What Is “Pretty”? The Mom Who Straightened her 6-Year-Old’s Hair

Would Shirley Temple still be cute with Brazilian-straightened hair?

Back in elementary school, we got a new girl in our class one year who had Very Curly Hair. I mean, very curly. It wasn’t long and corkscrew-y, or wavy and bouncy, or quirky and Shirley Temple-like. This girl — her name was Tina Battaglia, in case she Googles herself these days — had a short, frizzy, coarse mop of brown curls. She was also very cute. But that didn’t matter. The double whammy of that hair and being the new girl got her a lot of teasing. Here’s what I remember, to my shame: I remember wanting to tell her that my mother had the exact same kind of hair and I thought my mother was beautiful. But I didn’t (too shy).

Why am I thinking about Tina today? Because I started to wonder, if she was that same super-curly-girl today, would her parents do anything about it? Like, oh, I don’t know, have it chemically straightened it to the tune of $600 or so? Just wondering.

I’m not wondering idly. A couple of weeks ago, I took James, my first-grader, to a birthday party. We were early to the bowling alley, and the only other partygoer was a little girl with blonde hair. She and James started jumping and dancing around to the pounding music (this is one of those refurbished bowling alleys that wants to be part disco — dark and too loud for this aging mommy). Anyway, to make conversation, I commented to the girl’s mom that she seemed to really enjoy dancing. She was leaping and twirling, swinging her strikingly blonde, thick mane around with obvious delight. I said, “Gosh, she has such gorgeous hair.”

Her mom smirked (really, she smirked), and seemed eager to share this news: “Her hair didn’t use to look like that! She had this frizzy, curly hair and I could not control it. It looked awful! So I got her the Brazilian hair straightening.” I couldn’t respond, but she went on — and I swear she was proud to share this tidbit — “I had to sign a waiver because she’s so young!” On the outside, I smiled and said nothing. Inside, I was sputtering: The chemicals, the money, the time, are you kidding me; she’s in first grade! But all that aside, what the hell kind of message is that to send? “I can’t control your hair, honey, it’s a mess and it looks terrible. Hey, how would you like straight hair?”

Oh. Dear. God.

This girl was very obviously in love with her stick-straight hair, and judging by how thick it looked while straight, I can only imagine what it looked like curly. A lot like Tina Battaglia’s, had she tried to let it grow past her ears. So here’s my question: If you had been Tina’s mom, and Brazilian straightening was available, would you get it for her, if you thought it would make her feel better about herself? Or would you tell  her she’s beautiful as she is? What’s wrong with curly hair, anyway? And that little girl, who I watched flipping that shiny hank of straight hair from one shoulder to the other as she danced: did she feel ugly before?

When Tina joined my class, we were already pre-teens. But this girl is 6. Should a six-year-old girl even know anything other than “I am beautiful”? Should that feeling be connected in any way to her hair? Am I being naive? (No really, I want to know — I don’t have girls. Though I do have curly hair.)

You know what else I wanted to do, in that moment? I wanted to go back to my sixth grade classroom and tell Tina the other kids were stupid and mean. And then I wanted to go back even further, to tell my mom — who always said she hated her hair when she was a child — that she was beautiful then, too (as she is now). She used to tell me about torturous sessions with the hairbrush, as her mother (who had thin, straight hair) tried to manage her mop. But when I look at the photos, I see gorgeous auburn ringlets topped with a bow. What could be cuter? Apparently, stick-straight is cuter.

Which to me is almost unbearably sad.