It never ceases to amaze me whenever someone with a magnificent crown of fluffy, frizzy or curly hair straightens it. I was born with a topping of lank, limp strands that hang straight down into my eyes. Neither thick nor thin, and too shiny and slick to tie back easily, it slips out of knots and buns, and, no matter how tightly I tie a pony-tail, the elastic slips down to the end, so it feels as if I’m constantly fussing with it.
I mentioned how my sister had taught me to dress in the popular mode. Slowly, bit by bit, I was turning into a teenager. As a child, I had some unaccountable obsession with my hair. I wanted it to be as long as possible. I’d scream when my mother tried to cut it, so eventually she stopped trying. At one point, it was long enough that I had to move it out of the way to sit down. Then adolescence came.
The late seventies. Farah Fawcette and hair that swept away from the face in patterns known as “feathers” and “wings” were all the rage. My sister got her moderately curly hair cut and she spent every morning with the blow dryer. Her hair is naturally thick and she managed a big, fluffy, Farah Fawcette ‘do quite well. The next step in my transformation was being dragged to the hair dresser’s. I went willing since I had already learned how some small changes in footwear or brand of jeans could make one’s life so much more pleasant. With the right look, you could live at the library and no one would care. If clothes are unimportant, I reasoned, why get beaten up over them?
Off to the salon to have my long hair cut to a length just below my shoulders, still officially “long” hair, and to have my hair cut to form bangs, with would be angled and layered in preparation for the final step of blowing them into “wings.” My hair was too straight for the massive feathering like my sister had and the look did resemble the avian anatomy for with it was named. Perhaps if I actually found the style attractive I would have been less bothered by what followed. However, I had taken on this look for social, not aesthetic, reasons.
The next morning, I was in for a surprise. My slick hair was exceedingly reluctant to stay in the flipped back position into which it was blown. Fifteen solid minutes in front of the mirror making the right side go back. Then fifteen minutes on the left. Now they were noticeably asymmetrical with the left side higher than the right. Back to right side for five minutes. Now that one was higher. Back to the left. After about forty-five minutes I was finally able to leave the bathroom with hair that wouldn’t lead to endless mockery and social ostracism at school.
At the end of the day, my straight hair had reverted to its natural shape, just as it always had, and I arrived home with my hair hanging in my face, a stray bit of the angled bangs defiantly curling inward and poking me in the eye. I sat on the floor, hiding on the other side of the bed where no one would see me and cried. I didn’t cry because I disliked the way it looked. I cried at the thought of spending forty-five minutes every morning playing with my hair. Over five hours every week. Two hundred and seventy-four hours every year. I was horrified by the thought of so much of life being wasted looking into a mirror.
The official school picture was taken that week. In it, I’m glowering like a typical maladjusted teenager. I was angry, angry everyday that I had to spend time playing with my hair. What to do?
I convinced my mother to give me money to go back to the salon. My mother, a former cheerleader, felt that my new interest in my appearance was a positive development, so it really wasn’t the indulgence it would seem to be to someone outside our family. I sat in the hairdresser’s chair. The hairdresser was a young, perky, slightly flaky woman for whom I had a natural liking. She asked what I actually thought did look good. Another woman who worked at the salon was a small bird-like woman with a big poodle’s mane, like a 1970s rockstar, was working behind us and I could see her reflection in the mirror. I said, “Like that.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “We can’t do exactly that, but we can do something similar.”
“Will it be difficult to style in the morning?”
When I heard that it was about the easiest thing I could have chosen short of a crew cut, I said, “Great! Let’s do that.”
Of course, like all other beauty treatments, this was a time-consuming process. My hair was tightly wrapped around dozens of tiny little plastic curlers. Then a foul-smelling chemical was doused all over the top of my head. While I was sitting baking under the dryer, my scalp started to itch and my ears felt as if they were on fire and I started to wonder if I hadn’t gone out of the frying pan into the fire. I was seriously contemplating how that crew cut might look.
After a half an hour, the hairdresser took me out from under the dryer. She unraveled one curler. Back under for another ten. Ten minutes later, the ritual was repeated. Back under for another five. She started to get nervous because she was afraid to burn my hair off. In the end, my stubbornly straight hair needed fifty minutes to be forced into a curl, but finally I had a head like a poodle.
The next day at school I was greeted with “Hey what happened? Did you stick your finger into an electric socket.” No one could claim that suburban middle school students are original. I must have heard that jeering line fifty times that day. I didn’t care. That morning, I bent over at the waist, toweled my head dry, fluffed it up with my fingers and was out of the bathroom in about two minutes. Maintaining this style would take about two hours once a month. Two hours times twelve months, that’s twenty-four hours. Comparing that to the nearly three-hundred hours for the wings, I tossed my new corkscrew ringlets over my shoulder and turned my back on the people laughing at me.
The joke about the electrical socket got old really quickly and by the third day, when someone said it, another kid said, “Jeez, that one’s old.” Then a funny thing happened. A few days later, someone else showed up at school with a big head of curly hair. Then two. Then three. Eventually, even my big sister, who had taught me how to dress, went to the salon to get her hair cut in layers that would make her naturally wavy hair look curlier. Soon enough, all the girls in my school were looking something like Peter Frampton on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive!
It might seem like a rather trivial incident about hair, and in a way it is. But I learned something really important about negotiating social situations that week. If you can brave the initial mockery, other people often come around in the end. The key was that I didn’t apologize or seek to explain away what I had done. I was proud of it and showed it off.
It would be another five or six years until I’d get that crew cut.