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OPINION: Keratin Treatments Lead To Losing Jewish ‘roots’

OPINION: Keratin treatments lead to losing Jewish ‘roots’

By Hannah Jannol
GSS columnist

LOS ANGELES — My scalp is burning. My nose is dripping. The combined smell of formaldehyde and the melting, unpronounceable chemicals in my mascara have turned my eyes into a watery disarray.

I am getting my biannual keratin treatment. It is something I once did on and off, but committed to doing once a semester during my junior year of high school. So for the last few years, my scalp and hair have undergone the application of keratin — a protein found in the hair, nails, and skin — which, combined with the heat of a straightener, relaxes the hair.

My hair got curly in seventh grade, along with some other wonderful trademarks of puberty, like acne and menstruation. But even more ubiquitous were the social pressures I faced upon becoming a woman. I had to have clear skin, be thin here and be curvy there, hide parts of my womanness but flaunt other aspects of it. Having straight hair was added to the list of beauty expectations I newly faced in middle school.

Illustration by Amberly Butler

So my bushy hair was just icing on the cake. As a girl, my hair was long and knotty and difficult, but still somehow relatively straight. In seventh grade however, my hair mushroomed out like the top of a nuclear bomb. I would look in the mirror in school and try to crush it into my head with my hands, but alas, my hair would poof out the second I dropped my arms.

My hair was not ordinarily curly — it was a Jewfro. My mother’s hair is the same, and so was her mother’s, and so was her mother’s. There has been a matrilineal line of thick, curly hair in my family, and yet, a stigma remains. In addition to the bump on my nose, my frizzy hair supplemented my list of features that did not follow Eurocentric beauty standards that I always saw as more attractive, but never quite knew why.

A few years ago, the critique and discussion of nose jobs in the Jewish community was a very hot topic. It seemed (especially female) Jewish adolescents were getting nose jobs left and right as Bar or Bat Mitzvah presents, high school graduation gifts, sweet sixteens, Hanukkah, wedding presents, etc. Of course, it was not only Jewish kids getting nose jobs, but by the early 20th century, surgeons recognized “that Jews and other ethnic Americans represented a large potential market for nasal plastic surgery,” historian Beth Haiken wrote in her 1998 book “Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery.”

In 2011, it was reported that there had been a large decline in the amount of Americans, and Jews, getting nose jobs.

Keratin-ing Jewfros seems to be the new way to alter Jewish features.

I can’t count with all my fingers and toes the number of Jewish friends and acquaintances I have who pay approximately $150 and sit in a salon for almost three hours every few months to have their hair severely relaxed.  

While getting her fourth treatment, my friend Maya Snapchatted me a photo of herself having the keratin applied to her hair with the caption, “Getting a chemical burn on this fine Sunday, what about you?” She told me she gets minor scabs on her scalp from the treatment, and her hair is greasy and thin for a week afterwards.

“So why do you do it?” I asked, knowing exactly why I myself go through the same pain.

With a priceless flip of her freshly glossy hair, she said, “Because how else would I get this sleek hair?”

We then both laughed and flipped our straight locks with ease, because without keratin, our hair would either stiffly and awkwardly return to its original place, or knot around our fingers.

But getting keratin was still a difficult decision for me. I know I should take pride in my Jewish looks — Jewfro, bump on my nose and all. But the seduction of a hair treatment that would eliminate the practical problems with frizzy hair — de-knotting it, taming it in the morning and throughout the day, low-self esteem — was too tempting.

To keep my Jewfro would be a never-ending hole of testing products, treatments, hair styles, techniques. Though a keratin twice a year is $300, the time and emotional drama it spares me makes it worth it. In middle school, I used grocery ingredients to make masks that were messy. I lost sleep waking up to straighten my hair. I wasted money on drugstore products that claimed they could either straighten out a Jewfro — or better yet, make your curls look good.

But something more powerful swayed me: the ingrained notion that straight hair is somehow inherently more attractive.

I think this all started, developmentally speaking, in my childhood. There was a book titled “Franny B. Kranny, There’s a Bird in Your Hair!” that my mom would love to read to me, because it resonated with us so much. The story was about Franny B. Kranny, whose long, red, frizzy hair would get stuck in doors and refrigerators, took hours to detangle, and one day was even mistaken by a bird for a nest. Her situation is made worse and more comical by her little sister, who has short, perfectly sleek, black hair.

Like Franny, my family often mocked my hair, telling me to cut it, comb it, wash it, do anything to it to “fix it.” I rebelliously did whatever I wanted with my hair. Even more uncanny was my little sister’s perfectly straight black hair.

Franny must cut and style her hair in a tight updo for a family reunion, but discovers a love for her hair regardless of style when the homeless bird makes itself at home in her locks. But then, she cuts her hair off and donates it to a local nest. Though the overall theme of the book is non-conformity, it still seemed to my child self like cutting off or restraining frizzy hair is the better option.

Straight hair is simply seen as more beautiful in our society. Everytime I walk into school after getting keratin, heads turn. I get compliments from people who wouldn’t even say hi to me while washing their hands next to me in the bathroom. People just notice you more.

People claim they are against unrealistic beauty standards, and many people would say they do not support Eurocentric beauty ideals, but truthfully they do not. If they did, really, they would tell me how much they love my hair on the days nearing the end of the effects of the keratin — or before I even started getting the treatment. And it’s not just me. Whenever a girl at my school walks in having straightened her hair that morning, she gets a slew of compliments and questions about it from classmates.

My mom claims she does not give into Eurocentric standards of beauty. Yet, she always straightens her hair when going to a business meeting.

I will still probably get another keratin treatment next April for my birthday. I’ll schedule it around whatever celebration I have for my 18th so I can look my best — which means having perfectly straight hair. I know it’s wrong, and that the feeling I have that I look better that way is false; I just look like someone with straight hair. When I’m old and my hair starts to thin out, I’ll probably laugh at myself for ever wishing I had anything but a big, bushy, curly Jewfro.

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