Bilingual Book about Hair Empowers Girls and Women and Celebrates Diversity

by Meredith Cooper

Hair can be a sensitive subject.  Too often people complain their hair is too thin, too thick, the wrong color or just in general not what they feel meets societal standards. But in Sulma Arzu-Brown’s bilingual book “Bad Hair Does Not Exist/¡Pelo Malo No Existe!” hair moves past fashion and appearance and into the areas of self-esteem, empowerment and cultural solidarity.

“It looks like a children's book, however the message is a mature one,” Arzu-Brown writes on her book’s official website.  “Its target demo is from the age of comprehension to adulthood.”

Featuring illustrations by Isidra Sabio of girls and women with a variety of different hair types and styles, Arzu-Brown’s book seeks to empower by demonstrating that hair is not bad and not something to feel self-conscious about.

“We don’t have bad hair because bad hair does not exist!/ ¡Pero pelo malo, no existe!” the book reads using an illustration of two girls, one with curly hair and one with straight hair, to help demonstrate its point.  “There are all types of hair.  And all hair is GOOD!/Hay toda clase de pelo.  ¡Y todo pelo es BUENO!”

While the book has a lighthearted quality, it’s inspiration came from something very personal and negative for Arzu-Brown.  Born in Honduras, she moved to New York City at six years old and with her parents’ encouragement eventually attended Herbert Lehman College of the City University of New York.

“While in college, I was on a quest to find myself,” she wrote on her book’s website.  “That is when I took on a project about my Garifuna culture, just to learn more about me.  It was at that point when a classmate labeled my type of hair as ‘malo/bad.’ She had no idea what I was going through nor the reality of my challenges as a black latina woman.”

For Arzu-Brown, the incident with her classmate was not the first time that she had heard the term “bad hair.”

“Raised in a predominately Spanish community in the Bronx, I encountered a series of events in which the term ‘pelo malo’ (meaning bad hair) was used too loosely and irresponsibly to describe the natural (not chemically treated) hair of Black girls and girls of Afro decent without thinking about the damage it inflicts on their self-esteem,” she wrote. 

Although she went on to successfully earn her Bachelor of Arts degree, her experiences from her youth and in particular with her classmate stayed with her. Eventually, she married her best friend from college, Maurice Brown, and had two daughters, Suleni Tisani and Bella-Victoria. 

“When I became a mom, it was important for me to instill in my daughters the values of love, beauty, intelligence, empowerment and consideration for the feelings of others,” she wrote. “I became indignant with the term ‘pelo malo’ because it was now being used against my daughters, contrary to all the values I taught at home.”

On her book’s website, Arzu-Brown wrote about two separate occasions where she dealt with “pelo malo” and its impact on her daughters.  During one of them a caregiver tried to use a flat iron on her then one-year-old daughter’s hair and burned her ear.  In the other, a different caregiver suggested that she have her youngest daughter’s hair chemically straightened and used the term “pelo malo” in front of the little girl.

“Bella-Victoria was just three years old when this happened,” Arzu-Brown wrote.  “I told the caregiver that, ‘BAD HAIR DOES NOT EXIST’ and respectfully provided alternative terminology to describe the various types of hair.  Additionally, I requested she not use the term ‘bad hair’ in front of my daughter or any child for that matter.”

In the end there were many such incidences that motivated Arzu-Brown to take action.  She taught her oldest daughter, Suleni Tisani, how to describe her hair in positive terms and stand up for herself and her sister.  She also decided to stop chemically straightening her own hair and let it grown out naturally as a way to encourage her daughters to be confident and love themselves just the way they are.   The results were immediate with Suleni Tisani saying “mommy, we finally look alike” the day that she cut off her chemically treated hair.  It was not long after that that she used the techniques she taught her oldest daughter and wrote “Bad Hair Does Not Exist/¡Pelo Malo No Existe!”

“I…made the decision to share these tools,” she wrote, “with you dear reader and all girls, so they too would be equipped to educate and protect one another.”

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(Book Cover Image Courtesy of /