Eden Tefera, a first-year neuroscience student, attended Catholic school from kindergarten to ninth grade. ''I was the only black person in my school, let alone the only person with curly hair. When I was in middle school and more concerned about fitting in, I would straighten my hair a lot,'' Tefera said.
Tefera expressed the patience accepting natural hair requires. ''It’s hard when you’re starting from a far point of never wanting people to see your curly hair and wishing your hair was a certain way to loving the way it is. It takes way longer than expected. It took me a while to shift to be more comfortable in my natural hair than in my straightened hair. Honestly I don’t know if I am (comfortable) yet,'' Tefera said.
When her cousin gained the confidence to wear her natural curls, Tefera followed suit. ''We grew up together and would have our hair done at the same time. She started wearing her hair natural first, and I said, ‘Oh, I want to!’'' she said. ''One weekend, I didn’t have time to do my twist-outs, so I washed it, put curling cream in it, and that was it.''
Even though Tefera wears her hair naturally now, she says she still feels influenced by others’ standards of what hair should look like. ''As an American-Ethiopian family, when we go out and ‘look nice,’ it means getting your hair straightened. You start associating ‘dressing up’ with sitting in a chair and frying your hair for three hours,'' Tefera said. ''If I have a daughter, I want her to wear her natural hair to important life events, like graduation, so she will remember them that way.''
Elika Asis, a second-year biology student, moved to the United States from the Philippines when she was 4 years old. ''I didn’t have the typical silky, long, smooth black hair the all Asian girls had. You would think that it’s just hair, but it is traumatic,'' she said. ''Not only the emotional pain that comes with it, but also the physical pain. You have people tugging at your hair, and my arms get tired from getting (knots) out, and at some point your head just starts to ache and your scalp feels like it’s falling apart.''
Without knowledge or experience of dealing with natural curls, Asis struggled to know how to care and style her hair. ''There are times that I absolutely hate my hair and I wish that I had straight hair. I wish that it was so easy to handle, like I could just wake up, brush my hair and get out of the door. But it’s so much more complicated than that,'' Asis said. ''It’s very rare to have my hair down. I always have my hair in a bun or braided, like this right now.''
Asis wondered how she could embrace Filipino culture if others failed to see her as who she truly was. ''It kind of bummed me out, not because I was being mistaken for other races, but because to others, I don’t look full Filipino. But that’s what I am. I don’t know why my hair is like this. I want to be able to just have my hair down and breathe and not have people want to question me about it,'' Asis said.
Even with continuous challenges, Asis still remains hopeful. ''I think I’m at that stage where I accept it. I don’t want straight hair, but I still want my hair to look a certain way and I don’t know how to get there,'' she said. ''Over the years I have just realized it is a huge part of me. Picturing myself with straight hair – it’s not me. I do love my hair now. It’s different – it’s not something everyone has.''
Erykah Brown, a first-year English student, grew up feeling like she could never wear her hair naturally. ''I thought, ‘If I wear my hair, it will look unkempt, it will look ghetto, it will look ugly,''' Brown said. Now she makes it a point to wear her natural hair. ''The more I wear it, the more I become comfortable with it. It’s so sad. I’ve had to retrain myself to be comfortable wearing my hair.''
Brown’s confidence in her own hair grew from support from her own father. ''My dad, and still now to this day, encouraged me to wear my natural hair, love my natural hair, love my skin tone, ... and that’s not a narrative you hear often, especially from a black male. So to me, I didn’t even realize that I was blessed to have a dad that cares, because a lot of black fathers don’t. That’s the unfortunate reality,'' Brown said.
Brown admits there are good reasons why women in the black community chose to wear weaves or wigs. ''There’s nothing wrong with wearing (a) weave or wig. Sometimes you want to change it up,'' she said. ''It’s actually more protective to wear a straight wig instead of straightening your hair. But if you feel more comfortable with fake hair than your own hair, that’s where the problem is. That’s something you need to address, and if you don’t address it, ask yourself, 'Why? What am I running from?'''
Ultimately, Brown wants women in the black community to see all hair as equally beautiful. ''People (should) learn that there is no one look that is more beautiful than an another. It’s not that straight hair is ugly. It’s not. It’s that curly hair is no less than, is no uglier than, is no less sophisticated, is no less sexy than straight hair,'' Brown said.
Aubrey Gilman, a first-year undeclared student, grew up not caring about her appearance. ''As a kid, having curly hair changed my style to being a tomboy. After I got out of that phase, I realized ‘girly girls’ have straight hair. From sixth grade all the way to eighth grade, I straightened it every day. I woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to restraighten it every day. I lost a lot of hair,'' Gilman said.
When Gilman started attending high school, a tighter schedule meant less time to straighten her hair. ''When I started wearing it naturally, my friends from middle school genuinely didn’t know I had curly hair,'' Gilman said. Fortunately, her classmates responded with praise. ''People started comparing my hair to my big personality. They were like, ‘Big hair, big personality!’ It just became one of my trademarks.''
For Gilman, hair was large part of her identity as a student leader at her high school. ''One of the promotion posters for my Associated Student Body term was a silhouette of my hair and it said, ‘ARE YOU READY FOR A BIG YEAR?’ People all knew me from that. I became president, and there was a correlation between me and my hair,'' Gilman said.
Despite her love of big hair, Gilman said, ''It’s only been four years that I’ve really been embracing it. I still don’t even know how to do hairstyles. I’m still trying to figure it out.''
Dani Vieira, a first-year psychology student, carefully considered how she would present herself during the first few days of school at UCLA. ''I would never want to be met as someone who has straight hair because that’s not who I am,'' Vieira said.
When instructed to write a speech about identity in her high school English class, Vieira chose to talk about her hair. In her speech, she expressed her frustration with her hair. ''I spent countless hours forcing my mom to brush out the curls. I still remember the pain from the brush and the constant frustration I felt,'' Vieira said.
Vieira reflected on how media has influenced the way she views her hair. ''If you look at all the movies where a girl has a makeover from ugly to pretty, it’s always from frizzy, messy, curly hair to straight hair,'' Vieira said.
''I’m half Brazilian. I don’t really look Brazilian; there’s an idea of how Brazilians look but there's such a wide range it doesn’t really matter,'' Vieira said. Vieira finds that her ethnic ambiguity is a strength that sets her apart from others. ''I’m not just another straight-haired girl,'' she said. ''I want you to question what ethnicity I am.''