There are two dramatic hair acts I contemplate from time to time.

The first is to chemically straighten my hair, which I consider when I pass Japanese or Korean hair salons. Some of these salons offer permanent hair straightening for $100, which I find both worryingly cheap and appealing.

I imagine the hairdressers laughing when I walk in. They might grab a handful of fuzzy curls and say, “We don’t do hair like this”.

The second is to shave it all off: number one on the clippers. I started considering this in my late twenties, years after coming out as queer.

While I am used to being teased over my curly hair, a shaved head would invite a new type of criticism. Short hair can be seen as an act of defiance: daring not to appear feminine. Perhaps I felt this pressure subconsciously; I never risked the clippers. A shaved head makes a statement that I have always felt too timid to make.

When I was growing up, my family told me repeatedly that my thick, curly hair was beautiful. I never believed them. My Russian grandmother would nod with approval when I wore it out. “You could be a model,” she told me when I became a teenager.

“I don’t think people want models who look like me,” I said.

My mother, who wrestles with her own curly hair, wanted to make the experience better for her daughters. She gave us luxurious hair treatments. She combed and styled our hair. None of it made a difference; I couldn’t stand my curls.

There is a photo of my mother as a fourteen-year-old, taken after she arrived in Australia from the former Soviet Union. She has long, straight hair. She looks gorgeous in her seventies clothing, with her heart-shaped face and perfect hair. When I first saw the photo I was fascinated.

“You had straight hair?” I asked, like I had discovered she was royalty.

“I used to iron it,” she said regretfully. “It’s so bad for your hair. Sometimes I burnt it!”

I wasn’t interested in the negative side of the story. “Can we iron my hair?” I asked, and she shook her head.

In Odessa, where she grew up, curly hair wasn’t unusual. Many people she knew had similar hair. It was only when she came to Australia that she felt different. Some of her relatives, who had migrated much earlier than her family, looked critically at her hair.

“You need to find a way to make it look more shiny,” a relative told her. “There must be something you can do.”

That was when she discovered the iron.

My issues with my hair go beyond the regular shame some curly haired women are taught to feel. I was bullied from the age of five, by a girl I met on my first day of school. She had opinions on how I looked and acted. She gave me orders, like I was in a boot camp:

Don’t talk to anyone unless I give you permission.

This is how you should sit.

She had punishments if I didn’t obey.

Her nickname for me was Fuzzball.

The bullying lasted, undetected, for three years, because at home I acted the same. I talked, just not about what was really going on. By the time my parents found out and the principal got involved, I had changed, becoming silent and submissive at school. Nobody noticed the contrast from the confident kid who had shown up on the first day.

I went to the same Jewish school for thirteen years. The other girls had long, straight hair or shiny, bouncy curls. My hair curled up so tight it looked short, even when long, and was thick and frizzy.

In high school, I pulled back my hair as tight as I could. When I wore it in a braid, it stuck out at an angle. One of the boys in my year passed me as I walked to class.

“It looks like a stiffy!” he said, laughing with his friends. He reached out and touched my braid. “It feels like pubes.”

My stomach took the brunt of his words. I learned a number of lessons about my hair at school, and this one was that I should feel shame. It worked.

I get the strongest sense of how I might have been different when I compare myself to my sister. We are alike in many ways, but she celebrates her curls and dresses boldly. In her words, “Leopard print is a neutral”. She cut her hair during university and ever since has worn it out, wild and bold.

Short hair can be seen as an act of defiance: daring not to appear feminine. Perhaps I felt this pressure subconsciously; I never risked the clippers.

The bullying I experienced at school is the only variable – the only difference in circumstances between us that could justify my lack of confidence. Being teased about something you already perceive as a fault only deepens the pain and shame. It adds a dangerous element to self-judgement: the knowledge that others are disgusted, too. Without it, I may not have been a target for bullying at all. The popular girls with curly hair did not get this treatment, it was specifically for the shy girls. It was meant to make us feel inferior.

