Straight Talk About Hair Getting to the Roots of Self-Loathing, Self-Confidence

By Rachel Zuckerman

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.

Elissa Douchy is proud of her Sephardic roots — but not the ones attached to her hairline.

She hates her curly hair enough to make a weekly trek to an unlicensed Dominican beauty salon in northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where her hair is blow-dried straight. The procedure often takes two and a half hours, and the journey takes an hour each way. But for Douchy, it’s worth it.

“When I walk out of the salon with straight hair, I feel beautiful,” the junior-high-school teacher said. To avoid ruining her straightened do, Douchy, 26, carries an umbrella and a hat in her bag 365 days a year. After all, a light drizzle is all it takes to bring her curls back to life.

Like Douchy, many Jewish women just can’t countenance their curls. Women’s attitudes toward their hair can certainly be a, well, hairy issue at times. For women who opt to iron the kinks out of their hair, the straightening process is at least far less permanent and expensive than the cosmetic surgery to which some subject their noses, another genetic trait that leaves some sniffing.

“In any society, people want to look like the dominant ideal,” said sociologist Rose Weitz, author of the forthcoming “Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tell Us About Women’s Lives” (FSG, January 2004). “In China and Japan, women dye their hair blacker if it is lighter than the norm, and in the States the dominant ideal is straight hair.”

So why are the chosen people often blessed (or afflicted, depending on one’s preference) with undulating manes in the first place?

“Curly and wavy hair are genetic traits that have occurred in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews for generations, but it is somewhat of a mystery as to why Jews initially inherited these traits,” said Dr. Mark Avram, a Long Island-based dermatologist who specializes in hair transplantation.

Marci McCarthy (pictured here), 32, attributes the red, curly hair she disdains to her Jewish heritage. Apparently, looking different was more painful for McCarthy than burning her scalp with toxic hair relaxers over the years. This past spring, McCarthy (nee Baer) decided she had had enough. So she shelled out for the trendy Japanese Thermal Hair Reconditioning process; this procedure uses a chemical solution to soften hair, which is then ironed section by section until straightened. It often takes six to eight hours.

“I have a whole new confidence, I don’t feel self-conscious about my hair,” McCarthy said. “This would have saved a lot of problems if they had this available when I was a kid.” The $1,000 price tag seems unlikely to keep her away from the touch ups she will need every six months to keep her locks lax.

“My family was originally from the Ukraine, and from the research I’ve done, a lot of women from that region have coarse, red, curly hair,” said the Atlanta resident.

“Women with straight, blond hair seem to be more attractive to guys,” said Dana Hasson, 23, a curly-headed book publicist who thanks her Turkish Sephardic father’s side of the family for her mane.

A recent poll on the Internet dating site Jdate.com confirmed Hasson’s belief. Of the 1,475 men who responded to a question about the hair type they preferred on women — straight as a stick, loose waves, tight curls or ringlets, or no preference — only 9.2% picked tight curls or ringlets.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. magazine and a prolific author, said that women who hate their hair are ignoring the strides made by Second Wave feminists.

“Women who straighten their hair are suffering endlessly,” she said. “Feminism has widened the spectrum of how women are supposed to look.”

Pogrebin, who as a child slept with rollers in her hair to make it curly, credits the black pride movement with helping more women accept what they look like, naturally. “I see enough self-loathing,” she said. “I see women from the Midwest with the map of Scandinavia on their faces who hate themselves because they don’t look like Kate Hudson.”

Although men’s reaction to curly hair is probably the furthest thing from Pogrebin’s mind, some men are very vocal about loving Jewish women’s untamed strands.

“I’m no expert, just your average goy, but I think curly and wavy hair on women simply rocks,” said Michael Strecker, 40, a publicist who lives in New Orleans.

But not all women fight an uphill battle with their curly Jewish locks.

“I love having curly hair,” said Gabriella Burman, 30, an editor at an Atlanta newspaper. “People tell me that they spend a fortune to get their hair to look like mine.”

Burman attributed the trouble that some curly-haired women have accepting their hair in part to the lack of visible role models.

“There are very few curly-haired women who are models or on broadcast news,” she said. “There is this notion that it is unprofessional to have curly hair. All TV anchors have smooth, straight heads. I even know women who work in television behind the scenes who feel they have to straighten their hair. Luckily that’s not the case for print journalism.”

While there is by no means a mass movement to abandon all aspects of hair straightening, women like Burman are quietly leading their own revolutions.

“My hair is a large part of my identity,” Burman said. “I think it’s pretty, and I keep it long. Not everyone has to look like pictures from magazines.”

Rachel Zuckerman is a writer living in New York City.



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