Beachwood High School
Instructor: Joshua Davis
Looking in the Mirror
Personal Essay & Memoir
Looking in the Mirror
When I was two years old, running along the beach of Lake George with my sister without a care in the world, I first became aware of the differences between myself and my family. As the sun glistened on my rosy cheeks, I paused by the shore and stared into my reflection while the flow of the water pushed back and forth against my sandy feet. My older sister stopped beside me, and together, we stared at our reflections. She was a small child with a headband pulling back her long hair from her eyes which framed the outline of her face. Turning to myself, I found that we looked almost unidentical. Sure, we had the same skin and hair color, but the appearance of our hair was vastly different. My hair resembled a cotton ball, curls flying left and right, all mostly undefined. Mostly fuzz. I ran a hand through my hair, feeling the soft strands slip through my fingers as I tried smoothing it out in vain. Each time, the strands persistently clumped together and bounced on top of one another.
At that time, it never concerned me that my hair was contrastingly different from that of my mother or sister. All people saw was the bouncy and carefree child who clutched her mother's hand, flashing a confident smile to everyone that turned her way. Never once had she felt ashamed for her hair bobbing back and forth, oblivious to the whispers of compliments and curious stares that came with each step. I almost wish I could have remained that self-confident in my appearance; however, I could never have forethought how the impact of society's judgment came to make me fear and detest my hair.
By the time I was in middle school, I had grown accustomed to my long frizzy hair that had contained so many minuscule curls that puffed together. I was fascinated by the stories my father told me of how hairdressers who advised cutting my hair only after it was longer or how my mother struggled to force my rambunctious hair into a more traditional braid, a style more conventional and accepted by society. I reveled in the authenticity of my hair and became determined to care for it on my own. I learned to scrub my hair endlessly in the shower with shampoos that never washed out completely. However, in any case, I didn't have the strength to move onto the next step: unpicking the tangles of my black nested monster. Every time I ran the comb through my hair, it'd cling midway to some messy maze of knots. At that point, I'd surrender myself to my grandmother, the master of entanglement, who'd caress my hair and anguish as she flawlessly untangled my hair and twisted it into a long billowy braid in an effort to calm both my hair and my volcanic emotions.
At school, my friends became more cognizant of my hair when it was in a ponytail, often comparing it to the puffiness of a cloud or joking that anyone could see me coming a mile away because of the way my hair looked. Each time, I'd bat their comments away as if they were nothing, yet at the same time, I'd wonder if their remarks were genuine compliments or the contrary. I'd soon find out one day in gym class when my friends and I were playing a game of badminton. After winning the last point, my teammate and I touched racquets in victory. As I turned to face our opponents though, I became aware of the footsteps behind me and briefly felt someone's fingers slip through my hair as they trapped the birdie within it. Realization hit me moments later. My voice echoed inside my brain as I silently willed them to remove the birdie from my hair. They only stood there, entrapping me with their pointed fingers and sounds of laughter. My cheeks burned red as my heart beat sped. My words rang on repeat in my head like a broken recorder. No. Why are they doing this? Stop it. In frustration, I failed to pinpoint the location of the birdie, ripping out strands of my hair in the process. After shaking and tossing my hair multiple times, determined to free it from the birdie, one of my friends went behind me and uncovered the birdie. I glared at them coldly, clenching my racquet before dropping it and rushing into the locker room, hiding the hot tears that spilled from my eyes.
There, I looked at myself in the mirror analyzing my small, round face in glasses covered by thick minuscule curls encircling my caramel-colored face. I'm Indian, I told myself, or am I? Did anyone like me even have this hair? I scolded myself for having the hair I had. It wasn't something that I wished for, could control, or even change. I was tired of trying to tame it as I could never get the outcome that satisfied everyone. I detested my hair as it hated me. Desperation clung to my eyes, pondering if there was any way to change what people saw of me. My breath rattled my body up and down, trying to calm my raging emotions, but all I wondered was if anyone would ever see me for something more than my hair.
