Yesterday's piece on Betty Ming Liu's quest for self-liberation got me thinking about authenticity. Today, I ran across stories about two people, each on their own quest for it:
For Teyonah Parris (who plays Don Draper's secretary Dawn on Mad Men) the quest was to accept her beautiful natural hair:
"I was walking down the street with one of my girlfriends and I saw this young lady who had the most amazing, bomb twist-out. I said to my friend, "Oh my gosh, her hair is so beautiful. I wish my hair could do that." My friend looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Uh, it would if you stop relaxing it." I stopped and thought to myself, wow, duh. I kind of felt dumb because of course I knew my hair was naturally curly, but it had been so long since I had been relaxing. I realized that I had no real relationship with my natural hair.
"At that very moment, I decided to change that. I wanted to see what my own hair felt like because I really didn't know. I had no clue. In the back of my mind, I always figured I could go back to a relaxer if I didn't like it. I started transitioning for a year and a half using sew-in weaves so my transition was fairly easy. My stylist would trim off the relaxer as time went on and eventually, she cut off the last little bit of straight ends and I was relaxer-free. I finally saw my own hair in its natural state.
"And then… I cried.
"I did not know how to deal with this little afro on my head. I called my best friend crying because I did not want to leave the house. She came over and literally sat me down and said, "Teyonah you are beautiful. Your hair is amazing." She is really the main reason why I am natural to this day. Later on, we went out in Harlem and I was trying not to feel so self-conscious. The whole day, people would come up to me and say, "Wow, I love your hair. It's gorgeous." I was totally shocked. The reaction I got from other people was really comforting. I know we shouldn't look for approval from other people, but in all honestly, it really helped me see that it was really my own perception of my hair that was holding me back.
I tore through middle and high school, craving perfect scores like a junkie in need of a fix. In college, I wrecked the curve for my straight classmates. Each semester, I petitioned the dean to overload my course schedule and sought the presidencies of student groups I had joined just days earlier. By the time I reached Yale Law School, where once-closeted academic superstars are like the hay in a haystack, coming out wouldn’t even have provoked a yawn. No matter. I built a wall of casebooks, hunkered down and ignored the growing hole in my social development.
Dr. Pachankis and Dr. Hatzenbuehler would not be surprised to learn that more than half the men in my randomly assigned “small group” seminar at Yale were gay. Deriving self-worth from achievement-related domains, like Ivy League admissions, is a common strategy among closeted men seeking to maintain self-esteem while hiding their stigma. The strategy is an effort to compensate for romantic isolation and countless suppressed enthusiasms. And it requires time-consuming study and practice, which conveniently provide an excuse for not dating....
But the study does show that the longer a young man conceals his sexual orientation, the more heavily he invests in external measures of success, potentially leading to undue stress and social isolation. Perhaps that explains why I recently moved to Washington, D.C., America’s most populous closet, where esteemed work abounds, promotions are frequent and ambition is in the water supply.
Another of the study’s findings is that boys who grow up in more stigmatizing environments are more likely to seek self-worth through competition. I spent my first 18 years in a rural, religious town in North Carolina, a state that recently passed a constitutional amendment barring same-sex unions by a wide margin. Now here I am, a metal detector scanning for golden prizes. That’s no coincidence, the research suggests.
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I found Parris's story very moving. It's incredible to me that she had actually forgotten what her natural hair looked like. And I was also moved by the supportive role her friend played in helping her reclaim her identity.
Chandler's essay struck me as very brave in its facing up to hard self-truths. Later on, he reports feeling "relieved" that the Pachankis-Hatzenbuehler study revealed the reason for his relentless overachievement. He also reports feeling ready to attempt a more balanced, open, happier life: "I don’t know the answers. But I’m ready to find out."
Parris and Chandler share the burden of having to discover their true lives and selves within the context of a marginalizing and often oppressive culture. And guess what? So does everyone seeking to live an authentic life. One's path may not be that of a woman of color or a gay man, but that doesn't mean we're not marginalized or oppressed. Society often pays lip service to individuality, creativity, self-expression, boldness, and many of the other virtues of the empowered individual while at the same time doing its best to squelch those same qualities whenever someone displays them in real life. Perhaps that's why one of the profoundest life lessons I ever learned was from a gay man, writer David Leavitt. His first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), dealt with a family whose son has come out as gay, and it was from that novel that I learned that we all have closets we must escape.