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18 Nov

How A Mop Head Taught Me Self Confidence

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She’s a mother. She’s an academic. She’s got a head of hair that just never quits. That’s right, I’m talking about my mom, Dr. Jody Giles.

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There are many things that my mother has done that I find massively inspiring. For example? That time she obtained a PhD in Psychology while raising three children on her own (yeah, she’s a badass). Or the way she always stands her ground when up against a bully. Or even the way she treats other humans with compassion and deep empathy, regardless of the situation. But today, I want to focus on a much more tangible source of respect and inspiration: her hair.

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All my life, her hair has looked like this. There have been variations in hues and lengths, but it’s always stayed a voluptuous explosion of tightly wound curls. Obviously, it’s a spectacular, gorgeous, spun-from-gold masterpiece that my long, loose, stringy curls could only hope to emulate someday. But believe it or not, there are some folks in this world who have found one reason or another to mock my mother’s glorious locks—in a sad attempt to belittle her. While we obviously all know anyone who makes fun of another person for their physical appearance is a big dumb idiot, these unsavory experiences still provided a lot of valuable lessons for me throughout my childhood and adolescence.

It all began with one frequently told tale in my family—the (classic)  mean girl in middle school.

young jody

The earliest incident concerning my mother’s hair and its uncalled for haters began after she moved from her hometown in Illinois to a small town in Western Kentucky around sixth grade. Yes, sixth grade: the ultimate age of pubescence. The age when every sensitivity is magnified by one hundred percent and any physical flaw feels like a one-way ticket to an emotional breakdown. A condensed version of the story involves 13-year-old Jody walking into the crowded gymnasium of her new school to watch a basketball game. Feeling cute and mysterious in her crisp new outfit, there was nothing young Jody couldn’t accomplish. She strutted through the packed bleachers, crammed with locals from all over town, ready to enjoy a fun night of school spirit and camaraderie. Obviously, one of her fellow classmates was feeling jealous of her 70’s swagger and decided to do something about it. She let out a deafening cry that, unbeknownst to her, would stick with our wild-haired heroine for years to come.

“Hey! MOP HEAD!”

And with one swift blow, the confidence she had gained from starting somewhere new in a fresh pair of bell-bottoms was shattered. Hundreds of heads, including those of the basketball players on the court, turned in a millisecond to check out “Mop Head” Jody Neal. With the entire room staring and laughing, she marched on, sat down in her seat, and tried to enjoy the game. Tiny Jody was mortified but held her composure. The next day she went out, got a fresh haircut to accentuate her Mop Head, and reminded herself just how cute it was. What happened next? She carried on with her life. In her exact words- “I stopped trying to part, comb, or otherwise fit in with my hair. I got a cute haircut and the rest is history.”

Some may think a small, silly parable like that could be shoved aside, cast off as some irrelevant tale of classic middle school cruelty, but for some reason, that story really stuck with me. Maybe it was because that was the first time I had ever heard about anyone insulting my mom to her face. Maybe it’s because I had always wondered what it would be like to have simple, manageable, straight hair that didn’t stick out from every side of my small head. Either way, the Mop Head incident really resonated with me.  

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(Yup, that’s me up there). It wasn’t until I got a little older, and dealt with a few Mop Head incidents of my own, that I realized how much I respected my mother for keeping her cool that day in the middle school gymnasium. People seem to have a love/hate relationship with curly hair. First, they tell you how incredible your curls are, how jealous they are of your hair, how they just wish their hair would curl like that. Then, in the same breath, they’ll make underhanded comments about how hilarious it is that your hair gets so frizzy. Or how it sometimes looks like Einstein’s. Or maybe even a mop.

In my experience, the grass is always greener on the other side. People with straight hair beg for curls, while people with curly hair will drop $200 on a professional straightening iron. And there are times when that wanting, that insecurity, can transform rapidly into hatred or cruelty. Sure, it may be greener, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to find a way to talk shit about your grass.

What matters is how you handle it, and what you do with the bad energy thrown your way. Instead of insulting that girl back, or rushing to the store to buy a hair straightener, or spending the remainder of the game crying in the bathroom like I would have done, my mother just held her head high and gave an excessively curly hair toss to her bully. She allowed herself a moment to feel upset, got a fresh haircut to really showcase her curls (because, as I’ve mentioned in a previous article, getting a haircut is the best way to rejuvenate your self-confidence) and went on living. She decided to love herself instead of trying to change. It takes a lot of strength and a lot of guts to stand up to a bully by being exactly who you are, and I find inspiration in that on a daily basis. My mother’s tenacity is now, for me, embodied by the very Mop Head someone once tried to use against her.

Of course, my mother ended up loving her new school, rapidly became a beloved member of the community, and even ended up becoming friends with that girl from the gym; her old advers-HAIR-y. Jody even went on to give birth to a daughter who is now world-renowned for her horrific wordplay.

One of my mom’s most constantly used expressions is “Bloom where you’re planted” and I think her dedication to her bold, bouncy curls reaffirms that exact moral. Don’t let anyone convince you the grass is greener on the other side. Love and appreciate your own grass, and flourish there. Don’t go out and buy a straightener just because someone called you a Mop Head. Don’t try to change who you are because someone else feels threatened by your natural boldness. Don’t minimize yourself. Rock on, Mop Heads.

Emily Neal
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