Written By M.J. Fievre
It is hard to deny some of the beauty of Kenscoff, in Haiti: rolling roads, haze on the fields, morning-green hills, goats. The other kinds of beauty can be tricky. You have to train your eye, or have a certain eye already. In the 1990’s, in the back of my father’s sedan, I watched the young women who couldn’t afford a car ride to high school. They took shortcuts, vanishing in the woods, only to reemerge on the main road a few miles later. I looked at the shades of dark complexion, at the shapes of coarse hair, and then at the billboard on the side of the road, advertising for hair products. By Haitian standards, the digitally-enhanced woman on the billboard was the pinnacle of beauty. She had “good” hair: fiery red, like the sun dipping into a sea. She had the light-skin face of a European princess, and her stunning attractiveness was both devastating and unobtainable for those who couldn’t overcome their darker skin color and their “tèt grenn” natural hair. In Haiti, the prevailing tenets of beauty are the legacy of slavery: the whiter, the better. These standards, established by the Spanish and later the French colonizers, weren’t created by people who looked like the women of Kenscoff, dashing in the grass and the weeds, their mahogany skin shining in the morning sun.
I found the women of Kenscoff beautiful. Each left me curious and intrigued, and, even as a teenager, I understood that beauty was whatever left me full of images. I also understood that the hierarchy of skin color and other phenotypes in Haiti—nwè (black), nwa (dark skinned), klè (light-skinned)—dictated what women in this mono-racial country were supposed to feel about their bodies and their hair. Perms were the norm, because of a real obsession with hair texture, because of a fundamental rejection of the black self. In the midst of the collective focus on the rules of European tenets of beauty, I was a rebel: I believed that women should be able to walk outside without being accosted over their hair texture. My natural hair was beautiful. And maybe, someday, people would accept it.
But wasn’t agency a hopeless thought, considering the sheer volume of influence Haitian women received on a daily basis? Still today, I have no idea if or how we have freedom.
In Haiti, I felt invisible; nothingness flowed through me like cold air through an open window during the colder months in Kenscoff. I belonged to a society that didn’t value individuality. I was part of a system that expected its women to think, act, and look a certain way. The roles of middle-class men and women were well defined, very cut and dry. Men provided protection. Men made spicy jokes. Men were to be served, and to receive the best part of the turkey en sauce. Men cheated (and every Don Juan was patted on the back). As for women, they were expected to put up with men and their mistresses and their smelly feet. In addition to holding a day job, women ran the house, planning the meals, orchestrating the cooking and cleaning of the maids and houseboys. Women went to church, their psalms sung with liquid, heartbreaking grace, a personal prayer of gratitude, wonder, and sorrow. Most importantly, women were to be beautiful or make obvious efforts to aspire to beauty, because they were an extension of their men—first their fathers, and later their husbands. As a member of the “gente féminine,” I was to learn my place, and I was to occupy this place without protest. I was to see my life through the spectrum/ prism of others. A woman is only beautiful when someone else, a man, a boy, a relative, a friend, society, says so. I was nobody. I had no identity. My job was to be unobtrusive, silence the ultimate sign of sophistication. I was to be educated and efficient, yes. But, most importantly, I was to be beautiful so that I would find a suitor, marry, and raise children.
I once asked my well-educated father about what he thought to be a woman’s most valuable trait. “Beauty,” he said. That wounded me somehow, even though I knew those words to be true for most Haitian men. At first, I thought the words had fallen out of his mouth and he hadn’t caught them in time to put them back in, but soon I realized he was educating me, doing me a favor, telling me how the world worked. I think that this conversation, which made me squirm inside my skin, started the collapse of our relationship. We had different internal worlds, my papa and I. Besides, it was not my father talking: it was almost every Haitian man in the 90’s. I wouldn’t let them teach me about beauty. I could recognize beauty for myself—the real kind: the within kind. The way, for example, that a woman holds her stomach, nurturing her child with her hands even while he’s still in the womb. That’s beauty. The way a woman can be moody and snap at every little thing you do, but still be soft under the surface. That’s also beauty.
Part of me wanted desperately to be seen, to be stunning, to be elevated, and to be loved. But if somebody looked at me, I felt my skin crawl, because I understood that while women went to extreme lengths not only to be noticed, but also to retain that attention, many women suffocated by what beauty demanded of them. I dreaded the long Saturdays spent at the beauty parlor that smelled of chemicals and burned skin. I hated the hunt for the most effective beauty lotions, and the horror brought by certain discoveries, such as the fact that there were such things as skin lightening creams, so that Haitian women could look more white. All women, including my mother, were to acquire a stunning, delicate beauty that adhered to societal standards: hair relaxed and held tight with spray, dresses ironed and starched, every fingernail carefully manicured. How many of these women felt trapped as I did, despite the fact that they frolicked in a middle or upper class status?