When I was fourteen, I started buying hair gel. Each morning I plastered down my hair.

My sister watched the process reprovingly. Her hair was less tightly curled than mine, and she could wear her long waves out.

“Try not to use so much gel,” she said. “It looks like a helmet.”

I couldn’t stop using it. Once the gel hardened, I felt safe. I would tie my hair into a ponytail or bun, pinning back any pieces left unsmothered. If I was feeling really insecure, I would put on a thick velvet headband – school uniform regulation blue. I knew how ugly it was. But each morning I pulled it down over my glasses, lifted it around the circumference of my head, and then I was ready.

My father had wild curls in his early twenties. They suited him and his left-wing radical politics. He was carried out of the vice-chancellor’s office at the University of Sydney for protesting the Vietnam War.

His hair was like him: striking, non-conformist, hard to ignore.

In his mid twenties, when he got married and started a full-time job, he cut his hair and kept it short ever since. The curls disappeared.

People look from his hair to mine, confused.

“What is your background?” I’m asked. “Where are you from?”

It is the question everyone with an unidentifiable race is asked. “My mother is from Odessa, in the Ukraine, and my father is British,” I say.

“That doesn’t explain it,” they reply. They insist on taking it further.

“I’m Jewish, if that helps,” I add. Some people – usually Americans, I find, courtesy of both Seth Rogan and The O.C – understand the concept of a ‘Jew-fro’. But mostly, when I mention my heritage, people look blank.

The magic word is Romania. As soon I mention the distant Romanian connection on my father’s side, they are satisfied.

I am often mistaken for other cultures. A Lebanese café owner gave me free falafel and treated me like family. On Sydney Road in Brunswick, I get offered mint in my tea, even when it isn’t on the menu. Some assume I am Italian, Spanish or Greek, and start speaking to me in these languages. In Hawaii, an African-American woman working at Macy’s cast a look at my hair and skin and asked, “Where are you from? You’re blackish, right?”

When I wear my hair in a bland, helmet-like style, I fit in. I may not look particularly good, but with helmet hair I pass as Caucasian-ish. When I wear my hair out, it attracts words like ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ and I no longer pass.

People have expectations and stereotypes for women with curls. They expect a big attitude. When I am loud and confident, the attitude accompanies my hair nicely. People are pleased. This has been a struggle, since I was exceedingly shy for years.

At one point, I got so sick of my hair that I insisted on a change. A local salon offered hair relaxing. After much pleading, my mother agreed to it. The owner, a man with leathery skin and a lot of attitude, fluffed my hair until it formed a mane around my head.

“You’ve got to feel it,” he cried out to his co-workers.

I was horrified but submissive. I let him lead me around the salon, stopping for the straight-haired customers to touch my hair. The treatment relaxed my hair, but not in the way I had planned. The curl was gone. The frizz increased exponentially. My hair had too much volume and too little life.

Another time, a popular girl in my year talked to me about curly hair.

“Have you tried mousse?” Her eyes roamed over my hair with judgement and pity. “That’s the only thing that makes it curly without frizz.”

Neither of us brought up the issue that her hair was, at most, lightly wavy, while mine was thick and tightly coiled. According to the Naturally Curly website, which has revolutionised the way curly hair is cut and styled, my hair texture type is somewhere between 3C (‘Curly Coily’) and 4C (‘Coily Ziggly’). Most of the models for these categories are African American. The hair type is fine, tightly coiled, kinky and easily damaged, hence the frizz.

The girl who was recommending mousse had hair the website would describe as ‘Wavy Whirly’. Taylor Swift’s pre-pop country look is the example.

I don’t have to tell you that I went out and bought mousse, a number of bottles. It did nothing to my hair apart from making it white and soapy, like I had bathed it in shaving cream. It hung limply, feeling so sticky and coarse I didn’t want to touch it. I added a new rule to my knowledge about curly hair: mousse only works in nice, loose waves.

