Shelley Hack Black

Creative Nonfiction
Celestine Woo

Photo Credit: rocor/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


My bangs are now sophisticated and asymmetrical, ready for entering junior high: they swoop down over my right eye, baring the left part of my forehead. My shoulder-length hair bounces slightly if I have managed to fluff it. I get body waves maybe twice a year, and have discovered mousse, which my mom is willing to buy for me, unlike hair spray. In eighth grade, I get one of the best compliments of my life (to this day): someone tells me with my hairdo, I look like Shelley Hack, who was then the newest of Charlie’s Angels. My hair is really black, and I wish it were brown like my mom and sister. I try to imagine an Asian Angel, or any Asian in a prominent, positive TV or movie role, and laugh at the absurdity.

Here is a picture of that Shelley Hack hairdo.



My hair is feathered like Farrah Fawcett in her iconic pinup poster, and like every single other teenage girl in existence, except for the OBCs who are hopelessly ugly with their straight limp lifeless hair. Mine’s cut in layers, shoulder-length. One of the rare periods of my life when it wasn’t constantly permed. Every morning I spend twenty minutes with the curling iron making layers of curls. Mine never turn out in piles and piles of puffy perfectly shaped curls like Ada has, like a Chinese afro—she’s the beauty queen of our church, and in the Golden Age of Big Hair, a ‘do like hers is way out of my league. Nor do my curls look like Shannon’s waves that are wide flicks, like the Sprint logo, that really earn the name of feathers. Nor do they look like most of the girls in church, who have curls like little sausages either just framing their face, or adorning their whole head, including the back. Nope, my hair is way too thick, heavy, and coarse to behave right, so at best, I get really great sausage curls on my left side (since I’ve kept the asymmetrical shaping and have less hair on that side), and a few limp curls on the right that fall into my eye but not fetchingly. I curl the back, because I have this great mirrored bathroom cabinet and can actually view the back of my head fairly easily; it semi works, so I figure I look good from the left and the back.

If there’s any fog or even the faintest hint of humidity, the instant I walk out of the house, my hair falls completely flat, stick straight, even if it’s moussed and gelled to death, and I look horrible and feel humiliated, and there’s nothing I can do. (In my twenties, a hairdresser tells me he’s surprised but I really truly don’t look good with straight hair, and I bless him for his honesty.) Plus, that fall, the first PE rotation assigns me swimming first period, which means forget any hair styling because it’s a waste once you’re in the pool. After, we have only ten minutes to get dressed, do our hair (ha ha), and get to our second period class. That is nowhere near long enough to get my thick hair even semi-dry, let alone curled while still damp. So for weeks, my ninth-grade peers only see me as this girl with straight hair, like black pick-up sticks or dried spaghetti all over my head. Squid ink pasta won’t become trendy for decades yet, and even had it existed, I am utterly incapable of joking about my appearance.



I begin paying attention to hair on other parts of my body. My mother has no razors or deodorant, and I notice with chagrin, peering clandestinely whenever I get the chance, that she seems to have zero hair on her legs, arms, or armpits. She’s also whiter than most white people. I doubt she even knows that girls shave their legs, and I despair because I have no idea how to learn.

I eavesdrop at church in the women’s restroom. This is how I’ve learned all sorts of things about periods and stuff, so I also learn that you’re supposed to shave your legs in the shower. That sounds clever, I think, and feel sorry for Danielle, who is being ridiculed because she was stupid enough to shave her legs dry, outside the shower (as I have). Some girl in some TV sitcom jokes about not knowing how high to shave, and thus having bangs on her knees. I get the joke, but am worried because I didn’t know there was a rule about how high.

I peek secretly at other girls’ bodies. I am greatly perturbed to notice that Kim, a super cute popular girl, seems to have no hair at all on either her thighs or forearms, or even on the backs of her knuckles. Is she just born that way, or does she shave those places? It’s hard to be sure, since her skin is dark. I look with alarm at the tiny hairs on my knuckles, forearms, and thighs. I don’t mind them, but does this make me ugly and noticeable?

My friend Jennifer at school provides me some relief. I overhear her tell someone she doesn’t bother to shave her legs, because her hairs are fine and nearly invisible, and if she shaves, they’ll grow back thicker and then she’ll be stuck in this vicious cycle. Jennifer is a wonder: Vietnamese, but perfect American English, confident, smart, popular, outgoing, beautiful, unapologetically Catholic, and surrounded by popular white friends. She’s the only one like that in our entire school of nearly 3,000. She’s the first Vietnamese kid to be elected to Student Council. After she takes office, the mutterings begin: the Vietnamese grumble that she only made nice to get their vote, and now she ignores them. The whites grouse that the only reason she won was she got all the Vietnamese to vote for her, except they use a slur instead of “Vietnamese,” by which they designate all Asians except the Japanese, who are cool.



