Was my sister switched at birth?
When thinking of inheritance in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (especially with respect to Irie’s hair), I inevitably think of my sister, who had a nearly opposite experience:
I think sometime when she was around maybe the age of thirteen, someone told my sister to stop blow-drying her hair “straight” (read: frizzy and kind of huge). Nearly overnight, her hair rejoiced in the decision, and with very little coaxing, started curling like crazy.
My sister has never looked like other people in our family, and the realization of her naturally curly hair only emphasized her differences. My mother used to joke that my sister was Julia Roberts’ biological daughter. My sister actually really liked this idea (who wouldn’t want to be Julia Roberts’ secret daughter?) and encouraged the running joke that she was switched at birth, while others in my family – my dad, for example – tried vaguely to attribute some of her traits to members of the extended family.
In relating my sister to Irie, I had somewhat of a struggle. Irie tries to change her hair to fit in, while my sister was delighted when she learned that her hair naturally rebels against the norm into gorgeous curls. Irie sees her differences as embarrassing and ugly; strangers regularly stop my sister in the street to tell her that her hair is beautiful and ask her, awe-filled, if her curls are natural.
My initial idea was that race and immigration must play a big role in Irie’s dissatisfaction with her image, especially considering her response Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 (because, whether Julia Roberts’ daughter or not, my sister is undeniably white). But I confuse myself with these considerations – Clara is less “English” than her daughter Irie, but manages to fit the European standard for beauty, and so she can benefit from being exotic.
So I guess somewhere, there is a formula: A certain number of differences or a certain type of difference, or a difference that’s not “too” different, these things make us do a double take and consider someone unusual and beautiful (think Jean’s eyes in Mendel’s Dwarf). But different in the “wrong” way makes you closer to a freak. What is the threshold? Who decides?