Growing up in Puerto Rico, I dreaded swimming in the ocean. Every time my friends invited me, I’d stay by the shore, sunbathing and guarding everyone’s belongings. Though I loved the feeling of waves flowing through my body and the healing nature of salt water, I hated how my hair looked after a day spent in the ocean. It was curly and messy – not the straight, sleek mane I’d spent an hour on every morning.
I can’t remember when this resentment toward my natural waves began. But I can recall when my love affair with straight hair started. It was 2006 – the night before my 6th grade graduation. My cousin Michelle and I both got our hair straightened by our cousin Viviana and her friend Natalia, masters of the early aughts plancha look. We both sat down to let them work their magic, using skinny peinillas to tame the baby hairs. It didn’t even bother me when I got my scalp burned by Natalia. I just remember combing my fingers through my hair afterward and how refined I looked in the pictures the next day.
It wasn’t long before I asked my mom for a straightener, and by some miracle, los Tres Reyes Magos delivered one to our tree that same year.
Since then, I’ve straightened my hair two or three times a week – managing the grease build up with dry shampoo – often waking up an hour earlier than normal. As a ballet dancer, it was hard to maintain my straight hair on a daily basis. Every morning, I’d wake up to re-do my plancha work that got messed up during ballet class the night before. I’ve said no to beach dates, no matter how much I liked a dude. I’ve always carried an umbrella in case of unexpected rain and a hair tie in case humidity got the best out of my carefully straightened hair. I never cared if people said my curly hair was beautiful. I always shrugged off the comments, never feeling confident enough to say, “Thank you.”
But some time in mid-March of 2019, I decided to challenge myself to a full month without straightening my hair. No heat, no straightener, no curling iron; only curling creams and air to shape my waves.
One day after work, I stopped by CVS to buy OGX’s entire line of curling products. I opted for the Moroccan Curling Perfection Defining Cream and the Coconut Curls Finishing Mist. I was a rookie but I knew that “coconut” and “defining” were key words I needed to include in my curling routine if I was to ace this challenge.
The process was annoying. It hurt to look at myself in the mirror. I could hear my tías saying, “Nena, ¿no te vas a peinar hoy?” I hunched my back even more than usual and avoided going out on the weekends. I knew I was not comfortable being my natural self because I had never given myself a chance to do so.
My natural hair is a part of me I have little control over, just like my anxiety and unlike my professional career. I’ve always been afraid of what it represents, what it looks like, and what reactions it will evoke. I grew up in a family that privileged el blower and la plancha above all, and I could never be the one to shy away from those teachings. But, in 2019, right after breaking up with a boyfriend of two years and soon before launching Emperifollá, I knew I needed to come to terms with who I am and what my hair actually looks like. If not, there’d be some serious trouble.
I explored more curly products – like Rizos Curls detangling spray – and learned to use braids in my favor to style my hair before it dries. I played with my part to feel more in control throughout the day and researched how healthy curly hair actually starts in the shower.
In 2019, I swam in the ocean more than I ever did in a regular year living in Puerto Rico and was unafraid to hike El Yunque under the rain. I learned caring too much about my hair was a boring way to live. Now, I simply carry on – no matter what the day may bring.