Growing up, "never a hair out of place" (pun intended) was always how I liked things—I couldn't stand disarray, and most of all, when it came to my appearance, my hair had to be perfect. And as a curly-haired girl living in South Florida at the time, that expectation wasn't entirely realistic, but still, I clung to it. For years it went on, and I didn't begin to accept my [very] imperfect hair until a massive life change hit me: I had to have my left arm amputated. Perhaps slightly apt or maybe a little dramatic, but apparently, it took having one less hand to teach me how to loosen my emotional grasp on my hair.
With the sudden need to re-learn even the most basic hairstyles, I had to accept imperfection because all my “hair flaws” were about to be amplified. So on International Day of Acceptance (January 20), a day created to celebrate disability, I realize that, aside from disability, there is so much more that merits acceptance. For me, having one less arm was hardly the thing that required welcoming but more so the life changes that occurred due to it. With that shift, I knew I could no longer waste my attention on pre-existing things I could not change. In this case, that came down to the intimidating entanglement that is my hair—something that really needed accepting if I was going to learn to love myself and function efficiently.
As I learned to adapt to caring for my hair with one arm, acceptance became indispensable. Becoming an amputee has been a journey, and adapting to styling my hair with one hand has been a part of that. I've had to learn to be chill about the fact that my hair won't always look perfect. I've also had to find new ways to style it—thank goodness ‘90s hair is making a comeback because hats, those weird zig-zag headbands, and snap clips are my new lifesavers. It's been a learning experience, and I'm grateful for the perspective it has given me on my hair.
But masterfully maneuvering those adaptations took time. So while I was learning to put my hair up in a simple ponytail, I had to let go of this obsession with keeping my hair perfectly tame. At first, I was undoubtedly frustrated and felt like I'd forever look odd and eccentric with a ponytail that looked like a porcupine-haystack combo. I had to practice while lying down on the couch, using the couch's arm as an aid in place of my left arm. Finally, I learned to be more forgiving of myself and embrace the imperfections in my hair styling due to my couch not being the trained stylist I'd expected when picking it out at IKEA.
Aside from re-learning certain styles, I also had to find entirely new ways of wearing my hair. Braids, which used to be my go-to, were out of the question. This meant experimenting with new products, tools, and accessories. Shampoo bottles with a large base and a pump also became extremely helpful in the shower and products meant to enhance my natural curl were a new go-to. At some point I even dyed all my hair bubblegum pink. I got creative. And sometimes, it worked out and felt rewarding. And then there was the time I tried to achieve bubble braids using butterfly clips. The result was chaotic. In the end, though, I mastered the couch ponytail. But I also came up with some unique looks that I certainly could have achieved before but never would have dreamt up had I been working with my two hands.
My favorite discovery is fixing mistakes with an array of colorful snap clips. At first, I was using bobby pins to match my dark brown hair, and then one day, I took them all out and swapped them out for at least 10 different snap clips ranging in shape and color. I proudly embrace my missing arm and never conceal it. So why would I be hiding a couple bumps in my hair that exist because I have one arm? My snap clips are more than accessories. They're a statement that points out the fact that I half-way butchered my hairstyle, and I don't care because I have one arm, and I'm okay with that. Plus, I get to use these super cute clips to fix it up.
Most of all, I learned to let my curls breathe and live. My hair does not need to be styled and perfect because I'm not. And I want my hair to be a reflection of who I am. A lot of times, trying to contain something meant to run wild makes it worse. Looking back on pictures of me in elementary school, wearing plastic Hello Kitty headbands to grow out my bangs and hair flying in all directions, I realize that my obsession with keeping it neat was fruitless. At the time, it was my ignorant bliss that kept me happy. Now it's the relinquishing of anxiety-inducing control that makes me feel lighter and more confident.
So now, when I wake up with an unstable frizz halo welded into the hair-tie I forgot to remove and a couple layers of disobedient curls beneath, I just welcome it. Usually, I shake it out, both physically and emotionally. Messy curls are pretty; after all, it's who I am; today, I've learned to accept that due to adjusting to life as an amputee.
International Day of Acceptance was initially created in honor of the late Annie Hopkins, a fierce disability advocate who sought to celebrate the social acceptance of disability. The day was named to highlight how important it is that disability is received with equality and inclusion by others. However, it also raises another priority in my mind—Because, for me, it's essential that before worrying about how others may receive me, which is something I couldn't care less about when it comes to my arm, I first learn to accept myself as I am, with grace and kindness.
Chloé Valentine Toscano is working on an essay collection titled ‘Punk Rock Amputee’. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, NBC, them., and more. You can read her work on her website, chloevalentinewrites.com or follow her on Instagram.