By Nancy Mendez-Booth —
The smell of mayonnaise takes me back to a bad place.
I’m four years old, sitting on the linoleum floor of my childhood home’s living room in Queens, New York. “Fat Albert” is playing on the television. I’m shirtless because my mother doesn’t want the mayonnaise in my hair to drip onto my clothing. That’s right: The mayonnaise was in my hair. According to Milagros, Mami’s cousin in Puerto Rico, mayonnaise did much more than add creaminess to egg and potato salads. Milagros claimed it was also a deep conditioning hair smoother, and my mother followed her cousin’s instructions carefully every Saturday.
First, Mami sat on a chair behind me and gripped my shoulders between her knees. Next, she sectioned my hair. Then she worked in the mayonnaise, section by section, with a fine-toothed comb to tame what she called my nido de ratones (rats’ nest), enjambre (tangled mess), or escobillon(frizzled broom). She raked through and tugged at my hair fiercely, as if the devil himself had gotten stuck in my tangled mess. A raw scalp and the smell of mayonnaise were a small price to pay for salvation from bad hair.
“You’ll be pretty,” my mother assured me all those Saturday mornings when she left me sitting in front of the television, slicked and smelly, to allow the mayonnaise to work its reputed magic. Globs used to slither behind my ears onto my bare shoulders and slide down my back. I pretended I didn’t smell mayonnaise but the magically delicious Lucky Charms advertised between cartoon segments. After 30 minutes, Mami rinsed my hair with freezing cold water, set it in huge rollers to dry, then wrapped it around my head doobie-style to stretch out any remaining kinks. Every week, I prayed to whatever supreme being determined the weather and Our Lady of the Glass Smooth Hair for humidity-free days and miracle mayonnaise that would straighten my hair permanently and spare me from the five-hour Saturday ritual.
The Spanish word for curls is rizos, but I didn’t learn that word until middle school. My first Spanish vocabulary lessons took place on those Saturday mornings with my shoulders gripped between my mother’s knees. Four decades later, I still know more hair-related words—in two languages—than I do words for discussing my finances, cardiovascular health or car maintenance. Kinky. Nappy. Frizzy. Pasa. Nido de raton. Enjambre. Messed-up. Black-girl hair. Brillo. Wooly. Coarse. Damaged. Troubled. Unruly. Unprofessional.
My coils defy the widely held Latina commandment “Thou shalt not be seen in public with ese pelo malo (that bad hair).” Many Latinas will walk out of the house with their hair set in enormous multi-colored rollers (the more discreet among us will wrap it under a scarf), but never with their hair in its natural state. I was taught the consequences of bad hair were dire, even for a good girl like me. My straight As, kick-ass running and athletic prowess, and ability to converse about world affairs in impeccable English wouldn’t matter. No one would ever get past my hair. No one would take me seriously. No one would hire me. No man would want me. What would people think?
People might think I’m Latina. My last name and brown skin are strong indicators, but my hair in its natural state displays publicly and undeniably my non-white, tropical, jungle roots. As a little girl, I got the message that these were the uglies, the things to cover up. I grew up in the 1970s, a first-generation only child of parents directly from la isla. This was before Sonia Sotomayor, before Latinos took over Major League Baseball, and before mainstream America could consider J. Lo as Jenny from their block. I became ashamed of the things that made me different: they were liabilities and reasons to be excluded. My hair seemed the easiest “ugly” to manipulate and tame. I believed good, smooth hair would allow me to blend in and pass because non-Latinos just wouldn’t understand me or where I was coming from otherwise. That was the problem, though: No one ever fully understood me or saw me as I really was when I only put forward what I thought people would like or find familiar. I rejected myself before anyone else had the chance.
Freeing myself from Project Good Hair has been a multistep process that began more than 20 years ago. I went away to Amherst College and the hair rollers, high-powered blow dryer and straightening iron stayed in Queens. Natural hair had been a source of shame; however, the thought of explaining that I was unavailable for five hours on Saturdays because I conditioned my hair with mayonnaise and set it in huge housewife curlers was mortifying. And in the case of a middle-of-the-night fire alarm, I didn’t want to worry about an escape route that would prevent anyone from seeing my hair wrapped around my head and pinned in a doobie. My dark, natural hair was big, often wild, but my classmates took my thoughts seriously, my professors acknowledged my work with good grades, and the college administrators didn’t boot me off the campus. College opened my eyes to many things, including that such an intense focus on the supposed failings of my hair kept me from valuing my accomplishments and capacities.
What sits on my head has taken up too much head space throughout my life. I’ve written about how growing up as a good girl with bad hair was a defining part of my identity as a Latina, taught and reinforced by family and community. I’m now in my mid-forties and it’s taken decades for me to see that the quest for good hair is an elusive aspiration and a relentless reminder that I’ll never be good enough. Project Good Hair diverted time, energy, mental focus, creativity, and money from goals that would have really moved me forward.
I accumulated the vocabulary of bad hair over a lifetime. It’s been a long-term project to defuse those words. The process has liberated me but also revealed harsh truths, including that the words have been most effective because I see how I learned to use them against myself.