Ruminations on Beauty
By Rochelle Marrett
There are times when I feel wholly untethered. When the vastness of life is compounded by its cruelty. Maybe I have heard of yet another unfavorable verdict. Or I have let myself fixate on things outside the bounds of my control. In these moments, I must grab hold of the nearest thing if I hope not to unravel, not to dissipate in whispers of smoke, straining to reconfigure. Sometimes my own body serves as the talisman. I clutch it tightly so I know it will remain where I have placed it—on my bed, in my sofa, at my dining table before a bowl of porridge. If my husband is near he will wrap his arms around me, squeeze, and my breathing subsides.
Invariably, the small, beautiful things ground me: a made bed, a warm shower, the books on my coffee table filled with images of lovely Black girls adorned as queens, their hair folded into intricate styles. My husband’s laughter, when a joke catches him completely off guard. His eyes shimmer in all the undulations of joy and yet his wide open mouth emits no sound. He is gripped in silent revel. His laugh is still making its slow ascent up through his sternum and will soon deliver itself mightily into our kitchen. The sound summons my own laughter. The force sends him spinning, and to steady himself, he will reach for something. It will be me. It will be us. It will be beautiful.
Without doubt, a red lip. Always. This kind of beauty is useful too, allowing me to exude power and control when the inclination eludes me. It’s important for me to know that my mood can be shifted, even for a moment. I unravel my twists, I fluff my hair with a pick or I tie it into a wrap, adorn my ears with gold hoops, and I feel regal; imbued with pride, drinking freely from a fountain of ancestral confidence and wisdom. Often this small ritual sets apart good days from bad.
My daughter’s story book tells her that her hair reaches up toward the sun in the way flowers do. It tells her that her hair is soft and fluffy and big and bouncy and there is an implied enthusiasm that I, as a child, had never learned to associate with my natural hair. My hair had been chemically straightened my entire childhood and I loved it. I was praised repeatedly for its length, by strangers and familiars alike. But the reason I straightened my hair was never lost on me. Rather than a simple preference, straightening my hair felt absolutely necessary; the alternative, unthinkable. There were no ads on television lauding hair like mine, calling it desirable, and this omission did not go unnoticed. So now when my four-year-old and I are standing at the door, about to leave the house, and her hair is loose about her shoulders and she—entirely unsolicited and with palpable glee—swishes her head and says to me “Mommy, I love my hair, it’s so fat!” I smile widely, suppressing all-out laughter. Already, she is lightyears ahead of me. I pray the notion of learning to love herself will seem to her like a ridiculous one, so obvious as to be nonsensical. That the self-doubt with which I wrestle daily will never become her burden. That she will know easily the freedom of self-love.
You learn at a young age whether you have been born with beautiful hair. The metrics are simple: straight and long. And even if by some miracle and against all socialization to the contrary, you love your tightly coiled hair, you quickly learn that your view is not the prevailing one. If you are unlucky enough to don sheen-less coils then you must manufacture the glistening hair advertised by the Pantene models. There are creams and irons and potions and spells for this explicit purpose. You learn how much burn you can bear while you wait for the cream to right your biological wrongs, how far inward your toes can curl, how many deep breaths you must take while your hairdresser multitasks, folding another client’s hair over rollers and soothing you with her eyes, because although it may feel like she slathered this cream on centuries ago, it has not been long enough. You are nine. It feels like a colony of fire ants have burrowed into your scalp and you grit your teeth to hold back tears. When she finally takes you to the wash bowl, opens the tap, and lets the cool water flood your head, you feel such relief you think you might just let those tears fall. You take hold of the towel draped around your shoulders and reach up to pat your face. Back at the chair you stare into the mirror with disbelief. Your hair is flat and smooth against your head, long and shiny, and you now know that this has all been worth it. Your hair is unequivocally beautiful. You’ve suffered a few first-degree burns, but what a small price to pay for such beauty. As they heal and crust along your scalp, you take extra care not to slice into them with the teeth of your comb. This is normal. This is all normal. And beautiful.
It’s 2014 and my mother doesn’t understand why I refuse to straighten my hair for my upcoming wedding. By now I have not chemically straightened my hair for nearly a decade and since the process is irreversible, she wouldn’t ask me to do that. But she expects that I would at least flat-iron my hair. This is my wedding after all.
Even though I’m Jamaican and I was born and raised in Jamaica, a predominantly Black nation, the long-standing effects of colonialization have meant that we as Black people have been taught to value Eurocentric ideals above our own. This sentiment is inextricable from what we consider to be our beauty “standards.” Straight hair had always been the most desirable, particularly on special occasions. Natural hair was simply not formal. So I didn’t blame my mother for our disagreement.
All around us, whether by clueless omission or deliberate design, we are implicitly told that Black hair is not beautiful so it is up to us to counter this assault of negative messaging with unadulterated love—an objective of the Black Power movement. But in 2021, the hurdles persist. Unfair stipulations of professionalism hinder Black people in the workplace so much so that now the 2019 law called the CROWN Act (which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) must serve as a barrier to discriminatory practices. It’s difficult to know how to respond to things like this. I can only say that my gratefulness for the law’s passing is tempered by our society’s need of it.
Today my mother cares tenderly for her natural hair. She is fastidious and diligent and she has discovered the most effective products. Sometimes they are of her own making. A bowl of pureed avocado and coconut oil. Her curls flourish. When her friends inquire whether she will relax her hair, her impatience flares. I remind her that she once asked me a similar question. She huffs and I laugh. And sometimes when she hums hymns of praise as she detangles her hair by the kitchen sink, her foot keeping time, the catch in her voice echoing through the rooms, sometimes when she’s dancing by the stove, kneading the dough for fried dumplings that will sizzle and swell, the taste of them like a miracle on my tongue, sometimes when she’s calling my name, her voice luxuriously extending the final syllable, I am amazed, truly, that we are alive.
Rochelle Marrett is a Jamaican fiction writer and essayist. Most recently, she’s been named a MacDowell Fellow, a 2021 Pen America Emerging Voices Fellow, and a 2019 Room Project Fiction Fellow. Her work has also earned recognition from the Kresge Foundation in the form of a 2021 Gilda Award in Literary Arts and has been long-listed for the 2021 Disquiet Fiction Prize. She was a 2021 Tin House Writer-in-Residence and her work has been supported by The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, among others. She now resides with her daughter and husband in metro Detroit and is at work on her first novel.
Read next: Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Four by Lynn Crawford