From then on, I began closing off my emotions and became extremely self-conscious of my appearance. I talked little to the same friends who never apologized, mostly averting their gaze or avoiding them altogether, untrusting them with my innermost thoughts or feelings. Around anyone, I'd try to force my long messy waterfall of a ponytail into hoodies as I went to school or smoothed it out unsuccessfully throughout the days that followed. Every time my fake friends and I joked or conversed, their joy haunted me and brought memories of the day when their laughter broke me down, questioning my identity. They'd forever remind me to never let lose control of my hair or emotions as I didn't want to risk being singled out ever again.
By the time the pandemic began dying down, I became convinced that it was finally the time for a fresh start in my appearance, specifically with regards to how I styled my hair. My sister urged me to take advantage of this opportunity. I was about to enter high school, I told myself. This time will be different. It was time to explore what style suited me the best.
The next couple of months were filled with lots of experimentation. Together, we researched curly hair products and tutorials. At school, my sister conversed with friends with similar hair types, relaying their advice to me. I'll admit that I often stood on the sidelines as she worked with me to experiment with curly-haired products. My parents were worried about the unpredictable effects of using a lot of products on my thick hair and concerned that it would do more harm than help. After weeks of trial and error we pushed on, against all odds. I'll never forget my sister's bubbling excitement when she first thrust tubes of curl creams and gels into my hands and dragged me to the shower or how we scoured the house in search of our abandoned diffuser to help style my hair when fresh from the shower. She was the reason I began taking more interest and initiative in caring for my hair. Over time, I came to enjoy styling my hair. It was an art that took up precious time and patience in the middle of a busy school week, but I quickly understood the benefits of well groomed hair. Yes, my hair remained that frustrating mess of curls, but running the curl teaser through my wet hair gradually relaxed the strands and eased the tangles. I learned to gently rake the curl cream lovingly through my hair and finish by smoothing it down with a gel. It took time for my hair to comply with the routine, I won't deny it, but in the end, the effort was well worth it.
Gone were the small curls that hovered above my head. Gone was the twisted black nest of tangles. Gone was the puffy smoke cloud that trailed after my head. My curls spilled evenly around my shoulders, sectioning into thin layers with definitive small rings that framed my face. Sure they were crunchier than I'd intended with the gel or maybe sometimes a bit too thick, Yet there was undeniable definition and neatness to it, something I was finally pleased with and effectively banished the torrential rain of comments.
Eventually, my parents weren't the only ones who appreciated my new hair style, but also my peers. They no longer discussed my curls because they saw my pride and newfound confidence; my new appearance had changed me both physically and mentally. Now, I only hear their compliments and wishes to have hair like mine.
Nonetheless, I can't say that everything has miraculously become perfect now. There are still times when I cannot bear my hair as I struggle to remove all the knots or question myself as to why I have to spend countless hours on my hair a week while others spend mere minutes. Some days, I'm too lazy to style my hair in the mornings when I'm rushing to finish homework or lose track of time studying for a test, thus stumbling into school with a nest of tangles. I don't care anymore. For so long, I've wasted my emotions on prioritizing other people's perceptions of my appearance, and in the end, no matter how much I tried, I could never fit into society's expectations.
If there's anything I've learned so far, it's that appearance doesn't define my identity. Although society's impression of appearance (specifically of my hair) may affect my friendships, awards, roles, or social status, at the end of the day, it's not worth it to read into their opinions. I can't change the hair I was born with or how I'm distinctly recognizable from afar. All I know is that it's unique and I have embraced my identity. I no longer fear letting my volatile hair loose to the world, no matter how it looks. Ultimately, styling my hair gives me pleasure. I control how I look and when I put in the effort, it is easily evident. Thus, every time I look in the mirror, I'm reminded of the phases of my hair and personal turmoil, but more importantly than that, I now see what I want to see—confidence, love, and perseverance.