I crept out of my bed where I’d been carefully tucked in for the night, past my parents’ bedroom where my mom undoubtedly brewed about some pressing expense and to the living room where my dad set up camp. I didn’t know they were on the brink of divorce at the time, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have cared. Saturday nights in my living room were lit up by flashy blue and orange fight scenes much more memorable than my parents as a unit. My father never minded my sneaking, and rather enjoyed having an audience for all of his DBZ knowledge, and commentary. In our living room with my father nearby, I was transfixed by Goku’s glowing Super Saiyan form and hair, which stood up straight and defied all physics—a brazen symbol of power.
My household was insulated in anime. My father never missed the Toonami block and my brother had an extensive collection of worn Naruto manga. While I was too young to comprehend the hundreds and hundreds of Shippuden or Dragon Ball episodes, I formed my own kinship with the Japanese cartoons. Not only were the characters charming and cute, but the hairstyles were the most eclectic things I’d ever seen. From Bulma’s turquoise tresses to Temari’s spiked puffs, anime girls consistently rocked the most unimaginable and cool do’s. This was the reason I instinctively attached to it, despite not following a word of the intricate plot lines. What was not normal for hair in my real world was completely typical in anime universes. In Goku’s Super Saiyan form, when his hair became unnaturally stiff and perfectly coiffed, I saw myself. But in his glowing form, I imagined the possibilities of my own natural hair, when not weighed down by half a tub of Blue Magic gel.
By the time I attended Ray High, it became clear life casted me as the only Black girl in school. I starred in this role since kindergarten. When I was in the fourth grade, the only other Black kid in the class—a boy—made it a point to tell me I wasn’t hot. Being the undesirable Black girl was my niche. The only time I was ever noticed or complimented by people outside of my five person friend group was when my hair was straightened. However, as the trauma of my schooling left me clamoring for social capital, I did the one thing in my power that wasn’t plastic surgery: I got a new hairdo.
I had emotionally given up on my hair, but physically I was still going to the salon with my mother every six weeks to touch up my relaxer. It was painful and I didn’t even like it. It made my head look like a baseball with ripped seams: two parallel flaps sticking out with minimal movement. Despite my disdain for this hairdo, I was convinced it was the only way, the path in closest proximity to something I couldn’t name. But the summer before junior year, when my mom came home from the post office with six bags of hair that wasn’t mine, I learned that there was a path even closer.
Long protective box braids framed my round face. For the first time in my life, I was almost objectively hot. But with that came a new host of problems. I found myself fielding questions about whether it was real. I feared someone would mention my lack of laid edges. I was obsessed with all the maintenance, while failing to perfect it. I was weighed down by the knowledge that if I wore it just right, I would be the hottest version of myself. For my entire high school tenure, my obsession with perfecting my hair clung as tight as Goku’s wristbands.
As a college student, though, I couldn’t afford the $60 necessary to get my braids done every six weeks. When going to the CVS within walking distance of campus one morning, I saw a white girl with the poorest execution of a messy bun in existence. But was it? I stood in line, considering the concept of the messy bun—a style exclusively for white women because Black girls doing the same thing were, as far as my internalized white gaze was concerned, ghetto. My internalized racist-classism had company, though. Even the movement for natural hair amongst Black women was—and continues to be—centered around buying a thousand different products for the purpose of looking neat and pristine, as defined by whiteness. I came to realize nothing was ever going to be fully in service of me. Not Netflix shows which exclusively highlight light-skinned Black girls with loose manageable curls. Not even the natural hair movement.
That realization freed me.
I was able to let go of the need to be externally validated through my looks or my interests while being in a new place where I knew no one. Being completely comfortable with myself was the only guaranteed way of surviving without external validation. I had to internalize self-acceptance regardless of what other people potentially thought of me, and find value in the things that brought me joy.
Having a social media account I was consistently on for the first time ever, I discovered a lot of people who weren’t in my daily personal orbit. Black women with all kinds of personalities and presentations. Black lesbians. Nearly every intersecting identity I could ever think of. Living in a partially online world allowed me to free myself from my internal ideas of what I had to be. I didn’t have to like boys, or have hair that looked great all the time. I didn’t have to appease the people I thought I should be looking great for, or give them the power to pass that judgement. I could be a person without first having to assess myself from the perspective of others, and I could even like anime—my place of solace, though considered cringeworthy and weebish by my IRL peers.
When anime-Twitter praised the English dub of My Hero Academia, I gave it a go. In my dorm room, I watched Deku, a run-of-the-mill dweeb with a forest green fro, go from zero to hero wasn’t only a power fantasy I could get behind, but a thoughtful story about privilege and class. I didn’t need anime to tell me about unfair social standards, but the dazzling costumes and characters were a much appreciated alternative to my lived experience. I also returned to all my old favorites. Naruto, another underdog story with great fashion choices. Soul Eater, which didn’t star outcasts or losers but insanely talented kids at the tops of their class riddled with their own self-doubts and pressure to be even better. I also watched new shows that ended up being some of my favorite anime pieces ever, like the Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the Puella Magi Madoka Magica trilogy, Demon Slayer, and Haikyuu.
I took note of the same things that I did as a kid: the hair—Madoka’s pink pigtails, Tanjiro’s magenta mane, and Hinata’s bright orange curls shaped like the sun—and the shared journeys to self-actualization. Just as Tanjiro becomes a master swordsman in the name of saving his only living sister from the fate of a demon, just as Madoka becomes an all-powerful god by outsmarting an alien cat at its own game, just as Shoyou Hinata gets a step closer to becoming the nation’s ace with every volleyball game he plays, I too have wild hair and potential that’s yet to be revealed.
All of these shows and movies consummated my entry into adulthood and formed a singular personhood that was uninformed by others, or my internal external gaze, for the first time in my life. It set off a revolution, where I finally considered what tangible forms of self-expression mattered to me, and what I actually liked, rather than attempting to be the most palatable to the most people. I bought tacky bejeweled thrift store items that reminded me of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. I got a septum piercing. I blocked a lot of people on Twitter. I do things for myself.
One of my greatest shames growing up was my hair. Now, as an adult, the shame is in admitting that. These days I don’t stress trying to tame every inch of my head before I let myself be seen by human eyes. I don’t censor my interests to be acceptable to the widest possible audience. I wear my hair free and wild, and I do not lay my edges. I sometimes wear a messy bun, and other times let my hair stand out like Team Rocket’s Jesse. Every day, I wake up with it poking every which way like Yugi Mutou. I even have pink tips like Yuuji Itadori. I don’t ever worry about possibly destroying my hair because it will grow back. Or maybe it won’t. One-Punch Man is more stylish than we give him credit for.
Since I was a child sneaking into the living room on Saturday nights, Goku’s Super Saiyan mode, which was the ultimate ace up his sleeve when things got dicey, was special to me. While many anime fans often reference it to compare his power to other main characters, it was the first time I’d seen the embodiment of “the thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you you”. Even if I never understood Dragon Ball’s plot, back then the vague grasp I had on those visual cues was important to the person I would become. As novelist Louise Miller said, “No love, however brief, is ever wasted. What Goku symbolized for me as a child still stands true. I have a power that no one else does just by virtue of being myself. No one has to like it or agree, but no main character’s journey is ever forged by having everyone be on their side, and that’s hardly the goal for any of them either.