When you’re a 12-year-old girl about to move to an informal school without any kind of uniform policy, you know this is the ultimate freedom to take advantage of, a chance to begin and fully embrace your teenage years – in style.
I’d long awaited to give my hair a make-over. I naturally have an ebony black, thick and curly hair, and the first thing I wanted to change was its color. Instead of doing it at a salon, my mom helped dye my hair, introducing me to a range of hair dye brands. At the time I was a hardcore Avril Lavigne fan and was pretty much influenced by the pop-rocker girl nuance of her style. I fell in love with Avril’s 2004 black-umber-blonde look, her 2007 hot pink-dipped look, and Hayley Williams' 2008 flaming red look. Since the idea was just to add some edgy elements without completely changing its dark pigments, I chose a light auburn color. The result: my hair still looked dark indoors, but under sunlight burns of red highlights would reveal themselves. This was vibrant enough for me to show off my own 'rocker-girl' side.
I showed up on the second day with my upgraded hair, complemented with a silver crossbones necklace, red rigid-shaped bracelet patterned with a row of black crossbones on my right wrist, black t-shirt with the word “rock” framed by a golden star, a fade-colored mom jeans, and black sneakers. One of the teachers complimented me "wow, such a rocker style there.” Success.
Since the “rocker-girl” look goes hand-in-hand with straight hair, my flat iron hair straightener became my best friend on a daily basis. The more special the occasion, the straighter and long-lasting my hair needed to be. One time, in preparation for my sixth grade reunion, my mom even helped me take it to the extreme by ironing it with a clothing iron – no kidding.
Entering eighth grade, I wanted to permanently straighten my hair and officially say goodbye to my curls. After five hours at the salon, it went from voluminous to lank, from tangly-curly to sharply-straight, from side bangs to neatly-cut bangs filling my entire forehead, down to my eyebrows. The bangs weren’t intentional, but it was a nice unexpected addition to the look, considering how it was a trend back then (like 2008’s Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato) and how it completely made me look like a new person.
Throughout my middle school years, because I was having too much with my “refined” hair, I never allowed its natural state to grow back. Every time the blackness emerged, I would re-dye it. When it began to surface in waves, I'd stiffen it with my flat iron. I became attached to it, as if without it, I was a nobody.
Still around that time, when I was visiting a friend at her apartment, I was introduced to who I took to be the most perfect-looking girl, nicknamed V. She was wearing a navy blue tank top and denim shorts that nicely wrapped her slim body and long legs. Her golden brown hair cascades down to her upper stomach, in attractive curliness. Her glossy hair, dusky-colored top and electric blue contact lenses complemented her ivory, Caucasian complexion (she’s half American). The eyeliner and her white converse sneakers gave a hint of a “sporty-girl” and “rocker-girl” personality. Overall, besides being considered as the “prettiest girl in school”, she had look I had ever so coveted. I too came to know her immense talent in singing, playing the guitar and writing songs. Acknowledging she got the complete package, I had this mixed feeling of inspiration and insecurity around her.
One time, I came across a tweet from a famous quote account: “They might be smarter than you, taller than you, prettier than you, but they can never be you.”
My chest grew heavy reading the last part of the sentence. Intelligence is relative, height isn’t a primary concern, but when someone would beat me by facial appearance, I take it as if she has won the game.
I personally defined the word “prettier” as more desirable to the eyes and standing out more. Of course, I believed in the notion that being "pretty on the inside" is what truly counts, but I also saw that appearance influence the way we see people, and it is one of the elements that make a good “first impression”. How would people be interested in knowing me in depth when I didn’t have the looks to draw their attention to?
Eventually, V and I became best friends, which means having to go through many moments being outshined by her presence.
The way I looked at V in jealousy sometimes felt like glaring at a reflection of the person I should be. Some people who often saw us together in school and during field trips thought that we were sisters. She once pointed out her favorite features of me, including some I never pay attention to: my light brown eyes, my pointed nose, and even my curls.
By then I had reverted to my naturally curly hair because of my admiration for the way she pulled off the curled-hair look. Before the second semester of ninth grade began, I cut the ties between my emerging dark waves and the remnants of my ginger-washed straight hair. Then, I bought a golden-brown dye – inspired by her – for my shoulder-length hair in my attempt to enhance my own facial features.
The move brought out devastating results.
In tenth grade, I was at war with my hair. The countless shampoo, conditioner, hair mask, serum brands I tried had no significant effect on its frizziness, breakage, dullness, split and tangled ends. I had to rely on straightening it daily, to at least make it neat, though it still couldn't in any way conceal the fact that it's damaged.
I grew accustomed to bad hair days, but when it was at its worst, I wallowed in self-loath, sometimes enough that I did not want to leave the house. Once while having lunch with my friends, I caught a glimpse of my messed up look at a reflection somewhere and it made me spontaneously bury my head inside my handbag like an ostrich.
In order to look good, must we decrease our self-consciousness about the way we look?
