The battle for self-acceptance: hair and faith edition
I’ve written before about how my curly hair is an outward marker of my Jewish identity (ethnically speaking). I want to revisit that subject today, because it took me over 25 years to find the right haircut. 25+ years of having stylists consult other stylists in front of me because they had no idea how to cut my hair. 25+ years of being told, “Wow, you have a lot of hair,” as if I never actually noticed before. 25+ years of dealing with backhanded compliments like, “You would look really cute if you straightened it.”
For me, curly hair and being Jewish were always conflated. While I know that Judaism is a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures, the fact is, stereotypes about Jewish appearance exist for a reason. And growing up, my hair and my last name outed me before I had the chance to say, “Actually, I celebrate Hanukkah” every December.
Truthfully, I didn’t know anyone with curly hair who wasn’t Jewish. Silky straight hair equaled “gentile” in my mind. I already lacked the religious beliefs and holiday traditions to completely fit in with my peers; hair was one more strike against me.
I remember being reprimanded by a ballet teacher for not having a perfectly smooth bun; I remember hating swimming in gym class because I couldn’t just duck my head under the hand dryer to dry my hair like the other straight-haired girls could. Instead, I had to endure the frizz for the rest of the school day. I remember being brave enough to wear my hair down in fourth grade, and having a classmate tell me I looked like a witch.
Maybe these all seem like trivial reasons to feel uncomfortable with being Jewish. My obsessive-compulsive disorder, of which I was diagnosed with at a young age, certainly contributed to my hair anxiety. Nonetheless, learning to own my Jewish identity was intrinsically connected to accepting my hair the way that God made it. It was also a deep part of owning my identity as a Caplin, since my hair came from my father.
My life was forever changed at the age of 12, when I was introduced to the flat iron. It was the same year I had my Bat Mitzvah, which gave me all the rights of passage as an official grown-up in the Jewish community. Combined with the start of puberty, that was when my battle — yes, it really felt like a battle — for self-acceptance really began.
I’d sacrifice an additional hour or two of sleep so I could get up early to straighten my wild mane before school. At Christmastime, I’d go caroling around town with friends, and relish, for a moment, that I was part of an “in-group.” I wished I didn’t have to explain to friends at sleepovers why I didn’t need to wash or brush my hair before bed, as they did, because curly hair doesn’t need it. I wished I didn’t have to explain why my family didn’t have a Christmas tree.
I can’t really pinpoint exactly when the tide started to change, and I finally began the arduous process of accepting myself as-is rather than fighting it. Maybe it was when I started a job that required getting up at the crack of dawn, forcing me to choose as much sleep as possible instead of sacrificing it to the Almighty Flat Iron. Maybe it was realizing how my Jewish upbringing followed me in and out of church, beckoning me to recognize it even if I didn’t return to it completely.
Through fits and starts — experimenting with haircuts and products, battling loneliness at Christmastime and feeling like my home was empty without a menorah — I began to accept myself. I began to accept my offbeat experiences as unique parts of my story. Even when strangers ask me if Hanukkah is the “Jewish Christmas,” or if my hair is a perm, or if they can touch it (please never do this). I believe these are all hallmarks of God’s sense of humor, and developing one myself rather than taking everything so personally has helped me out so much.
There are so many moments in my life when insecurity about my hair threatened to ruin moments that should have been fun and exciting (like studying abroad and realizing you don’t have the right converter for your straightener). If only I had allowed it to be what it is, instead of trying to force it to be something it’s clearly not. If only I can accept my “testimony” for the roller coaster that it is (which has made for an interesting book that many people have enjoyed) rather than trying to smooth out the corners so it looks and sounds like everyone else’s.
For every Christian who wishes she had a more “exciting” testimony, or hair that could hold a little bit of volume, there are people like me with an abundance of both, still praying daily for the confidence to own it. On days when the doubts pile up and my hair won’t cooperate, to a point that I have no choice but to slap on a hat, I remind myself that every bit of me was made with divine intention. And I have much to accomplish as a result.
Originally published at sbethcaplin.com on July 18, 2018.