by Jessica Galán
“I’m gonna fight you after school,” Lawanda whispered, her snake eyes burned a hole in my chest. I was overcome with dread. Dang. I didn’t want to have to defend myself. My crime against Lawanda? I was born with “good hair.”
I couldn’t understand why Lawanda, who was sporting a cute Jheri curl do was hell-bent on making my life miserable. In the 4th grade, tough Lawanda weighed almost a hundred pounds. Maybe by physically hurting me she’d felt better about herself. We fought hard that day. She yanked me down to the floor and socked me in the stomach. I defended myself and went down biting and scratching and kicking.
A few weeks later, Lawanda backed off from her hostility of me when I entered the classroom with a cropped bob. Shearing off my long hair was easier to live with than fights after school.
In the Caribbean, a rigid dichotomy exists: Either you’re “blessed” with pelo bueno–good hair or “cursed” with pelo malo–bad hair. Naturally, a woman’s ancestral DNA has much to play in the “good hair/bad hair” phenomenon. If she has more African slave blood coursing through her veins, she’s more likely to have what is considered pelo malo. But if her ancestral line is mostly Spanish, she’s considered “blessed” to have been born with naturally shiny and soft tresses.
“Good” hair or “bad” hair is just one of many conventional beauty standards women face every single day. At one time, blonde hair and blue eyes defined beauty norms. But I struggled too. My “good hair” wasn’t golden blonde like Christie Brinkley’s. I didn’t have Bo Derek’s sexy braids. Nowadays, big eyes and full lips like Angelina Jolie’s are coveted and many a woman flock to plastic surgeons to plump their lips with collagen injections. Behavioral scientists have also found that facial symmetry heightens sexual attraction.
But beauty has an ugly underbelly. Inferiority complexes among young women abound. In South Korea, young women undergo plastic surgery to change the shape of their eyes. In Puerto Rico and Haiti, women slather on lotion to bleach their skin. In many cultures in the world, physical beauty has power. It is used to manipulate and control.
When I was a child, it’s true that I had the coveted good hair, but at the same time I was also embarrassingly skinny. In the early ‘90s, I lacked the necessary assets to proudly fill out my acid-washed jeans. A popular French word exists for women who are beautiful and ugly simultaneously: jolie laide.
“Hey look, it’s pamper butt!” the boys chuckled. It didn’t help that I’d inherited my grandfather’s pointy chin. I felt like a human fly. But I thanked God for my big and pretty hair. I was at that time in my life the epitome of jolie laide.
On the cusp of middle-age, my own ideas about beauty have changed. It’s true that the world’s ideas of beauty still affect me. As a result, I try to upkeep my hair and dress sensibly. I am learning to wholeheartedly embrace the meaning behind jolie laide. Sometimes I feel ugly. There are times I dress ugly. Jolie laide frees me from not really caring. With every passing year, outer beauty is no longer as important to me. I have no problem putting on a baseball hat and walking in public sans makeup. So what if I happen to wear my favorite sweater to work twice?
I must admit, aging has exposed newfound vulnerabilities. Will my husband still find me attractive? Will workplace ageism affect my ability to earn a living in the future? Sprouts of gray have begun to erupt. The tender skin around my eyes carries deeper wrinkles. I struggle applying eyeshadow as I battle crepey eyelids. I hide the muffin top arising from the waistband of my jeans. These physical changes are teaching me to celebrate the beauty of a woman who exudes confidence and spiritual strength. Regardless of the weight she’s gained. No matter what her hair texture is or the shade of her skin.
Gorgeous are the women who’ve graduated from the school of hard knocks, whose mistakes have been swallowed in beautiful grace.
Today, I want the attention of one set of eyes alone: God’s. No longer is there a need to use outer beauty to manipulate like Delilah enticing Samson. And if the old adage rings true that “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” then I’m okay with being noticed by God’s gaze alone.
Beautiful is the woman who seeks the face of God. How lovely is the one who realizes parched and withered skin gets spiritually rejuvenated by the Holy Spirit. She understands her beautiful God is the ultimate Fountain of Youth. I’ll take inner beauty over outer beauty any day. Grace alone deems me beautiful. To grow older in my own skin is a profound and gorgeous blessing.
Jessica spends her days teaching history and her-story to amazing high school students from diverse backgrounds in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Jessica is a member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild. She’s wife to a super-creative man and the proud mother of three resilient young women. She can’t start her day without steaming Spanish coffee and breaks out into sporadic salsa dancing when no one’s watching. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.