In my senior years of high school, more kids were thinking about crushes than studying for exams. Some were in relationships or at least had a regular Saturday night make-out partner. What happens to those taught they are undesirable?

I believed nobody would find me attractive. Hollywood constantly reinforced my high school worries with modern-day versions of The Taming of the Shrew, including Clueless, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed and The Princess Diaries. The plot was always the same: beauty was achieved once curls were tamed and eyebrows shaped. Only then could the female character be considered attractive, and therefore desirable.

When I wear my hair in a bland, helmet-like style, I fit in. I may not look particularly good, but with helmet hair I pass as Caucasian-ish. When I wear my hair out, it attracts words like ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ and I no longer pass.

I’m not surprised I experienced my first kiss when my hair was not in its natural form. I had it blow-dried straight and my sister patiently wove it into microbraids. It looked, from afar, like long straight hair. I felt confident and attractive, and for the first time ever, a boy showed interest. Despite the initial attraction, however, the braids had to go, and eventually, so did the relationship.

After my first year of university, I fell in love with a woman and entered into a long-term relationship. Coming out as queer and coming to terms with my hair have involved similar processes of self-acceptance. Both have taken a long time and a considerable amount of work.

Rachel has spent years trying to help me to see that my hair is beautiful. Despite her love and support, I continued to struggle with my hair when I came out. When The L Word aired in 2004, it added another level to my complicated feelings about my hair. I looked at Shane and Tina, the characters we were meant to perceive as butch and femme, and felt, again, like I didn’t fit in.

In 2006, to celebrate three years together, we planned a trip to the United States to overlap with the LGBT Pride Month festivities in June. While we were in New York City, we went to the world’s largest LGBTI synagogue for a Friday night Shabbat service. The rabbi welcomed people to join their float in the Pride march to Greenwich Village on Sunday, where the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969. We looked at each other nervously. We had planned to stand and watch the march anonymously, but participating in a float sounded appealing.

That Sunday, we turned up early and fortified ourselves with iced coffees. It was already over thirty degrees. Drag queens were pacing impatiently at the starting point, complaining about their hair and make-up. When we joined the float, we forgot about the heat and our anxieties. Dancing the Horah down Fifth Avenue, we felt kinship and acceptance. Rachel and I danced under a rainbow chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy, to cheers from our fellow marchers. Back then, same-sex marriage was only a distant dream to us.

Towards the end of that trip, we flew to San Francisco. I met Sia Amma, an African-American woman who writes and performs shows and comedy, including In Search of My Clitoris and What Mama Said About Down There, to educate people about female genital mutilation in Africa. She supplements her artistic work and activism with hairdressing, offering African braids, weaves and extensions. It didn’t occur to me until later how appropriate it is that her hairdressing demonstrates the beauty of black hair, while her writing, performing and activism aims to increase women’s rights. Rachel and I bought tickets to her show and I made a hair appointment.

Sia drove me to a store that sold hair extensions. Back at her apartment, she weaved the deep red hair into mine, handling my thick hair with ease. In Australia, many hairdressers treat my hair like a wild animal, either terrified or violent with it. It took seven hours to braid my hair.

“Do you want me to style it for you?” Sia asked.

“Yes, please!” She styled my hair in a way I could never dream of replicating, gathered into a cool side-swept knotted bun. It was big, bold, colourful and feisty.

I kept the braids in as long as I could, until one day my poor hair couldn’t handle the weight anymore. The final pieces of hair snapped off at the roots and a long braid fell off my head, hitting the floor of our apartment. I jumped, thinking a small animal had run past my feet. As I unwound the braids and removed the glue that held in the extensions, I saw the thick fuzzy hair underneath and my heart sank.

My time in New York City and San Francisco stands out as a short period where I felt positive about my sexuality and appearance. Before the trip, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be proud of my difference, the way I was when I marched down Fifth Avenue holding hands with Rachel or walked around San Francisco with my braided hair.

