American woman struggles to achieve straight hair at the beauty salon

Chabelly Pacheco, a Dominican American who moved from Long Island to Brooklyn at the age of five, walks into her favorite Dominican Salon on Brooklyn’s Graham Avenue and it feels more like a home.

The salon is full of women, smoke and hair spray. She is greeted by everyone in the salon: the hairdressers kiss both cheeks of her, and the other clients say hello. Daughters with curlers in hair sit next to their mothers, their feet hanging from the chairs.

These salons are a great place for Dominican women of the first generation, like Pacheco.

Yoeli Colado, Pacheco’s friend who came to Long Island as a three-year-old from the Dominican Republic, said: “I don’t feel connected to my own culture.” “When I speak Spanish I feel powerful… but other than that, I have little to connect with. Going to a Dominican hair salon is part my culture. It’s the only way I can identify.”

There are many cultural public spaces in other diasporas. There are Chinese community centers, Indian music venues, and Ghanaian and Russian restaurants.

The salon is a culturally important place for Dominicans.

As a woman scholar who studies women’s issues, I was fascinated by these spaces and wanted to know how Dominican beauty regimes and salons influenced female Dominican-American identities.

Although the Dominican Americans I interviewed were very complimentary about their salons, Dominican hair culture was far from glamorous. It’s a costly, burdensome, colonial-style beauty ritual that is a struggle for young Dominican women today.

“The hair is the woman”

Dominican beauty standards for women can be extremely demanding, as in other cultures. The Dominican culture prefers long, straight hair, even though most Dominicans have curly hair. The Dominican term for curly, frizzy, or kinky hair translates as “bad hair” and many women are under pressure to treat this hair.

Pacheco said, “I hear it from my mother all the time.” In my family, the motto is “The hair carries a woman.” “If your hair is good, you are fine.”

It’s not just fun, despite the salon’s lively atmosphere. It can be painful, expensive, and time-consuming.

The Sociologist Ginetta Cadelario found that Dominican women spend up to 30% of their salary on beauty regimens.

Dominican children are often forced to straighten their hair by their parents. In Pacheco’s hair salon, young girls complained that the dryers burned their scalps.

“You are taught at a very young age that you have to keep your hair straight in order to look good, get a job or a boyfriend and to hear your mother call you pretty,” Pacheco said.

The Dominican Republic has a very strict hair culture. Young women who don’t wear their hair in the “preferred” way can be sent home or banned from certain public and private places. Women with natural, untreated hair may even be prohibited from entering some public and privately owned spaces.

Although the discrimination against women with curly hair in New York is not as severe, I was told by many Dominican Americans that they still feel the same pressure.

There is no such thing as black.

The Dominican tradition of straight hair is rooted in colonial rule by Spain. It was a way of imitating the upper classes and separating themselves from their Haitian neighbours, who had occupied the country at one time and supported the negritude movement which black writers founded as a means to celebrate and defend a black identity.

Dominicans consider Haitians to be “black,” while Dominicans, even those with a clear African descent, fall into non-black categories.

Hair straightening, or “blanqueamiento,” is one way Dominicans distinguish themselves from Haitians. Many black Dominicans do not consider themselves black, despite the fact that the Dominican Republic is ranked fifth among countries outside of Africa with the largest black population.

Stephanie Lorenzo (a Dominican-American 25-year-old from the Bronx) explained that “[Blackness] was a taboo” in the Dominican Republic. “You don’t want to look black.”

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