In high school, no one thought the girl with very dark skin – two shades darker than my own – was pretty. She wore her sculptural hair in a kind of unkempt afro that jutted out in front, the hair heavy and clumped with an unwashed sheen of grease. Most girls wore short ponytails, occasionally parted into pigtails. Then, there were girls like Catherine, hair running the center of theirs backs, a long, slick, braided spine. “Good” hair. Everybody loved Catherine. In my dreams her hair became the rope we yanked in tug-of-war. Because hair defines a woman, the teacher’s hair was never uncombed, even when her body was weary for having been held too long away from sleep. My fingers were always in my hair. Sliding. Twirling. Part of me wanted to grow unkempt. Uncombed. Uncut. Wild. I didn’t want to fit the expectation of immaculate perfection that Haitian society demanded of a young woman, and later of a housewife. I didn’t want the objectification, which created damage of unspeakable caliber, offering bleak hope for any sort of individuality.
Here’s the truth: girls/women will be looked at, objectified, harassed, stereotyped, marginalized, and judged. Why don’t you relax your hair? Scrutiny violently stripped my agency. Nonconformity to societal standards came with punishment: estrangement. Yet, I wanted to find my own identity, separate from the norm. My family was the center of both faith and doubt. It was the place where certainty and uncertainty collided and re-formed into a deeply complicated awareness of the self. In my family, just like in Haiti as a whole, I was not my own person. I only existed in relationship to others. Report cards meant tears running down my face, and my pores opening up to accept the water of grief. First, at the school, all grades were read publicly, in the auditorium, to create a basis of comparison. At home, these grades were compared to those of my siblings. Every compliment was a comparison that focused on potential, not facts. You got an A. Why not an A+ like your sister? Then there was the wanting to know whose daughter was at the top of the class. Everything revolved around what society would think. When I started struggling with math, the concern was partly on whether I would be promoted to the next grade, but that wasn’t the real source of my father’s anger. What will your teacher think of me? Papa asked. The fact that his words confused me enraged him.
In the 90’s in Haiti, the m-as-tu-vu (“Have you seen me?”) was pervasive. Other people mattered more than the quest for individuality. Do [this]; we don’t want people to think [that]. The compliments I received about my hair were about its potential, addressing what my hair would look like, once it was permed or managed with a curling iron. Hair was more than about beauty; it was about status. Many women of the dominant economic class were Haitians of European or Middle Eastern descent. They had flowing hair, like the French or American women in films, the kind of women whose curled hair tumbled willfully across a pillow, their lips a red that smacked of sureness. But I didn’t want to look like Barbie. I loved that my thick mane represented all of my history: my ancestors from Africa, my Mexican great-grandmother, my Haitian and French-American grandfathers. I carried them all with me. I imagined each strand a link back to my roots. I carried stories in my hair, so that I didn’t want to alter it in any way. I understood the hearts of murderers each time some stupid person said, You would be a real looker with good hair. I’d answer, I’m a real looker already. When I turned 16, Mother didn’t give me a choice. My hair was permed, an obligatory rite of passage. I started hating my hair because of what it could be—longer, fuller, shinier. Nothing was ever enough. I was always a work in progress, my real self something unattainable.
The worst thing that can happen to a fiercely independent woman is to be caged or told there is anything at all she cannot do. I was one jagged edge after another. I felt hideous as I struggled for both independence and understanding, questioning the status quo, questioning what women did to fit in, how they accepted their status as mere commodities. I isolated myself, the result of which, I assumed, would be strength, power. On the margins and on the outside, I began to feel comfortable, transforming my fear of rejection into something more honest and true, stepping outside defined boundaries. Being an outsider became a roadmap pointing toward a more positive image of self. I let my hair go “natural.”
According to writer Tyrese Coleman, “A grown-ass woman knows what’s she’s doing when she carries herself in a certain way and is alright with how she is perceived. A grown-ass woman does as she pleases […] because she doesn’t have to answer to no one else but herself. A grown-ass woman isn’t afraid to fight when necessary.” I’m not sure I’m a grown-ass woman yet, as part of me still yearns for belonging, even when belonging means to fit certain standards. But I’m standing my ground, and at the core of my conviction, lies an echo of change and growth and the pain that comes along with it. I think the quest to free ourselves from society is ultimately equivalent to the quest to free ourselves from ourselves. We all still have at least a part of us that wants to believe we are never off-screen, never peripheral. I had to come to terms with being invisible. It takes bravery to accept and fulfill our hungers—for both individuality and acceptance. It requires us to accept that we are not always in control. In the fifteen years since I graduated high school and moved away from Kenscoff, I’ve relaxed, shaved, permed, botoxed my hair: all in the name of the freedom to choose whatever I’m in the mood for. One day, I’ll be completely free of expectations. Perhaps the way out of the labyrinth is as simple as deciding it is not a labyrinth at all, it is just the world and what you choose in it. My body—my hair—is a narrative in and of itself, and whatever the appearance, its story is mine and mine alone. It is the story I value most highly.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, M.J. Fievre is the author of A Sky the Color of Chaos, a memoir published by Beating Windward Press (2015). M.J. holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Barry University and an MFA from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She taught writing at Nova Middle School in Davie, FL, and is currently a professor at Miami Dade College.