no, it’s not cute when you or your children make racist comments about my hair.
No, it’s not cute to offer that my hair makes a good air bag. Yes, I know you were being sarcastic and mocking the people who make stupid comments about my hair but…yeah, I’m just saying, just in case….
I also don’t answer to “weirdo” or “you have weird hair.”
No, it’s not cute to compare it to animals. My hair is not a wild animal. I have never once compared your hair to an Afghan hound, Lhasa apso or komondor dogs. If I have manners despite being raised by wolves, you can, too.
I also don’t like it being compared to “pubes.” (Yeah, right up until then, I know you thought I was a mad raving over-sensitive manic, didn’t you?)
No, it’s not cute when you or your children touch (and pull) my hair without permission. No, it’s not cute even when you ask for permission. I am not a petting zoo. No, not even if you bless it.
And when I HAVE let you touch it and you said, “Oh, I didn’t expect it to be so soft!” I. Want. To. Slap. You. But all I can say is…oh, I’m sorry it doesn’t feel like the crunchy Brillo you thought it would.
Plus, if you make a digusted face when I tell you I don’t have to wash my hair more than once a week and that it never gets oily or “dirty,” I will be forced to remark on the fact that your hair is THIN (thanks, Dana!), boring, shapeless, oily and obviously disgusting because you have to wash it every day, G-d forbid more than once a week! Yeech! (I took sick pleasure in schooling the unfortunate person who was my test-subject for this “try turning it around on them” venture.)
Now do you get it? The point is that you really need to learn what it feels like to have obnoxious comments made about your hair constantly and consistently. Just imagine what your life would be like in a curly-centric world where you couldn’t find decent “normal” shampoo and conditioner in the local store, much less find reasonably priced ones, much less go a week without some stupid comment being made about your hair.

Please add all these to the “Please Don’t” list.

I add this last bit only to confuse you further.
It may come as a shock to you but my father has straight hair! Many of my brothers and sisters do! Dominicans come in all shapes, colors and hair types. But as a culture, if you’re hair’s not straight, we make sure it’s straightened from the minute it curls (mine started curling at age 3!). Pelo bueno=good hair/straight hair. Pelo malo=bad hair/not-so-straight hair. I learned these terms before I started kindergarten. Probably even before getting potty-trained. Just like you think twice about cursing in front of your kids, think again about what you say in front of your children about their hair or those people‘s hair.
Yes, I know you find it hard to believe but I am quite comfortable with my low maintenance styling routine, which mostly involves fluffing my hair back into shape every morning and spraying in (or not) leave-in conditioner. I spend about 10 minutes A WEEK on my hair. How much do you spend? No, straightening it is NOT “easier” for me. But it’s sure as hell more societally acceptable. Try to hunt down some products for keeping curly/kinky hair natural in the black women’s hair section and see how you fair.
Oh, the volumes (pun intended) I could (and have written) written on hair. And oh, the tongue lashing I wish I had the energy to give to every women or man who has negatively commented on the hair of any woman, Jewish or otherwise, especially my ‘fro, and what is or isn’t on it. You know who you are! Now get some shame over it.
Every once in a while, I do have a nice conversation about hair, mine or otherwise. A lovely rabbi’s wife told me she had my back if I had kids with hair like mine. She’s done plenty of research on her daughter’s hair and how to keep it natural. Now, I have someone to turn other than my peeps at the Jewish Multiracial Network! All my mother taught me about taking care of hair like mine involved a lot of cursing, brushing (DO NOT BRUSH CURLY HAIR!) and backhanding me in the head with the brush. Ouch.
A dear woman once said: “People just don’t get it! How you get these questions every day or at least anytime that you are surrounded by people, and especially on Shabbos when every inch of you, including your brain just wants to rest. They don’t get how their prying, insensitivity, and just plain rudeness can make you cry when you get home or make you feel soooo not accepted or so angry that you may want to punch them.”
And now, an update version of an all-time blog favorite!
My Rastafarian Beret &
Other Adventures in Hair Covering (with more details and jokes!)

Growing up, I thought obsessing about hair was a “Dominican thing.” Later, I found out it was also a “black thing.” And after converting to Judaism, I realized it was also a “Jewish thing.”

I can remember back to a time when I looked forward to covering my hair. It was exciting. So much cooler than a wedding ring. It was a big whopping sign that I’d gotten married. It made me feel special.

But then I started doing it. Every day was a bad hair day. The head coverings damaged and dried out my supersensitive kinky hair. I cried all the time. No matter how bad my hair looked, my husband told me he loved it. But I didn’t. I ended up shaving my head.

What I liked most about having no hair was that I could suddenly wear all those trendy hats I saw women at shul wearing. I could fit in. I didn’t look like that monster from the Alien movies or Marge Simpson because my afro was threatening to explode from underneath my hair covering. I looked like those dazzling women on coveryourhair.com.

But the hair grew back. My husband made me promise I wouldn’t shave it off. He agreed to spend money we didn’t have to support my hair: only the best hair products, only the best hair cuts from curly hair specialists. I became a hardcore lover of Ouidad though I dabbled in Miss Jessie’s and wondered about Devachan.

When I went to get my haircut for the first time since growing back my hair, I took off my head covering which much shame. It was matted, brittle, dry, damaged, disgusting. And embarrassing. It didn’t matter how much product I put into it. When my hair stylist saw my hair come out of my head covering, she couldn’t hide her horror. She gasped.

But nothing could prepare me for what she said after she had combed through it.

“You’re losing your hair,” she said.

“What?”

“I see it in a lot of my Orthodox clients,” she replied quietly. “Especially the ones who wear wigs.”

“But I’m not wearing wigs,” I told her adding that a wig wouldn’t fit over my hair.

She ran her fingers through my hair. “It’s really thinning,” she said. “See how your hairline has receded?”

I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t looked at my hair for over a year. It was too shameful. But she was right.

After she washed and styled my hair, it looked wonderful. Better than it had in ages. But as soon as she was done, I pushed it back into the large black headscarf my friends made fun of because it was “too frum.” The hair stylist pursed her lips but said nothing.

Covering my hair was ruining my self-esteem, causing my hair to fall out, but I wouldn’t stop. Forget my relationship with G-d or halacha (Jewish law), sadly I was more concerned that not covering it would have made me stick out more. Besides, I knew what people said about women who didn’t cover their hair. Other Jewish women were not “very observant” or “frum” if they stopped covering their hair but as a convert, I feared they would say worst. (See: “Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Are Reversing Conversions By the Fistful”)

To read more of this updated version: click here.
RELATED:
“Bagels & Locks: How My Jewish Husband Taught Me to Love My Hair” by ME (Chabad.org version, extended from Latina magazine version)
Thank G-d, Mami and Mami–I call my grandmother the same thing I call my mother since she was 38 when I was born!–don’t read Chabad.org.

Buy something for your head if you wish at Coveryourhair.com. Be sure to also check out their awesome Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages! They are social networking geniuses!

Before you buy, check out my post on Update: My Head Covering Woes and a special thanks to the fan who offered to knit me a hat and led me onto Esty.com where a beret-tam-snood is only a click away. Someday, I’ll tell you about the time Bubbie tried and failed to knit me up something.

JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Journal Fall 2009 on “Body Image” with several articles on hair and hair covering, including a fascinating look at a Jerusalem exhibit on hair covering that shows women with and without their head coverings on.

Version 1.0: “The Rastafarian Beret and Other Adventures in Hair Covering” because you can never get enough of this story?

My post on The Mivkah and “Black” Hair styles” which was made superbly popular on Google by fans like you!

Yes, I know how cute I look in a sheitel after my hair has quite been mercilessly tied down by a bandana. What you can’t see is the Dominican women, who worked there, and my friends in the sheitel shop laughing uproariously as I pose. Especially since they saw the effort it took to get these sheitels on my head.

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” Book by Ayanna Byrd

“Curl Talk: Everything You Need to Know to Love and Care for Your Curly, Kinky, Wavy, or Frizzy Hair” Book by Ouidad

“Hide & Seek: Jewish Women on Hair Covering” Book by Lynne Schreiber (available on Amazon.com and coveryourhair.com)
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8 thoughts on “The Hair Covering Adventures of Me and My Rastafarian Beret: An Afro-tastic Report

  1. Are people INSANE? Why would they say those things to you? It's beyond rude. I have curly hair. Not super fluffy, just curly and people are always talking about how curly headed girls should straighten. I don't get it. Like I have the energy for that? Heck, they should be happy I even wash it. Sometimes that seems like more work then I can manage. I happen to like naturally curly hair anyway. I think yours is really cute.

    Like

  2. Seriously? I think your hair is really really lovely.

    But I'm a straight-hair girl who always wanted big curls. or tight curls. Or ANY curls. Sigh.

    (I think we all, at some point, want to look the opposite of how we naturally do. That's what they do to girls, you know.)

    Like

  3. Well, I know that as an Ashkenazi girl I don't have the privilege of talking really, but I have always wanted curly hair… I would have done anything. But I digress. Seriously, it really shocks me that people think they have the right to touch or insult your hair! I understand the curiosity- as someone whose hair barely crosses the line from straight to wavy, I am aware that I have a fascination with curly hair of all types. But really, people are people, not show dogs. And when I watched “Good Hair”, it just killed me to see that three year old having lye put on her scalp. Anyway…
    I'm so sorry that you've had to deal with such idiots.

    -Ilana

    Like

  4. Tzipporah, none of the people making these comments wishes they had hair like mine, trust me. I get that every once in a while, but very rarely. More often than not, I get people who don't even bother not to make faces when they comment on my hair. I wish that we were able to build healthier girls, and women, who loved themselves as they were and accepted others, especially those who look different than them, as they are without making value judgments.

    Like

  5. Ilana, that three-year-old was me. And the thing is if her mother didn't straighten her hair, she'd be getting the comments I get. It's much easier I think to take these comments when you're older but when you're a little girl getting teased every day in school or by your own relatives?? When you rarely ever see people with hair like yours or skin like yours on TV?

    Like

  6. People are nuts. I love your hair. I hate that people think they can just open their mouths and start being “helpful” or “critical.”

    Dear people,
    “Helpful” actually isn't.
    love, me

    I was just thinking today that one of the reasons I like wearing a scarf is that it makes my hair lie flat when I take the scarf off. I always thought flat hair was “normal” when I was growing up (big poufy curly hair like I have NOT being “normal”) and oh my gosh the self loathing all those years because of my curls. But I LOVE curls on other people. My therapist says this is a cognitive disconnect and I could use another 5 months in therapy to correct it. Also, she has curly hair.

    I have a kneejerk reaction to seeing myself with flat hair like, “Wow, that's better.” And I hate that I do that because it seems like such a rejection of what actually is the reality of my hair and by extension, the reality of ME. That probably makes NO sense.

    Anyway. I love your hair. NOT that it matters what I think, the only person who matters when it comes to your hair is YOU.

    Like

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