Opinion: Fighting antisemitism, one curl at a time

Editor’s Note: Jackie Delamatre is a writer and teacher living in Providence, RI. She is at work on a novel about parenting in the age of climate change. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

My hair — frizzy, curly, uncooperative — has always been a source of consternation to me and to those around me. The path to accepting it has been long, tangled and one of my greatest achievements. As antisemitic incidents have increased in recent months, I’ve become that much more determined to stick with my frizz as one small way to resist discrimination in all its forms.

My mom had thick waves, but loved my corkscrews. As a hippie with a limited tolerance for primping, she never suggested losing the spirals. Yet, she was flummoxed by their recalcitrance and could often be found chasing me down with detangling spray. Professionals were even more at a loss. When I was about eight, a barber chopped it all off. By the time he was done, I looked like a little Jeremy Allen White — if he were ugly — crying into his corduroy.

Despite my mother’s encouragement, I saw my hair as embarrassingly eccentric. I longed for a luscious ponytail that would swing back and forth as I ran the mile in gym class. I didn’t have any models for classy curls — other than perhaps Elaine on “Seinfeld” — which is part of the reason I moved to Brooklyn after college.

Upon moving to New York, I discovered salons devoted to curly hair, with products for specific curl types you could determine via quizzes about texture and pattern. But that’s also when I realized that, despite the vast diversity of Jews in the world, my tresses were being read as “Jewish.” (I hadn’t grown up around many others of my background in New Orleans.) That breakthrough was followed by another perplexing one: Other Jewish women I encountered often didn’t have curly hair at all. Quite a few straightened their locks each morning, rarely appearing in public with their natural hair. It seemed like so much work to transform how they looked each morning, and it made me more insecure about my own curls.

While encouraged by my specialty salons (shout out to DevaCurl for teaching me that my hair looked best when cut dry, curl by curl). I didn’t see enough style icons to look up to. The Jewish celebrities embracing their locks often did it for comic effect, by brushing out their hair until the frizz seemed like the result of electrocution or by rocking silly bangs or hats (such as Gilda Radner and Susie Essman).

I was self-conscious about my mane, but too lazy or incompetent to change it. Besides, with my stereotypically ethnic nose (broken, hooked), I didn’t fit the conventional beauty standards anyway. I needed to find another way.

Then a revolution came to hair in the late 2000s and 2010s, brought about by women of color. I watched in awe as Black women embraced their natural beauty, eschewing relaxers, flat irons, hot combs. I couldn’t help but wonder: If Black women, who faced discrimination and othering every day, were championing their innate beauty, why couldn’t I? Were Jewish women — subconsciously or not — succumbing to the pressure to conform to age-old ideals based around non-ethnic White women? I knew that even if I’d wanted that, I couldn’t have it — not with my other prominent features. Instead, I had to do something else: love myself the way I was.

When I was an adolescent, my mother revealed to me that she’d had a nose job. She explained that it was tacked onto a surgery for an ENT-related matter. But I was no longer listening. I had already burst into tears. I didn’t know then why my reaction was so swift and powerful. Later, I understood that it was because I thought my mom was beautiful — and worried my unaltered nose was why I wasn’t. I feared I’d never be enough without surgery and mourned that I’d never know what my mother truly looked like.

I’m married now — to a fellow half-Jew who refers to my hair lovingly as “the nest.” And we have two tween daughters, currently studying for their bat mitzvahs. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time harping on the importance of embracing your natural beauty to my girls. I’m not sure I’m having much impact — not when they are subject daily to the trickle-down effects of influencers who, as far as I can tell, have counteracted years of progress with a homogenizing consumerism.

My daughters were both born with straight hair. They have implied they dodged a genetic bullet, and part of me agrees: Life will be easier without the frizz. But then, an easier life is not always a better one.

My curls have forced me to dig deep in order to resist the pressure to conform. It’s a strength that has translated into a self-love that isn’t perfectly unshakeable, but I think serves me well as I age in a culture that worships youth. Scientists have also found that people who use chemical hair straightening products — more frequently, Black women — are at a higher risk for uterine cancer. In other words, these toxic beauty norms can quite literally kill.

In the face of anti-Jewish sentiment, I’ve developed an urge to grow my “nest” out. It’s a form of solidarity — with fellow Jews, including the Orthodox whose visual displays of their faith in the form of kippahs and tzitzit cannot be erased with a flat iron. But, as Jews are far from the only people in the world facing discrimination, it’s also a form of solidarity with all those who challenge typical beauty standards.

I loved when comedian Jenny Slate declared that she’d been wearing her hair “naturally curly” more often — and was even “starting to brush it out so it takes up as much physical space as possible.” She connected years of straightening her hair to the way women are often “pushed to make themselves smaller,” and described gazing at her “giant mass of curls” while thinking: “I can’t believe that I have only ever thought of my natural state as something to use as a joke rather than something to be celebrated.”

I couldn’t agree with Slate more — which is why I propose a revolution in so-called “Jewish” hair. A revolt against flat irons and diffusers. A declaration that we’re beautiful — not just funny — the way we are, no matter how much humidity is in the air.

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