The first time I call up a hair salon in my new town, Altadena—99% black and also the place where Rodney King lives, immediately before the infamous traffic stop and riots happen—the receptionist inquires whether I have “white or black hair.” I know what she’s asking, but I’m tempted to reply “black,” since that is in fact the color of my hair. I tell her I’m Asian. Does that mean my hair is yellow? Wouldn’t that be the irony…

I get my first spiral perm and love it. I am now a working adult, earning a whopping $13,000 per year, and so am rich enough to spend the extra money to get the spirals, not just the regular perm. My hair is past my shoulders, almost to my breasts. It takes an hour to roll my hair, and I am fascinated by the hairdresser winding it round each white plastic and then bending it into a big circle, like a giant hoop earring, rather than the purple and pink rollers I always get for perms.

As usual, my hair won’t perm. They check it after fifteen minutes, then five more, then five more. Eventually, the spiral perm turns out beautiful and I am proud of my elegant tresses and preen and toss them around at every opportunity. The next perm, though, they mess up and cut my bangs too short, so I look like a startled poodle, with long wavy hair and too pert little curly bangs. I resign myself to it, but my housemate Ron clearly finds my hairdo embarrassing, because all he says is, “It’ll grow back!” with an uneasy little chuckle.



For the first time, I cut my hair all one length, just at the bottom of my ear. The opposite of layering: now the outer layers are the longest, and the underlayers close to my head are short. The perm gives me waves that look professional and sassy. It’s my mom’s longtime hairdo, but I try not to think about that: no woman nearing thirty wishes to feel like she’s turning into her mom, especially when you have a horrible relationship like I have. I get a new driver’s license photo, and am luckier than most: I’ve always had good license photos.

Since I no longer wear bangs, every time I see my mom, she sweeps my hair over my forehead, because she thinks my forehead is ugly. Because she thinks her forehead is ugly, and I look like her.



I get lowlights. I learn that logically enough, lowlights are the opposite of highlights: instead of streaks of color lighter than your natural hair, lowlights are streaks that are darker than your natural hue. Except with black hair, I still don’t understand the notion of lowlights, but that’s what the hairdresser calls it, when she streaks a half-head of reddish brown into my hair. My base color has by now turned dark chestnut brown-black, since I’ve been perming it for decades, and I like it, although since the grass is always greener, or the hair always blacker, part of me misses the darkness it used to have.

I wonder if this terminology is yet another sign that it’s white folks who have invented all the terms: if you add brownish or dark red hues into your hair, those colors are assumed to be darker than your natural shade, and thus termed lowlights.

I buy “hair mascara” from my favorite beauty company (CCB Paris), and am sorrowful when they close all their US business branches. Hair mascara is a bottle with a bristly brush, just like eye mascara, only bigger and coarser, and you paint color into your hair, and it washes out. I choose copper, and love streaking the metallic color into my hair. I use it whenever I’m onstage for a dance performance.



I have grown out my color, and grown it long and straight. Now that I’m older, my hair is thinner, which is somewhat sad, but the great thing is that after all these years of perming it into submission, it has finally become pliable and even has a tiny amount of wave. I am delighted when I start going grey; I like salt-and-pepper. It’s very subtle as yet: just a tiny hint in gentle waves behind each ear, in a tendril by my chin, in highlights at my crown. My “pepper” is now a faded dark walnut brown, the lightest it’s ever been, which I don’t mind although ironically now I do distinctly miss the blackness of my youth. Most white people, I surmise, have never thought about black hair having a wide range of shades, so it is a delight when I meet with my student, an Italian man who is a passionate hairdresser, and he brings his display board of hair swatches, and locates me instantly in the light-brown section of black.

Nowadays when I visit my mother, she always tells me earnestly that if I eat and drink things with black sesame, it will restore the blackness to my hair. I nod gamely, and try it once or twice, but I don’t like black sesame nearly enough to constantly guzzle it in order to take effect. Mom also tells me about the greatest sign of my Auntie Sophie’s love for her husband, my Uncle Monte: Sophie would mung baak tou faat—pull out his white hairs.

I notice all the popups I’m now getting on Facebook about grey-haired models, models over sixty, and so forth, and I roll my eyes at micro-targeted advertising, since I’m old and literate enough to know what Big Brother is, and I don’t mean the reality TV. I actually like that my grey helps me look almost my age, so my colleagues in their twenties and thirties will believe me when I talk like someone a generation older than they. I go on a date, and am told that my grey is really hot. My colleague-=-five years younger than me, but frankly, she looks ten years older—remarks that she wishes her grey (hidden under bright red dye) looked as graceful and elegant as mine. I’ve now had several years of hairdressers inquiring whether I want to cover up my grey, and I always tell them no. With some gusto.


Celestine Woo is an English teacher, poet, and modern dancer. She has recently published her first short memoir, as well as her first short story. Email: celestwoo[at]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email