My friends would tell me “we love you just the way you are” “your hair is fine” “stop worrying about your hair, your face, or anything… just… be yourself”, but it didn’t help. Just being my ridiculously lame self was the actual problem.
As it took its toll on eleventh grade, I decided to stop. Stop with all the dying, the straightening, and the endless damaging. Stepping out of the house with my curls frizzled all over was a brave step I took. My concern for my hair's condition had outweighed my worries about my appearance.
Along this time, a new girl joined my class, and she now happens to be one of my best friends. A week later, as we were getting close, she told me about the day she saw me for the first time, and how she was astonished by how cool and confident I looked. She saw me walking through the hallway with a plain navy blue top, cut-knee jeans, and brown high-ankle doc martens shoes, walking with my crinkly hair flowing freely.
I was surprised and confused. Never before had I ever pictured myself that way, especially of my tousled hair. It was as if she wasn’t referring to me. What I wore on that day was just something I found on the top pile of my clothes. And because I had put on some leave-in conditioner, I had no choice but to leave my hair as it was. I wasn’t self-conscious, yet she took it as a gesture of confidence.
It made me contemplate: In order to look good, must we decrease our self-consciousness about the way we look? Have I been thinking too much about how I look? Have I completely been taking the way people respond to my appearance the indication of my confidence?
One night, I stood across the mirror and scanned my reflection. The light bulb of the living room illuminated my right side. I looked straight to her crystal-like eyes. Her sclera is clear and milky-like. Her pupils resembled golden rings. I had a friend asking me once if I had been using contact lenses and a special eye drop to keep my eyes white. I couldn't ever see the delicate beauty of my eyes when I had been using them merely to look at what I consider my physical flaws. Instead I might ruin their look with red cracks, puffiness every time I cried for never looking good enough.
I had placed a filter between my cornea and my mind of images of those I considered “pretty” girls, so that every time I look into the mirror, it would be an immersion of their image and mine staring back at me. It has always been easier to wish to look like someone else.
But at that moment, as I lowered my gaze down, I looked at the golden brown remnants dangling the bottom part of my strands. Overall, my hair was dark, thick and curly again, like it originally was. It felt like looking back to who I was in the beginning of my teen years. Only, she has grown. It’s as if from that point, I could be on to a new start.
In the middle of eleventh grade, I did something revolutionary: I veiled my hair. Well, in a wider picture: I decided to adapt a more modest way of dressing up, which involves covering up my hair. Yes, it’s totally unexpected that after all the adventurous years of hairstyling, I suddenly came upon this choice.
I'll admit I intended to do so primarily as a spiritual practice, but Islamic modesty gradually appealed to me, seeing that this practice is rather synonymous to my hairstyling habits.
I spent my days exploring pictures of popular “hijabis” around Tumblr and Instagram posing, styling, and living everyday life, displaying so much confidence and personality. I also would come across insights and stories about how these women came to love themselves more and feel empowered with this choice of clothing.
The main purpose of this practice is to acknowledge that our personality will be better displayed when we dim and reveal the outer beauty less, in order for the inner beauty to shine out and reveal itself better to become the central focus. I picture how I would be in that state of appearance, with whatever shows through the look of my eyes, the emotions curving my lips, the intellectual words coming out of my mouth, and the gesture of my body to call people's attention to me. What an empowering symbol.
As I thought about it, what I did with my hair was actually for that same attempt. I styled my hair to emphasize something great of myself.
Plus, I will have the same type of fun with it: experimenting the different ways to wrap, flip, twist, layer, and clip the scarf, selecting range of patterned to pastel, grainy and muted colors that best compliments my complexion, and defining how the draped part of the scarf looks better paired with a certain outfit.
Still, an inner voice kept troubling me with the idea that I wasn’t going to be this unique-looking girl anymore with her golden curls, someone who people would turn their heads to in curiosity when they pass me by, but just some other girl with a scarf on.
Though this thought gradually faded in the first few months of wearing it, I find there were still struggles, temptations, days when the scarf suffocates instead of magnifies me, but I held on to it. I was able to commit to it. I gradually felt attached to it.
I won’t say I finally solved the problem. Veiled or not, loving and accepting my own appearance, has always been and will always be a continuing struggle. The struggle of settling between the see-saw of other's taste and our own taste, other's comfort and our own comfort, and other's approval and our own approval.
In a world filled with many prettier things, I don’t think we can ever stop comparing ourselves to others, just as we can’t ever stop finding ways to make ourselves look better, inside and out. Both acts correspond to each other, and the effects of their correspondence created my journey.
Now, here I am, celebrating almost four years of fully-covered clothing and a decade of hair damage in calculation, with an entire document of my teenage self-esteem’s metamorphosis attached to them. Who knew?
Sonia Azalia enjoys solitary hours of cat-petting, vegan dessert-tasting, reading and weaving her own world through art and writing. You can catch glimpses of these at her Instagram @aezthete *Illustration by Faris Abulkhair