Yisa Fermin is a 26-year-old art director based in New York. While sitting outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art with our founder, Julia Brucculieri, Yisa happily opened up about her hair evolution, how she came to love her natural locks and what her hair says about her identity.
ON LIKING HER HAIR
My hair is one of my favorite things about myself. I like that it's really versatile, so I can wear it however I want. If I want to rock braids and have a more gender neutral look I can do that. If I want to be really bold and bright and big, I can tease my hair out and comb out the curls, and it becomes this huge Diana Ross 'fro. I like that I can straighten it. It's just really versatile.
I think when Alicia Keys came out with her first song and everyone wanted cornrows, that was the first and only time I've ever done cornrows. I was 11 or something, and they had extensions lying around in the salon, and I was like, "I want longer hair." I only very recently started exploring extensions again, a year or two years back, when I started doing box braids every now and again. I would buy my own extensions and put those in. It's fun to change it up, but ultimately, my own natural hair feels the most like me.
ON HAIR AND IDENTITY
As a black woman, hair is a huge part of our identity. I think when you're very young, you're told indirectly that your hair type is not considered beautiful or professional or clean or kempt or ladylike or graceful. It's certainly not what you see on TV and it's not what you see in ads. There are so many products that are geared toward the unnatural-fying of your hair, specifically the texture. For me it's really important to not straighten my hair. Number one, I just don't like it. Number two, it is a big part of my identity. When I stopped straightening my hair it was such an affirmation of my own beauty for myself. I had always thought of myself as an ugly person -- which is crazy! I know. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone has their thing about them. The process of exploring my own hair was also the process of exploring my own beauty and coming to terms with who I am naturally.
ON TREATING AND RELAXING HER HAIR
When I was a little kid, starting at 6 or 7 years old, I would go to the salon every weekend to get my hair blow dried straight. I didn't start with relaxers, I was far too young. I'm Dominican and having straight hair is a high ideal of beauty for Dominican women. Not so much anymore, but certainly when I was growing up. So that's how I would spend my Saturday afternoon -- five hours in the salon, getting my hair washed, put in rollers and then blow dried straight. It was torturous and painful for a 7-year-old because you want to be out in the park or reading.
When I was in middle school, my hair dresser was like, "You're hair texture is getting a little coarser, it's changing." Obviously the hormones were kicking in. She was like, "You might want to consider a relaxer." I was not really conscious of the decision to do it -- I had just grown up seeing hair manipulated so much, I didn't think about it as a thing that would be damaging to my self esteem and to my hair itself. But my mom was like, "Cool, let's go for it." So I started relaxing my hair. I wanted to look like Aaliyah. The turning point for me, really, was when I went to boarding school and had to fend for myself. The town next to where I went to high school was a Dominican town, that had Dominican salons, which was great for me. I would go every Sunday, but that severely cut into my study time and my social time, and I really wanted to hang out in the dorms with my friends. So I bought a straightening iron and I would straighten my hair everyday.
I remember stepping into the shower when I was 14 about to be 15, and my hair was limp and didn't even wave. It was disgusting [laughs]. I panicked and called my mom and said, "I want to chop it off. I want to go bald." She said, "Absolutely not. A woman needs her hair," which is crazy because she has short hair and is pretty much bald now -- it's funny how people change. The point is, I went to the hair dresser that following Sunday, saying, "I killed my hair, what do you recommend? I want to cut it off." She said, "Don't cut it off. Why don't you just go natural?" I had never heard of that before. That was kind of a radical idea to me. I let my hair grow out that summer and by the fall, I went back to that hair dresser, we cut off the dead ends, and I had the shortest, cutest little afro.
ON DISCOVERING YOUTUBE TUTORIALS
I never learned how to properly take care of my hair and maintain the texture so I turned to YouTube. At first it started with hairstyles because I didn't know how to style my hair for formal occasions or a high school dance. That first person I subscribed to was a natural hair YouTuber and through her I learned things like protective styling and what sealing your hair means and about the different types of hair.
ON GOOD HAIR
I think good hair is hair that makes you feel good about yourself. As long as you feel empowered or sexy or beautiful, or whatever it is you want to project out into the world, and whatever it is you're feeling internally, that is good hair.
-- As told to Untangled in New York City. Photos by Julia Brucculieri.