Is My Mom Passing on Straight-Hair Ideals to My Daughter?

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Writer Aliya S. King and her mother discuss black power, the natural-hair movement and why Aliya won’t perm her daughter Emmy’s hair.

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Aliya’s turn:

Recently, my mom and I wrote about spanking and the choices she made regarding punishments when I was younger. It led to a broader discussion on how we can grow up and bring parenting into the modern era while respecting our parents and the choices they made. Dealing with hair care for a daughter with tons of curls is something my mom and I also have in common—even though we’re approaching it differently.

I was born with a head full of hair. And by the time I was 3 years old, there was enough going on that my mom had to practically chase me down to do something to it. Like most in my generation, I eventually got a perm and hair care became much easier. I never truly understood what my mom went through with my hair—until I had Emmy. By the time she was 3 years old, I’d had it up to here with the all-day hair-washing episodes in which Emmy would scream bloody murder with every touch of the comb or brush.

But I didn’t perm Emmy’s hair, even when others in older generations told me I probably should. Part of the reason was that I didn’t want to expose Emmy to the chemicals in hair straighteners. Another reason is that I wanted to try to show Emmy that she could be proud of her curly hair and not feel as if her kinks were some kind of deficit.

I stopped chemically straightening my hair back in college. But that’s about all I don’t do. I wear braids (with my own hair and with synthetic hair), I wear a ’fro (whom I affectionately call “Fro Girl”). I also sometimes wear a weave (whom I call “Faux Girl”), and any other hairstyle that appeals to me. And yet I stop short of chemically straightening my hair. I don’t want Emmy to see me straightening my hair because she might see it as being hypocritical when I’m always telling her to be proud of her curls.

Now, my mom has had a perm for as long as I can remember. (Although I’ve seen pictures of her in the ’70s with the most epic Afro you’ve ever seen in your life.) For my mom, I think having a perm is more about just the ease of hairstyling than some idea of straight hair being better. My mother has always instilled cultural knowledge and pride in my siblings and me.

But I do know that my mom likes to see Emmy’s hair long and straight. So is she passing that preference on to Emmy? Emmy’s got a serious case of what natural-hair-care experts call shrinkage. When her hair is curly, it’s chin-length. When I get her hair blow-dried and flat-ironed, it’s halfway down her back. And I notice that when she wears her hair straight, she gets much more attention and compliments—which frustrates me.

The micro issue here is what to do about Emmy’s hair. The bigger issue here is what to do when the generation before you has ingrained thoughts that you’re trying to correct for the next generation.

I know for a fact that my mom is as pro-black as they come. But I also know that she’s still affected, as I am, by the age we grew up in, when long and straight hair was more valued than kinks and curls—when calling someone’s hair nappy was a grave insult.

Times have changed. But there are lingering beliefs that our previous generations still carry. How do new millennial parents push for the changes we want to see—without pushing away the very people who instilled those things in us?