Hair, identity, science, soul


My uncle and my grandfather, both dead, have been in my dreams lately. They show up at parties or hover in the corner of my living room.

In one dream, my grandfather shows me pictures of women that I know: every one has a single whirl of hair on the side of her head—I recognize the shape from my early days trying to wear my hair natural, when my hair was trying to curl from the root and sometimes managed to take the rest of the damaged clump along.

In another dream, my uncle appears, and I notice his hair has a strange texture—kinky.

In yet another, at my grandfather’s direction, I am digging through my own hair, uncovering objects under frizz—family photos.

The meaning comes in flashes in some cases and is more muddled in others. The good girls with curls are versions of me—achieving, driving themselves into the ground. Their curls in real life smoothed out to please but visible if you know what to look for.

Others are more cryptic. They show me the thing buried, what’s mine and theirs to carry but not original to any of us. Whether it’s a gift, a hidden shame, or something else, is unclear.


My great grandmother had extremely curly hair. In pictures, it is hard to tell its exact shape—it is large, contained under hats, but burgeoning out the sides. My mother notes often how strange it is how no one managed to get that hair.

I never met my great grandmother. She died at 27, of tuberculosis. I don’t know how she felt about her hair. Her son, my grandfather, had smooth hair that practically stood up straight around his head.

I’ve read that curly hair is incompletely dominant. That is, it expresses if it is present, but it blends with the straight gene to give the range of wave. In Mendelian genetic terms, if my great grandmother had curly hair, she had alleles “CC,” one from each parent. So my grandfather’s alleles were probably “Cs,” wavy.

I’ve studied my mother’s childhood pictures—siblings in matching outfits, the hairstyles a freeze-frame of time. My mother has razor-straight bangs, around which the rest of her hair curls, soft and shiny. My aunt has lighter hair, frizzy and poking out of pigtails. My uncle’s hair is buzz-cut, so it’s hard to tell what it might look like if it were allowed to move in its own directions.


“You’re too young to be washing your own hair,” my grandmother says, while furiously shampooing after my prior efforts failed to meet with her approval. I am 10.

This memory pops into my head regularly over the intervening years. I absorbed my hair’s weirdness, pathologized it, then blamed myself for being too lazy or too incompetent to deal with it well enough.

My mother’s hair in the photo, short always, with bangs. Mine long and constantly tangled. Hair is the porous membrane between self and other when we’re young. Whose identity are we reflecting? Whose needs and wants win?

It can be manipulated to mask its nature, it can be abused, it can be ignored. But its essence remains.


The thing about curly hair is that every person’s is unique—pattern, texture, and density interplay to create an individual expression. Some people just are, unalterable, to joy or despair, or maybe ambivalence. Other people seem distorted or uncategorizable.

There is nature, but there is also nurturing and patience required sometimes to see the cohesive whole. There is always a cohesive whole. Mine clicks into focus a little more every day. It is beautiful and has its own logic and symmetry. I’m only sad that it took me this long to discover.