My hair is the feature I get compliments about.
My grandmother’s hands would run through it before she put me to bed, aunties sung praises about its length and thickness and my mother loved styling it.
My hair is the same as hers. Thick, dark and wavy.
And my mother is the person who carved what a woman should be into my mind.
Her hair is always long and straightened and she knows exactly how she wants her makeup done. I so badly wanted to grow up to be pretty like her (people say I’m the spitting image of my father).
Femininity was an afterthought for her, while it chewed me alive and left me disgusted with myself.
In high school, I wore ill-fitting hoodies, bruised jeans and my hair up in a disastrously low ponytail. I didn’t love my appearance, but it was easy and I fit in. My mother pestered me with questions, hoping I’d quickly outgrow this awkward phase. Why hadn’t I learned how to do makeup? Why didn’t I wear dresses? And why didn’t I do anything with my hair?
Why didn’t I style it? Or leave it down? What about trying bangs?
It was because I had no interest in it.
Passive conversation let the water simmer, but it all boiled over the night of my uncle’s wedding.
In three hours, we needed to be on a plane to Calgary, and within two hours of landing, we had to be at the venue. To save time, my mother did my siblings’ hair before we left. All I had to do was let her straighten my hair.
But hadn’t I coughed up enough of myself already?
I let them paint my nails — something I now do with joy, but at the time made me feel nauseated — making my hands appear detachable from the rest of my body. I knew I would have to wear makeup once I got there and seeing myself in heavy makeup always makes me question whose reflection I’m staring at.
She was stressed. I was fidgeting in the chair. Why’d it have to be straight?
Once every strand was scorched, I stomped away with a snide remark. Her retaliation left me stunned. I didn’t speak during the flight, and we didn’t talk about it because there was nothing to do but move on.
Later that night, I stood in front of a mirror to analyze my reflection. My hair, straightened, reached my lower back. I fucking hated it. I knew the person looking back at me had to be me — but I couldn’t recognize her.
A few weeks later, I broke down crying, and finally, my mother took me to get my hair cut.
My hair sat slightly above my shoulders and was a mushroom cut at best. It was frizzy, and I needed layers, but it was short. And it caused a bewildering uproar from my family.
My grandma gave me a speech about how God created us as we are meant to be, my uncles asked me if I would change my name, and even though my mother never said anything to me, I knew her aversion for it.
Everyone disliked my hair, and in retrospect, so did I.
It didn’t suit my face, but I have to remind myself to not be cruel to 16-year-old Aisha — I wouldn’t be here if not for her.
But unknowingly, the haircut ushered in a new era of me prodding aspects of myself I had previously repressed. I started wearing jewelry. A girl in my art class said she liked my new haircut and ended up being my first kiss. I even got purple streaks. It wasn’t perfect, but the change was welcomed.
Despite this, something still nagged at me. So, I cut it shorter. I didn’t realize how short it would be until it was gone. It sat in a tuft above my ears, and my eyes brimmed with tears on the car ride home.
I wore a hood all day. I would not let anyone see it. There was always this underlying notion that the way I was expressing myself opposed my gender and was inherently sinful. All those warnings from family, all my protests just for them to be right.
I disliked it because I looked Queer. I couldn’t think of myself as pretty, as what a girl should look like. My mother was this beacon of femininity I could not touch. I just didn’t understand why this was so hard for me. Why is this so hard for me? Silently, I trudged along and let my hair grow out.
For my eighteenth birthday, my mother found my old baby album.
She had meticulously written and documented the first two years of my life. I flipped through it mindlessly until I reached the last page.
You were such a tomboy, at one point even wanted to cut your hair really short. It wasn’t til grade two that you enjoyed being a girl.
My throat closed up as my mind swirled.
This whole time. Everyone had told me my entire life that something was wrong with my appearance, my interests, my mannerisms. There was something needing change. This is exactly who I have always been — I had just forgotten.
By the time I got to university, my hair had grown out to my shoulders, and I got it chopped into a wolf cut, which always sits in an unruly wavy mess. It’s the only haircut that’s ever stuck.
The comments still come. The off-hand, are you going to grow your hair out?, or I miss your long hair. I still get anxious when I need to get my hair cut. I don’t know if that bubbling terror will ever stop.
But things have become easier. My clothes don’t swallow me anymore. I can look at myself and feel at ease. I like plastering blush on my cheeks and shoving kajol into my waterline.
My mother sometimes says she wishes her daughter actually acted like a girl, but this is the closest I can get to it.
I was my mother’s first child, and she desperately wanted a daughter who’d love dresses, dolls and want to talk about boys. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just wasn’t me. But now, I understand she never wanted to hurt me. Parents often paint futures for their children without realizing we will inevitably grow into our own people.
So, my mother and I have arrived at a silent middle ground. She lets me be, and I have grown better at being feminine.
In the end, I didn’t change much at all. I just returned to the kid I used to be.
This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 creative non-fiction supplement, beauty.