I have a lifelong relationship with Shirley Temple and her hair. Since toddlerhood, I’ve been told that I looked like Shirley Temple, specifically because of the curls that sprouted from my head as soon as I began to grow actual hair.
Here’s an Instagram #tbt of me at 18 months old, blonde halo and all:
So, you can see why my grandparents called me “Shirley” and gifted me Shirley Temple movies, coloring books and more. My hair made me a tiny 80s version of Shirley and as a result, Shirley and her movies became a huge part of my childhood.
I watched Shirley while I drank milk and eat gingerbread men at my grandmother’s house, I watched Shirley with my sister on snow days, I learned the dance routines that Shirley did with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I sang “Animal Crackers In My Soup” every time I ate soup. I felt like I was Shirley, or she was me, even though she lived in a black-and-white movie world with hoop skirts or sailor men and I lived in a brick house with my mom, dad and sister.
I hated my naturally curly hair when I was a kid, but having hair that looked like Shirley’s somehow made me special in my family. When I watched her movies, I felt special, like we had a curly-girl kinship that spanned decades and celluloid. She had her happy ringlets and I had mine, even though as I grew mine turned brown and tangled, even though as I got older I resented more more and the girls around me whose hair flat-ironed like a dream.
My favorite Shirley movie is The Little Colonel, with a close second Captain January and then Curly Top. These movies were already fifty years old when I was born. It’s pretty insane to watch them now and notice the racist, sexist stereotypes that eluded me as a child. Shirley herself was aware of the questionable nature of much the work she did as a child, saying, of the Baby Burlesque films she did in 1933, that they were “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence that occasionally were racist or sexist.”
As problematic as the movies Shirley made were, as corny as they seem to our modern eyes, they remain one of my favorite things ever. I see Shirley tapping along with her curls bouncing and bobbing, and I’m the same little girl in our imagined curly kinship. Here’s a look back at Shirley and her curls, which remained her trademark throughout her long, amazing life, which ended yesterday.
Photos: Getty Images