Story compiled by
Mary Ann Cooper
Education majors are understandably concerned about the means and methods utilized to encourage student success. What colleges might or might not teach is that all the newest techniques to ensure learning don’t mean much if a student does not have a positive self-image. The self-esteem of an individual is a complicated and nuanced issue for many young people – especially those of color. The norms for appearance and behavior have long been established by a society dominated by whites. Subtle differences in something simple like hair, for instance, can create doubts about self-worth that can scar an otherwise confident and strong individual and affect anyone’s potential for a happy and successful life.
Author Sulma Arzu-Brown has penned a bilingual book entitled “BAD HAIR DOES NOT EXIST!/¡PELO MALO NO EXISTE!” that at first glance appears to be for kids. But make no mistake about it. While it might it look like a children’s book, its message is mature and adult. In fact, the book covers a wide demographic in terms of readership. It can be enjoyed and understood by a child but wouldn’t be inappropriate to include in the syllabus of a college general education class. One reason is that it is based on the author’s own personal experiences. Although the book has a lighthearted quality, it’s inspiration came from something very personal and negative for Arzu-Brown. Born in Honduras, she moved to New York City at six years old and with her parents’ encouragement eventually attended Herbert Lehman College of the City University of New York.
“The book is even more effective when I am able to deliver the message behind it,” Arzu-Brown said. “While in college, I was on a quest to find myself. That is when I took on a project about my Garifuna culture, just to learn more about me. It was at that point when classmate labeled my type of hair as ‘malo/bad.’ She had no idea what I was going through nor the reality of my challenges as a black Latina woman. I have to admit, if the young lady and I had someone like me to come deliver the message of “BAD HAIR DOES NOT EXIST” - the class discussion would have never escalated to an argument. So please, I ask with all the respect in my heart not to ‘judge a book by its cover’ or font size.”
Featuring illustrations by Isidra Sabio of girls and women with a variety of different hair types and styles, Arzu-Brown’s book seeks to empower by demonstrating that hair is not bad and not something to feel self-conscious about.
“We don’t have bad hair because bad hair does not exist!/ ¡Pero pelo malo, no existe!” the book reads using an illustration of two girls, one with curly hair and one with straight hair, to help demonstrate its point. “There are all types of hair. And all hair is GOOD!/Hay toda clase de pelo. ¡Y todo pelo es BUENO!”
“Raised in a predominately Spanish community in the Bronx, I encountered a series of events in which the term ‘pelo malo’ (meaning bad hair) was used too loosely and irresponsibly to describe the natural (not chemically treated) hair of Black girls and girls of Afro decent without thinking about the damage it inflicts on their self-esteem,” she wrote.
Although she went on to successfully earn her Bachelor of Arts degree, her experiences from her youth and in particular with her classmate stayed with her. Eventually, she married her best friend from college, Maurice Brown, and had two daughters, Suleni Tisani and Bella-Victoria.
“When I became a mom, it was important for me to instill in my daughters the values of love, beauty, intelligence, empowerment and consideration for the feelings of others,” she wrote. “I became indignant with the term ‘pelo malo’ because it was now being used against my daughters, contrary to all the values I taught at home.”
On her book’s website, Arzu-Brown wrote about two separate occasions where she dealt with “pelo malo” and its impact on her daughters. During one of them a caregiver tried to use a flat iron on her then one-year-old daughter’s hair and burned her ear. In the other, a different caregiver suggested that she have her youngest daughter’s hair chemically straightened and used the term “pelo malo” in front of the little girl.
“Bella-Victoria was just three years old when this happened,” Arzu-Brown wrote. “I told the caregiver that, ‘BAD HAIR DOES NOT EXIST’ and respectfully provided alternative terminology to describe the various types of hair. Additionally, I requested she not use the term ‘bad hair’ in front of my daughter or any child for that matter.”
In the end there were many such incidences that motivated Arzu-Brown to take action. She taught her oldest daughter how to describe her hair in positive terms and stand up for herself and her sister. She also decided to stop chemically straightening her own hair and let it grown out naturally as a way to encourage her daughters to be confident and love themselves just the way they are. The results were immediate with Suleni Tisani saying “mommy, we finally look alike” the day that she cut off her chemically treated hair. It was not long after that that she used the techniques she taught her oldest daughter and wrote “BAD HAIR DOES NOT EXIST!/¡PELO MALO NO EXISTE!”
“I…made the decision to share these tools,” she wrote, “with you dear reader and all girls, so they too would be equipped to educate and protect one another.”
For more information, visit www.badhairdoesnotexist.com or www.nopelomalo.com •