Friday, May 4, 2012

Hair: A Memoir

My hair is nothing special: thin, fine, and straight, except for maybe 5 percent that's coarse and curly. I'm not sure what my natural color is, something between dark ash blonde and medium mouse brown, with more iron gray and silver arriving daily.

The Good Years
As a kid, I resembled my Skipper doll — straight brown hair all the way down my back, and bangs. For school, I wore a ponytail or a braid, and almost any kid sitting behind me was welcome to play with it. For church, my mother pinned it up in elaborate, curly creations with fabric flowers or jeweled hairpins. I wore chic Sunday ensembles that my godparents bought in Hess's Department Store, or party dresses with elaborate sleeves that my mother sewed from patterns and fabrics we spent hours choosing together. I realize now that childhood was my most fashionable period. I went downhill after that.

When I had to wear a white crown and veil for my First Holy Communion and Confirmation, my mother sewed it to my hair with a needle and thread. It was a clever idea and didn't hurt, but I was scandalized and considered myself abused. I couldn't take it off until she was ready to snip me out of it.

The Weird Years
When I was 12, I grew out my bangs to look grown-up. As a teen, my hair was glittery, light ash brown, almost dishwater blonde in summer. It looked strange on me; nuns and others accused me of coloring it because it clashed with my dark eyes and black eyebrows. One horrible day in eighth grade, my mother dragged me to her salon for a "body perm." It fried my hair, leaving odd waves and straight ends.

In high school, I had enough hair to make reasonably thick, braided pigtails, which I sometimes wrapped and pinned around my head, peasant-style. I doubt that other girls wore their hair like that, but I didn't care what anyone thought. I usually wore it hippie-style: straight and parted in the middle, à la Peggy Lipton on "The Mod Squad." Or I'd twist it into a bun and pierce it with a pencil to keep it in place. No one else wore old-lady buns at my high school, either.

Around this time, I read some old-fashioned girls' book where the characters slept with their hair rolled up in rags, the ancestors of curlers. I ripped up an old nightgown and tried it, and had bouncy curls. Then I discovered I could wrap a strand of hair around a pencil, remove the pencil and secure it with a pin. Everyone wants the hair they weren't born with: I went from sleek and straight to frizzy and outrageously curly, and I was thrilled. It was the 1970s, after all. Bad rock-star hair was cool.

Bad Hair and Worse Hairdressers
In college, I quit using rags and pencils and began getting curly perms, a bad habit that persisted throughout my 20s. To keep my hair off my face, which is where it always wanted to be, I wore plastic headbands, which dug into my scalp. But I thought they were cute until my cousin Ed said to me, after a good day of fishing, "You need to stop wearing that headclamp. It looks painful. Please give up the headclamp." I did.

I began coloring my hair in my 20s when the first gray hairs appeared. I chose gingery or auburn shades, which did not look natural but were livelier than my natural shade. People told me the reddish tones matched my eyes. I did not pause to consider whether this was a compliment.

One evening, on a whim, I walked into a salon on Newbury Street, "Born to be Wild," for a free consultation. I went in with long, reddish waves, and walked out with short, straight, razored and layered ash-brown hair that I loathed. I'd never had short hair in my life and I never wanted it. For almost a year, I woke up startled in the middle of the night, wondering where my hair had gone. I was wary of hairdressers but I needed trims to grow out that awful cut. I began seeing one in Brookline, recommended by a trusted friend. Let's call this hairdresser "B."

B. cut my hair for years and kept trying to talk me into more flattering hairstyles, requiring blow-drying or using a curling iron. I couldn't be bothered; my pencil-wrapping and rag days were behind me. We slowly got my hair back to normal: long, straight, and parted in the middle. Wash, comb, and go. Then, one day, B. grabbed my front ends, pulled them in front of my forehead, and jokingly (or so I thought) said, "I wonder how you'd look with bangs." And before I could say a word, SNIP — I had bangs. Skipper had returned. And she's still here; that was 20 years ago.

I never saw B. again. My friend still sees her and updates her on my perpetual bangs. B. is probably horrified; she hoped to push me out of a hairstyle rut and hurled me into an abyss instead. Bangs are ridiculously hard to grow out. I tried about 10 years ago, wearing bobby pins at each temple for months to keep my hair off my cheeks. But my bangs fought stubbornly to be in my face, and I surrendered and cut them short. I am Skipper in perpetuity.

Low Maintenance
I gave up on hair salons: too dangerous. I get trims at SuperCuts, where no one impulsively cuts bangs. I color my hair at home, which costs about $50 a year. It's easy and I don't have to make an appointment, wear a stupid smock, listen to gossip, make small talk, or tip myself.

In 1998, a well-meaning girlfriend dragged me to her hairdresser to persuade me to try something special for my wedding. He and I almost came to blows. "I don't know what I can do with this," he sniffed, holding up my ends with distaste, as if they were covered in guano. "That's good," I replied, "Because I don't want to look like I spent any time in this salon." I stalked out, unscathed.

And I spoke the truth: I never want to look like I spent time in a salon; I don't want to seem frivolous or obsessed with my appearance. I may be frivolous and obsessed, but I want to look serious. I must have absorbed the dominant hippie philosophy of looking "natural" when I was an impressionable kid. Thank god it didn't extend to hair coloring — or bathing, wearing lipstick, or dentistry.

For my wedding, I bought a nice barrette instead of a headpiece. Other friends took me to one of their hairdressers before the ceremony, a gentle person who curled my ends and put in the barrette. But I don't look like myself in our photos; I should have just washed, combed, and married.

The Sparse Years
My hair has thinned over the decades, falling out in handfuls after I wash or color it. There's not enough for braids now, just a single, slender ponytail. Volumizing conditioner helps a bit. I could be a bald old lady in 20 years. But I can still twist what's left into a bun, and if I tuck in the ends just right, it stays up without pins. When I worked in an office, coworkers could judge my mood by my hair. When I was calm, my hair was down; when things were hectic, it was in a bun — a hair barometer.

My husband and I have been loyal to the same stylist at SuperCuts for years. She does what we ask and no more. There is no talk of layering, angling, or razoring; we both know my hair is so thin that there is only one layer. I get blunt cuts in 10 minutes.

This week, I asked her to lop off about 3 inches. I'd been considering this for months. "You're getting brave," she said, agreeing that my ends, trailing down my back, were ratty. Now my hair brushes my shoulders and swings around. I like it. It's easier to wash, comb, and go, but it also looks more polished — like I might actually give a damn about my hair. Just a little. (And, clearly, I do.)


  1. Are you sure we aren't sisters who were separated at birth? Substitute Tressy for Skipper, and an Amish girl who competed with me for longest braind/hair until she left school on her 12th birthday, and the rest is identical. (Same Supercuts, too, I'd guess).

    I had 1 major detour in the 80s when in NY, I'd visit Block's Pharmacy on the UES. Luba, the manager, stocked the most gorgeous barrettes and scrunchies imaginable. That was my biggest wardrobe expense. Ever.

  2. PB - Thanks so much for this post - even though I know that sounds silly. I have different hair from you, but the same, um, obsessions. I'm so tired of walking out of hairdressers looking "stylish" - they think - and "stupid" - I think - plus being out a ton of money. I've seriously been thinking about going the Supercuts/home color route myself, just to be done with it all. How cool that you wrote up my musings!


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