My Ethiopian Aunties Made Me Believe Only Straight Hair Was Beautiful

Kat Gill

Like many little black girls, I hated getting my hair braided when I was young. Whenever I saw my mama pull out that comb and hair jelly, I ran.

I was (and still am) tender-headed, so having my hair done was always an uncomfortable experience. The thought of sitting in between my mom's legs for the next several hours, while she meticulously brushed out, oiled, and braided my hair was akin to torture for me. Every time, I would start to fidget and fuss, with my body aching from sitting on the floor for so long, and inevitably, I'd end up in tears.

But while I dreaded our usual routine, my mom would sometimes switch things up and let my natural curls flow freely for the holidays, giving me styles like that quintessential '90s side ponytail — and I loved it. I loved the way I could feel my hair bounce and move as I walked, I loved touching it, and I especially loved the size of my mane.

As a child, my natural hair reminded me of the iconic Diana Ross and her big, beautiful Afro she wore in the '70s. I used to watch videos of her performances on TV with my parents, and I vividly remember being so in awe as she floated around the stage with her majestic mane in tow. She seemed so free and powerful — and I felt the same way when my hair was out in its natural state.

But even though I was in love with my 'fro, year after year, at each Christmas gathering with my Ethiopian family, I’d hear the same refrain from aunties and my parents’ friends alike about my locks. "Why don’t you fix her hair?" some would ask my mom. While others would say, "Think of how beautiful it would be if you straightened her hair!"

My mom didn't appear to take what they said too seriously at the time. From what I remember, she would usually just laugh and shrug it off. I don't even think she really realized the effect these comments would have on me and my own beauty ideals. But as I looked around at these relatives, I took in the fact that all their once naturally curly hair, that looked just like mine, was straightened.

Courtesy of Gloria Alamrew

After years of hearing those damaging comments from my aunties as a young child, I was left feeling confused, and wondered what hair texture was actually beautiful. Eventually, their words, and seeing them flatten out their own curls, stuck to every neural pathway in my brain. I became obsessed with having straight hair.

I even started to notice how completely different my hair was from the other girls in elementary school as well. I always knew their hair was different than mine, but now I felt like the outlier was me. They all had long, straight hair, like how my relatives wore theirs, while mine was big and "poufy," as I started to call it. Past the age of 10, I wasn't even interested in wearing my curly hair anymore — I was now actively annoyed by it. And I truly believed straight hair was more appealing.

My natural hair no longer felt lush and powerful to me — it felt wrong, and I felt out of place. I would beg my mom to straighten my hair with a flat iron every day before I went off to school. And when she told me "no" almost every time, I was convinced she didn’t want me to be happy.

To try and help me understand her answer, she would even describe in great detail how that kind of heat was damaging for hair like mine, but none of that mattered to me — I just wanted to look like everyone else. But while my mom wasn't the biggest fan of straight hair, she sometimes gave in when my pleading became too much — and it felt great. I thought my hair was finally "fixed."

Courtesy of Gloria Alamrew

By the time I hit 16, and I could straighten my hair on my own, my mama made sure that I knew that my hair was only a problem because I thought of it as one. She would remind me that if I treated my hair with care and love, it would return that same love to me. Her favorite thing to say was, "Your hair doesn’t need to be fixed, baby, because it’s not broken." Slowly, these words started to replace my aunties' damaging comments, and a new perspective was taking hold.

It wasn't until university, though, that I really started to love my natural hair again. After years of using blow dryers and flat irons that wreaked havoc on my hair, I was tired of it. The idea of being able to wash my hair and go about my business sounded like heaven to me. So I started to research the best products for curly hair and watched every YouTube tutorial I could find to learn how to take care of my mane. For the first time in a long time, I was actually excited about my hair again.

She helped me repair my heat damaged hair — and my damaged relationship with my hair.

Sometimes I look back and think maybe my mom knew that she had to let this lesson in self-love play out on its own, so I could really learn to appreciate my natural hair. And while some of my aunts had adopted western ideals of beauty — presumably to make life easier by assimilating in their predominately white communities — my mom held tight to the sacred beauty knowledge passed down to her from her mother and grandmother when she was young. They taught her beauty rituals and hair care routines created especially for the black women of Ethiopia. These were women who knew that their hair was a special kind of magic that needed to be embraced — and eventually I learned this too.

I also discovered that in hindsight, leading by example was my mom's preferred teaching tool. She may not have said anything when I was going through my straight hair phase, but she always tried to show me how to love my curls.

In stark contrast to my aunties and her friends, she was doing big chops and rocking the pixie cut long before superstars like Halle Berry, Nia Long, or Toni Braxton even entered the scene. And once I was tall enough to see over the counter, she was teaching me how to make my own hair masks with natural products and oils, how to recognize when my hair was damaged, and how to care for my hair based on the season. I didn't fully appreciate it as a child and teenager, but once I was much older, I finally realized she was showing me the pride she took in her hair, and that I could feel that same pride too.

And when I was finally ready to embrace my curls once again as a young adult, as always, mom was there to step in and save the day. She helped me repair my heat damaged hair — and my damaged relationship with my hair.

Kat Gill

Now at 29, I show up to every holiday family dinner with my curls out — big and proud. Some of those same aunties and family friends wonder why I’m so stubborn and refuse to wear my hair straight anymore. They sometimes even laugh and reminisce on how I used to hate my curls and call them "poufy." But now I'm the one that laughs and shrugs, politely reminding them that I had to relearn how to love my hair because of their comments. My mom and I even share a secret glance and smile when these conversations come up at our gatherings, because their words just don't sting the way they used to.

But I thank my aunties for their misguided words over our past annual Christmas dinners, because even though they set me on a path of distorted beauty ideals and damaged curl patterns, it eventually lead to a journey of healing and self-love. And I thank those magical women that came generations before me who gave me this beautiful, poufy hair.