My hair has begun to spiral. Black wires sprout and shift from all angles, like shaded vines in search of the sun. It has been two months since my last haircut. As we all have experienced, the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered the barbershops, offices, schools, and restaurants. My clippers lie fallow. My calendar is clear of social obligations that require “getting fresh.” Simply put, I’m wolfin’. Under quarantine, the pressure to tame, slick, or clip my curls into submission has been all but eliminated. While stay-at-home orders have felt for some like a loss of freedom, for me it’s been liberating: I’m once and for all freed from the archaic concept of pelo malo.
In 2020, I am a 31-year-old man reestablishing a healthy relationship with my hair and identity.
Pelo malo, or “bad hair,” is another concept in Latinx culture, like colorism, that insidiously elevates European standards of beauty over African ones. Pelo bueno is silky, soft, straight, or wavy; whether on a man or woman, it’s easily manageable and lends itself to a variety of styles. Pelo malo is hair that needs to be tamed. It is coarser, thicker, and curlier. It is the breaker of combs and does not readily comply with European styles being forced upon it. The idea itself speaks to the complicated sense of identity present in many Afrodescendientes.
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I first heard the words pelo malo from my mother’s lips. She’d tell me how, when she was pregnant with me, she prayed that I would inherit her jet waves rather than my father’s tight curls. But alas, it was not meant to be. Though wavy at first, my hair soon blossomed into a woolly crown. And so began a lifelong process of struggling to make my hair look “good.”
I was constantly told that my hair looked best when it was slicked back or “low and tight.” I’d show up to family dinners and hear my father’s voice boom from the kitchen, “You need to cut that shit.” This coming from a man whose attempts to wrangle his own curls during his younger days led to a ponytail that pointed up rather than down. While straightening my hair, beads of sweat would form on my mother’s lip as she worked a blower and comb through my unruly mane. She’d tell me that I didn’t have bad hair, I just didn’t take care of it, that I didn’t maintain it or use enough product to make it manageable.
As a young person, I learned quickly that a fade or Caesar was the standard. It brought me in line with my Black and Brown peers and was easy to maintain: a shape-up after one week, a fresh cut after two. But I quickly grew bored with these looks. All the White boys on the big and small screens seemed to have more exciting hairstyles than mine. But when I tried to emulate them, I found I needed a copious amount of product to maintain the look. In grade school, I went through a phase where I would slather my hair with handfuls of gel to keep that wet look. However, it came with an unpleasant side effect: By midafternoon, my scalp would be a bed of dried gel flakes, which my classmates mistook for dandruff. To this day, I refuse to use gel.
I first heard the words ‘pelo malo’ from my mother’s lips. She’d tell me how, when she was pregnant with me, she prayed that I would inherit her jet waves rather than my father’s tight curls. But alas, it was not meant to be.
Over the years, I experimented with hairstyles to varying degrees of success. Mohawks, undercuts, man-bun: I tried them all. But eventually, due to a combination of fickle self-image and criticism from my Puerto Rican family, I always came back to a Caesar. It was neater, more professional, and, as my parents would tell me at family gatherings and dinners, “cleaner.” But every time I came back to it, my hair seemed a little thinner. It appeared I started to lose the battle many of my friends had already lost and were now resorting to lighter and lighter fades to disguise the unevenness that dotted their heads. It wouldn’t be long until a Caesar wasn’t just an option, but the last resort before baldness.
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While a Caesar seemed boring to me as a child, it felt like a trap as an adult. I’d look at Afro-Latinx icons like Maxwell and Miguel, both known at different times throughout their careers for iconic coifs, and feel envy. As a teen, I proudly rocked a fro, either full-on or in pigtailed puffs, a salute to my Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. But as an adult, I also had to fight with standards of professionalism. I wanted to look good in the suits I wore to work. Frequently, letting my hair grow out not only required increased maintenance but also left me feeling bummy, ashamed, or just ugly.
This idea of long hair being a young man’s domain is not new. It is not even solely restricted to men of color; much ridicule has been reserved for suburban dads who rock man-buns. But the idea of attracting the wrong kind of attention is something that uniquely affects Black and Brown men. It’s not only due to the way curlier, thicker hair is seen to people outside of our cultures, but also how many Afrodescendientes are taught to view their hair.
The idea that “good hair” needs to be manageable — and if it cannot be controllable, it needs to be short — is not my parents’ prejudice alone. It is a stigma carried by Black and Brown people whose hair doesn’t conform to the standard put forth by society. We use words like “pasas” or “naps” to describe hair that comes in a variety of textures, from flowing loose curls to thicker, tighter ringlets. We are taught that long is sloppy, even threatening. And while I have always felt that I was proud of my hair and heritage, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t policed myself to look more presentable.
But under quarantine, I have found reprieve from the systems that enable the pelo malo stigma to thrive. Nobody could see how unkempt it was. There was no need to thread my fingers through my curls and obscure the thinning patches. And after about three weeks of social distancing, I noticed something: The thinning patches were gradually growing less prominent. The volume returned. My once-flaccid curls had begun to arc high over my head. I realized that in all the years I’d spent trying to regulate my hair, experimenting with new styles and products, I had never allowed my hair to regulate itself.
There is no such thing as “bad hair.” There are only varying shades of ethnic identity. Hair is one of the first things we notice when we look at someone; characteristics hardwired in our mind make us think we can identify the regions or demographics to place them. And growing out my hair after so many years of fighting it has helped reestablish a connection to my identity that I felt in danger of losing; grappling with thinning hair will do that to you. I now wake up and rush to the mirror to look for new growth and changes in my curls’ pattern and texture. My FaceTime conversations with friends feel like celebrations of a new sense of liberation. The phone screen reveals that my friends’ hair also grows freely, all of us in states of disheveled realness I hadn’t glimpsed since we were children. I’m proud.
For years we’d step out into the world and be told what we really looked like. That we didn’t look Puerto Rican; we looked Pakistani, or African American, or Egyptian, or whatever. But staring at each other through the phone, cracking jokes, hairlines lost behind a sea of black, we just look like ourselves.
More important, I feel like myself.