I don’t know if I would braid my hair again. I now realise how ignorant I was about my white privilege. Even without braids, I used to call my hair an ‘Afro’. It took me too long to understand that my experiences differ from those of women of colour, and that I need to be careful and intentional when I speak about my hair. The idea of ‘choosing’ my race, or fluidly fitting into different groups, is problematic. Being mistaken for a woman of colour does not mean I am one. I have had many privileges because my skin isn’t darker.

My hair comes with its own identity and set of struggles; my Facebook photos from the last eight years look like a slideshow on my hair’s progress that should be put to symphonic music.

Soon after our overseas trip, Rachel and I moved to Melbourne. I continued wearing my hair slick and pulled back for four more years. On the rare occasion that I had it straightened, I received profuse compliments. “You look so pretty,” people gushed on social media or to my face, not realising the impact that had on me.

In 2011, we quit our jobs and went overseas. In 2012, we decided to get married. The year 2013, following the pattern of the previous two years, was eventful. In addition to our beautiful wedding, I started a masters degree. I felt drawn to make changes as significant as the inner transformation I was experiencing.

I found a couple of curl-specialist hairdressers. One of them is Neel Morley, who opened Australia’s first dedicated curly hair salon, Neel Loves Curls, in Fitzroy. The other is Cherry Bomb Hair in Collingwood. It is a friendly, alternative space, where the hairdressers’ dogs sleep by your feet during your haircut. The hairdressers at both salons suggested trying short hair, which made me nervous.

Cutting my hair turned out to be liberating. The shorter cut is alternative enough that queer women identify me as one of them, but femme enough to pass as heterosexual. Better yet, my hair is cool during summer and quick-drying during winter.

Neel has studied curly hair in the United States, where they offer training in “wavy, curly and multi-cultural hair”. He told me I am lucky to have this hair. When I first met him, he asked, “You’re not one of those crazy people who tries to straighten it, are you?”

When we talked about my hair on my first appointment, which felt like a mix between therapy and an empowering learn-to-love-your-hair session, I couldn’t thank him enough.

“It’s pretty amazing to have a job where you can make someone think that their hair is awesome, when most of their life they have struggled with it,” Neel told me.

Writing about my hair, I think I wanted to find clear answers. Was the judgement and teasing racial? Was it a form of self-hatred in the Jewish community, a rejection of historically being perceived as Other? Another part of me always found it sexist. The males I knew with curly hair didn’t seem to spend all their time trying to ‘define their curls’.

People love to make jokes about curly hair, and we are meant to laugh and agree that it is weird or ugly. As an adult, I have been told, “You look like Sideshow Bob”. This was after having my hair styled specially for a wedding. My hair has been likened to dog fur, or called “knotted” when it is knot free.

Even though I have gained confidence, I fight the urge to restrain my hair. Then I remind myself that it represents war protests, history and family, overcoming bullies, and bravery. I wear it out, try to ignore the comments and the people who come up uninvited to touch it, and think back to times when I felt accepted and happy being me.

In the week that I finished this essay, Rachel and I married again. This time, thanks to my British citizenship, our marriage is legal. On the day of our ceremony, I went to Cherry Bomb. I told my hairdresser, Kate, that I have become more and more tempted to shave my hair off.

“You should do it,” she said, “even just once, to try it out.” Being a lovely and supportive hairdresser, she didn’t push me to do it that day. “How about we try a pixie cut?” she suggested, “with soft edges.”

While she cut my hair, she told me that she found short haircuts to be very feminine.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“When you cut it, we can see your gorgeous face. Sometimes, hair is a way of hiding.”

With those words, I went to meet my wife.

Roz Bellamy is a Melbourne-based writer whose writing has appeared in diverse publications including Archer Magazine, Seizure and The Vocal (Fairfax). She was shortlisted for the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers.