Ethnic hair and the Great Identity Complex

froMe and my “Fro of Shame,” circa 1994

My one-time summer at a Jewish sleep away camp was full of, shall we say, unique experiences, from a production of The Sound of Music featuring nuns with popsicle-stick Stars of David instead of crosses to lively debates about who looked “most Jewish” and who could pass for a gentile. In that contest, I ranked somewhere in the middle with my ashy-brown curls and pale skin. The winner of the Most Likely to Pass for a Gentile award was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed girl who was half-German, half-Swedish. Before camp, I had no idea such a Jewish person could exist without the help of colored contacts and hair dye.

I never knew whether to take offense when people occasionally told me I “looked Jewish.” I imagine it’s somewhat similar to being told you “look gay”: it’s offensive, a compliment, or a casual observation, depending on who says it. But how can it be offensive if it’s true? I am Jewish, ethnically speaking. My heritage is a mix of Polish (my last name, pre-Ellis Island, was Czaplinski), Russian, and a dash of German. As previously mentioned, I check off Ashkenazi any time it’s required for an accurate assessment of medical history, and with that background comes an expectation – read, stereotype – of physical appearance. But don’t all stereotypes begin with a grain of truth?

Growing up, it was not my so-called big nose or thick eyebrows that gave me grief over my Jewishness, but my thick, unmanageable curly hair, which only decided to be curly on some days. The only consistent thing about it was its poofiness, frizz, and tangles. When a stylist commented “You have enough hair for three people!” as I settled into her chair, I cried. I was nine years old at the time, and extremely sensitive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that hair has an impact on one’s identity and self-esteem, especially when living in a culture that worships shiny, straight hair as the ideal standard of beauty.

My battle for curly hair acceptance began three years before that moment at Great Clips (which made my mother realize it was time to join her at an official Grown-Up Salon) when a ballet teacher told me my bun wasn’t smooth enough. Well, news flash: curly hair is anything but smooth! I posted several angry rants on the forums of when The Princess Diaries heroine, Mia Thermopolis, received a “royal makeover” that made her wild mane sleek and unnaturally straight. Couldn’t those royal stylists, with every kind of product supposedly at their disposal, have given her a different haircut and recommended a special shampoo and leave-in conditioner instead? Why enforce the idea that curls somehow equal disorder and sloppiness?

Today, it’s somewhat of an embarrassment to admit that part of my acceptance of being Jewish happened when I learned to properly care for my hair. To me – and to anyone belonging to an ethnic or cultural group marked by a very specific kind of look – having the right hair could make or break an effort to assimilate. A jab about frizz is akin to a jab about who you are as a person, and where you belong.

To that end, the limitations and boundaries about the appropriateness of cultural jokes are still blurry. I can make jokes about the “Jew fro” I had when I was six, but if someone else makes a similar comment, does that make it anti-Semitic? And today, is it fair to say that my beliefs may be Christian, but my hair never will be? I’ve had friends light-heartedly tell me that if I straighten my hair and dye it a lighter brown, I can “pass” for a typical gentile; but if I leave it curly and dye it dark, I look “more Jewish.”

For some of us, how we look cannot be completely severed from who we are. Right or wrong, that is just how it is. There are so many trends we can try to squeeze into (at great financial expense) before we are forced to come to terms with the radical thought that the way we are made is the way we are meant to be. Recognizing that has saved me a great deal of time and stress getting ready in the morning.

meExperimenting with a chemical relaxer as compromise. Tames the frizz but leaves the natural wave intact. No more daily frying.


7 thoughts on “Ethnic hair and the Great Identity Complex

  1. Beth

    With wanting to be speaking out of term : I must rise in defence of women with curly hair…. All of my sisters have black curly hair and my better half has brown curly hair. Can’t see what’s wrong with curly hair. I’ve only ever dated women with curly hair. I think women look fantastic with curly hair. I think it shows: majesty, confidence, fun and a certain bravado/daring do. In short curly hair is wonderful.


  2. I’m not Jewish, but I did grow up with naturally curly hair and I identify with your struggles to accept it. As best I know I’m Scotch-Irish, but had no idea what to do with my hair when I was young. I longed to have straight, easy-to-manage hair while so many people said I was lucky to have the curls.

    I was married before I found a style that worked. During that period the Sassoon stylists at their school in Westwood, CA, loved my hair and had a lot of fun with it. Now that I’m in my seventies it’s thinned out and hard to deal with again. I’m too old to be self-conscious about it anymore. I’ve learned to accept who I am and how I look. I’m know now to work on the internal person, which is, over the long haul, more important.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In France, I have stopped counting the times people don’t think I’m French. I find it ridiculous because of how I don’t really picture a French looking stereotypes (save if you go for French chic, but even if I wear heels and a business dress, I’d still be questioned in my Frenchness).

    I’m Caucasian, but I look quite Slavonic, which is normal as I’m 3/8 Ukrainian/Polish (the funny thing is that it wasn’t my mother but my father who’s 100% French who came up with my name!) So I have no problem with this.

    What puzzles me is when people think I’m English (or more often American) when I don’t even speak or read English under their nose! I had that a few times and it always made me wonder what was up! I remember this waiter when I was in my early twenties, staring at me. I eventually asked what was up and he said he couldn’t tell whether I was American or English. I glared and he said I must be English. I said French and I almost had to toss my ID at him for him to believe me!

    I also feel betrayed by my ID because I look so Italian on it (and I have no Mediteranean origins at all! I’m pale skinned and dark blond!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your post.

    I am a Jewish girl that doesn’t look very Jewish. I’m blonde and pasty and I straighten my hair. I have often wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to look more Jewish, like most of my family does. People often don’t realize I’m Jewish and make comments they wouldn’t make if they knew.

    And your hair looks cute:)

    Liked by 2 people

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