How the Media Scrutiny of Chelsea Clinton Affected a Generation of Curly-Haired Girls

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton visit the Taj Mahal in 1995. (DOUGLAS E. CURRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In this election cycle, Chelsea Clinton has kept busy on the campaign trail. She’s been to Raleigh to cover women and tech, then Columbus to talk about millennials. Through it all, she looks happy, dressed in her trademark chic style with sleek locks that, for a certain generation of women, bring to mind what isn’t there: the boisterous curls of her youth.

I first remember seeing Chelsea Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where she wore a sailor dress, white with blue piping. She was 12 years old. I had a sailor dress of my own -- blue with white piping -- that I wore to church with white nylons and Laura Ashley ballet flats. Like her, my head was a mass of frizzy curls. My hair had been pin-straight until puberty hit, when suddenly, I found myself topped with curls that I was completely unequipped to style.

WASHINGTON, : Chelsea Clinton looks on with an unidentified friend from Stanford University 31 December 1999 at America's Millennium Opening Ceremony in Washington, DC. (Photo: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Chelsea serving curls with a side of side-eye. (JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In my Republican, evangelical Christian home, the Clintons were not celebrated, though never vilified (we were a PBS NewsHour family in those idyllic days before Fox News). The same could not be said for our local megachurch. I once overheard a member of my parent’s bible study saying he felt sorry for the White House’s dog: “They should put that Chelsea down!” It took decades for me to learn that lovely bon mot originated with Rush Limbaugh and not the gentleman who volunteered in the church’s youth group.

After that, I wore my hair in a tight, slicked-back bun, a look that was not particularly flattering but at least wasn’t so up-for-debate. I slumped in oversized clothing and obsessed over my bad skin and crooked teeth. Then Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video came out and my chosen look went from bland-but-safe to 100% deadly when paired with my chubby face and thick glasses. I looked so much like the girl in the video, kids at school would come up and "dance" in front of me while pointing and laughing. Fun times.

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Watching this year's DNC, those memories flooded back. I asked my friends on Facebook if they remembered Chelsea's experience in the media the same way I did. I didn’t anticipate that so many people from all walks of life and political persuasions would answer, Yes, I remember, and it was horrible:

  • "I was my most awkward at the same time and was teased mercilessly in school. [The media treatment of Chelsea] did a number on my confidence for sure. My battles with depression started at that age. My English teacher made fun of her. It was so disheartening to hear that as a girl."
  • "I was maybe 8, and the media called her a dog a lot. Like she was supposed to be a super attractive teen. I also had curly hair then and it kinda stuck."
  • "It mattered a lot to me that she was attacked for her looks. She looked like me! It was the first moment I really identified myself as a feminist and that hasn't changed."
  • "I remember her in my prom edition of Seventeen. Several designers sketched dresses for her. I remember one of them said, 'Let your hair fly, you're a Democrat!' I thought that was so awesome; I still remember it nearly 20 years later!"
  • "I sent her a letter when I was a kid, telling her that I didn't like the mean people, and that I loved her curly hair."

Chelsea hasn't been caught curly since the early 2000s. Even now, for many women, taming your curls is considered a mark that you’ve arrived and you’ll play the game by the rules.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 28: Chelsea Clinton arrives on stage to introduces her mother, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.
Chelsea Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Chelsea's current sleek style has been praised as mature and polished, the message being that curly hair is for women who don't want to be taken seriously, women who are sloppy, wild, and childish. Let's not forget that curly hair is also "ethnic" hair; the straighter the hair (and the blonder the hair), the whiter the woman beneath it and the more likely she'll get to a position of power.

In a 2015 interview with Elle, Clinton talked about her curls leaving her in her twenties. "I don't know if [my curls] got tired of me, but [they] slowly subsided, and so now it's naturally a little bit wavy but... I miss my curls." (It happens. Mine are nowhere near as tight as they used to be, though I do start looking like a chrysanthemum if I visit the beach or New Orleans.)

In the same interview, Clinton also speculated that her daughter may face the same scrutiny she once experienced. "I'm curious if Charlotte's going to have curly hair... I should apologize to her now."

Chelsea Clinton can feel however she wants about her hair or her daughter's future hair. (The woman is already catching grief for having the temerity not to attend Charlotte's first day of school.) But her comments make me ache for her. I hate that she looks at her child and thinks Don't look like me, but I also know how it feels to do just that.

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I've looked at my own curly-haired daughter and wondered if she'll be stricken with glasses, frizzy curls and a baby face. But really what I'm wondering is this: Will she be valued for more than her looks as she grows? When we look at our daughters and consider their looks, we may say Don't look like me. But what we really mean is Don't hurt like me.

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