We are constantly being confronted with images of how things are and how things should be. Worldwide, the prevailing image of beauty is no doubt becoming more inclusive. However, it continues to discreetly assert certain traits as more preferable, promoting pale skin and long, straight hair as the definition of beauty. Because of the dominance and prevalence of these images, some women go lengths just to achieve this look, even if it means disguising their roots.
In the AfroLatina community, this prevailing image of what beauty should be presents a paradox. Some AfroLatinas are proud of their smooth dark skin, curves, and lips; yet others are burdened by their perceived “pelo malo,” that is, the awfulness of the kinks and/or curls of their hair. Creativity and a bit of technology has provided various ways for women with curlier or kinkier hair to straighten it. One of the most popular ways amongst AfroLatinas involves an entire afternoon, telenovelas, smatterings of Spanish, and a lot of smoke. This process occurs in the hundreds of Dominican hair salons found throughout New York City*, and it is one that says a lot about what women are willing to go through to disguise their roots.
Most women stick with their usual Dominican hairstylist, but if openings are not available, the same services are easily found at the salon next door. The appointment begins with a routine shampoo and deep conditioning treatment, which is then followed by rollers placed in the client’s hair for an hour under the dryer. Once this is completed, the heart of the Dominican straightening process begins. The hair stylist will spend approximately 30-40 minutes performing a technique that simultaneously combines hair brushing and blow drying together, resulting in a silky-straight blow out.
The problem with this Dominican straightening process is the meaning behind it: having kinky or tightly curly hair is a problem and it must be corrected. It is a process that shuns the African heritage of AfroLatina women. Often, AfroLatinas will get looks of disdain from stylists, or have other Spanish-speaking patrons speak about their “bad hair,” and even be offered a chemical relaxer. This intimate process of hair straightening is the overt shaming of tightly curly and kinky hair. No one individual is to blame for this sentiment and it is a tradition that has not only crossed borders to settle in NYC and other large metro areas, but has also been passed down from generation to generation. However as each year passes, more and more AfroLatinas are accepting their image, reaffirming their beauty and rejecting the notions that the more visible parts of their African heritage make them any less beautiful. They are redefining both what beauty is and what beauty should be, it includes Latina women of all heritage, even if mainstream society has not yet caught up to the idea.
By Nedra Sandiford, MA International Affairs Candidate
*The author can only speak on her experiences in New York City