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I Cut My Hair and My Latino Parents Freaked Out

In my family, a bob is never just a bob.

You know the old saying, "You always want what you can't have?" That's exactly how I felt when I was a young girl with long hair. I desperately wanted to cut my hair short, but never did because of my Dominican family's stereotypes regarding women and long hair.

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I wanted short hair because my natural texture—thick, curly and super frizzy—was hard to manage. My poor mother was tasked with taming my hair. She'd braid it, pull it up into a tight ponytail, go the pigtail route, or whip it into a bun. And the pain I felt on a daily basis when my mother pulled and tugged at my hair? Well, that was enough to make me want to chop the whole thing off.

I grew up thinking that my hair wasn't pretty because it wasn't lacio, or straight and smooth.

I grew up thinking that my hair wasn't pretty because it wasn't lacio, or straight and smooth. In my culture the more lacio your hair is, the prettier it is and I was reminded of this often by countless female relatives and other Hispanic women in my life. But lacio isn't enough. You hair has to be long to be considered pretty. For many Latinos, short hair is associated with masculinity, and no girl should ever have short hair.

Since I couldn't cut my hair short, I did the same thing my relatives and friends did to tame their frizz: I hit up the Dominican hair salon for the kind of blowouts that make everyone believe you do have pelo bueno, or good hair. Those Dominican blowouts were no joke. There's a magic and science to how straight and shiny they get your hair, and no Dreamdry or Drybar I've ever been to can quite match that sleekness.

But no blowout, no matter how spectacular, would do the trick—I wanted short hair! I remember the first time I saw Salt-n-Pepa's video for "Push It." I was like, Oh, I could do that with my hair—but that half-shaved, asymmetrical 'do would never fly with my mother. I wanted something in between Salt-n-Pepa's edgy cuts and Debbie Gibson's teased bob. (Debbie's song "Only in My Dreams" was about a boy, but it perfectly captured how I felt about a short cut.) But my mother couldn't relate to either Salt-n-Pepa or Debbie Gibson, not on a teen-girl level and definitely not on a cultural one.

It's not a coincidence that my mom had long, beautiful hair. On some level, I think I wanted to look like the opposite of her. But more than that, I wanted to be in control. I wanted to be in charge of my look, and my mother was getting in the way of my belleza.

At the end of middle school, I begged my mother to please let me cut my hair for graduation day. I desperately wanted a summer beauty transformation, but my mother wasn't having it. She thought that my wanting to experiment with different beauty looks was a sign of peer pressure, and my father absolutely forbid it. My dad's reasoning: I would look like a boy.

To my parents, cutting my hair meant that I was cutting away at my femininity and ultimately my culture.

To be clear, the cut I wanted was a blunt bob that hit below my ear, just like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. She's the girliest character in the movie, so what's the big deal? I asked my parents again and again. Ultimately they said two things: That's too short and "Tu no eres Americana."

What the hell does that mean? First of all, yes, I am Americana, I was born in this country, and two, what makes me wanting to cut my hair more American than Hispanic?

My parents believe that American women and Hispanic women have different standards of beauty. Short hair, even at shoulder length, is considered way too short. To my parents, cutting my hair meant that I was cutting away at my femininity and ultimately my culture. For my family, being a woman, being Latina, and being feminine all go hand in hand. Getting dolled up, wearing makeup (a lot of it!), and having perfect hair are not just rituals for rituals' sake, but a part of our DNA. Who was I to mess with science?

I went ahead and cut my hair anyway—behind my parents' back. Not only did I get a short bob, but I also decided to shave off a portion of my hair at the nape for an edgier look. It was a way to eliminate some of the pouf caused by the thick curly texture that had been weighing me down, literally and figuratively.

I knew my parents would be livid, but I didn't expect the consequences that ensued. When I came home that afternoon from el salon, my father screamed, "Pareces un varon!" or "You look like a boy!" I kid you not when I tell you that my dad didn't talk to me for about a month. My mother took it one step further. In order to punish me, she decided to skip out on my graduation. My father couldn't attend because he had to work—but he reminded me that even if he could, he wouldn't because I had disobeyed him. I was the only one in my graduating class that did not have their parents in the audience.

Molly Ringwald's Breakfast Club bob and Jessica Alba's new short cut. Photos: Getty.

I was traumatized, and more than that, the point had been drilled into me: Cut your hair, and bad things happen. My parents (and my culture) spooked me so much that I let my hair grow out and didn't cut it again, except for the occasional trim, for 25 years. Ironically, I was working as a beauty editor at magazines like Latina and Seventeen, where it was my job to try new looks and where I had access to the top celebrity stylists in the industry. But I typically opted for a swingy blowout or a shape up—and I always asked the hairstylist not to change the length!

Until recently. I'd started to think—and this, my mother would argue, is the Americana coming out of me—that being feminine and sexy is about the way you carry yourself, irrespective of what your hair looks like. When I picture my mother and the Hispanic women in my life, it's their pride and the infectious energy that makes them so irresistible, not the length of their hair.

For my mother, the debate over my hair was always about more than beauty.

Plus, today Latinas like Jessica Alba and Jennifer Lopez are style and cultural icons for a new generation, and they have sexy short ‘dos. They certainly inspired me: After much debate, I took the plunge and chopped my hair to just above my collarbone. It's one length, with some longer layers around my face to help the cut from getting too poufy.

For some women, this wouldn't register as short. It's not a pixie cut. But for me, it was a difficult decision—like middle school all over again. This time, when I came home from the salon, something surprising happened. My mom said, "Ay, si mi hija, tu necesitava un cambio," or "Yes, my daughter, you needed a change!"

When I was a young girl, a haircut was uncharted territory for my mother. She used to tell me, "Si te permito que te cortes el cabello, me vas a pedir otra cosa mañana," or "If I allow you to cut your hair, you will ask me for something else tomorrow." She feared that if she let me do "American" things like go to the movies with my friends, go on sleepovers, or date boys (all strictly forbidden), it meant that I was one ask away from being less Dominican. But over the years, mami realized that the risks I have taken in my life have led me to discover new things about myself.

At the same time, cutting my hair has helped me to understand my mother better. I learned to be fearless from her. She took the ultimate risk by coming to this country without knowing how to speak English and without much support. But she was driven to do better for herself and for the eventual family she would soon start with my father.

For my mother, the debate over my hair was always about more than beauty. She wanted me and my sisters to hold on to our values and traditions, to represent our family in the most positive way, to take pride in our culture. She's finally realized that I'm capable of doing that even with short hair.


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