I’m pretty sure I was a Chinese man in a past life.
In the 17th century, Manchu invaders issued “the Queue order”, a law that required Chinese, who traditionally did not cut their hair, to shave their heads like Manchus. The Chinese resisted and tens of thousands of people were killed due to their hairstyle.
I think people tend to be a little uppity about things that they were killed for in another lifetime.
My whole morning routine centers around my hair. Round One is washing, conditioning and towel-drying, that’s the easy part.
Then it gets complicated.
It requires the Professional Grade hair dryer, butterfly clips, three different brushes, and the delicate choice of which hair care product combinations to use given the day’s weather report: Humectant, Anti-Humectant, Curl Enhancer, Straightening balm, Crème with Silk Groom, Texturizing Gel, Shine Emollient, Thickening Mist, Volumizing Tonic, Moroccan Hair Oil and flexible-but-firm-hold Hair Spray.
Then I make breakfast, find something clean to wear and come back again to the mirror to crank up the hair dryer, add the finishing touches and products. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, which is less time than it takes to shut down a nuclear reactor, but more time than it takes to shovel my driveway after it snows.
“Can’t you just dry your hair once?” my partner asks. And the answer is: Nope.
Round Two is important, otherwise my bangs may have rearranged, or worse—frizzed—in the rushing of the morning.
Needless to say, the whole Hair Thing requires a tolerant partner. She understands that I will lapse into a mild depression after a haircut. She has learned to be patient with the constant barrage of “Does my hair look okay?” for the first week after the cut and answers with a gentle “Yes”, knowing that I, of course, will not believe her.
She has come to expect the ways I stare in the mirror with a painful degree of attention, as if looking for some secret Mayan code, and repeat how much I hate my hair.
I have always been in search of the Perfect Haircut.
Once on a meditation retreat, participants were divulging what was going on inside their minds during the long stretches of silence. One woman was coming up with a list of baby names. Another was thinking of what to plant in her garden in the spring.
And I, of course, was looking around the room at people’s hairstyles, my self-esteem lowering as my eyes rested on each perfect head of hair. I have a file full of photographs of the Perfect Haircut, and I always pull one out as I go into the salon, holding it out in front of me, asking “Can you just make my hair look like Jodie Foster’s?”
I had a cut once that worked with my natural waves, but only IF I used the $22 Curl Queen Styling Gel. Then that hair stylist took a job with a prestigious firm in Chicago. I knew it was ridiculous to quit my job and move to Chicago with him, though I admit, I thought about it. I still fantasize about taking a trip to L.A. to work with Meg Ryan’s hair stylist, whoever the hell that is.
But keep in mind I didn’t used to be this way.
I used to be worse.
It all started when I was born. All mothers want something for their kids and mine apparently just wanted a kid with hair. So naturally, my hair didn’t come in until I was two years old. Seeing company at the door, my mom, (who went to bed each night with pink rollers in her hair and scotch tape across her bangs) would rush to put a bonnet on my head, so the Whole World would be sure I was a girl.
When my hair finally appeared, she would gather as much of it as she could and Dippity-Do it into a curly-cue at the top of my head.
When I got older my fine hair wouldn’t even hold a barrette, so my mom would tape bows to my head like I was a poorly-wrapped Christmas present. In the fourth grade, I would sit on the bathroom floor for 30 minutes each morning while she worked feverishly with a curling iron, making me fit for the high fashion runway of elementary school.
Junior high brought with it multiple mistings of Aqua Net, my own personal toxic cloud freezing the hair perfection into place. It may have been crackly to the touch, but it was impervious to the effect of hurricane-force winds. The whole thing was, of course, ridiculous. I mean, who said that hair wasn’t supposed to move? What does it mean if it moves an eighth of an inch between the car and the restaurant?
When I turned 13 a genuine tragedy occurred: without warning, my naturally blond hair began to turn brown.
This was not in my mother’s plans.
So off we went to K-Mart, buying Blond In A Box, and the rubber gloves that went with it. High school brought the advent of the Holy Perm. This was perfect, except for the chemically volatile mix of perm solution and bleach, leaving my hair with the texture of burnt straw. I could blow it out each morning, or let it dry naturally and have curly hair. The perm brought a much lower maintenance regime, so I loved it.
I was in Hair Heaven, until the day I found myself sitting in the car in the Kroger parking lot, when my mom looked over at my perfect waves and said bluntly,
“With hair like that, I’m ashamed to call you my daughter.”
Yeah, that did it. Back to The Quest.
Over the next 10 years, I tried the chunky look, the curly look, the straight look, the slightly wavy look, the strategically messy look, the big hair, the flat hair, as well as a whole 120 Crayola Box of hues in every shade of blonde. I’ve often fantasized about cutting it all off, just to have some freedom. But I was always afraid my mom would flat-line.
And even now, while shaving my head might buy me a little more lesbian street-cred, I’m frankly just too scared.
The single biggest act of bravery in my life was taking my hair back to its natural color when I was 30. There are precious few things in this life we can actually control, and maybe hair color is one of them. But it suddenly occurred to me that spending $150 each month to turn my hair into the opposite of what it actually was just crazy.
Besides, I was trying to create a more natural way of living, and I knew that degree of fake blondness no longer fit.
I want to know why all the body image books never include a chapter about a person’s relationship with their hair. It seems like any part of the body that has served as a complex indicator of class, gender, conformity and power throughout the whole of human history should be worth at least a chapter or two. And I know that on some level I’ve fallen prey to a cultural construct; I still believe, in a quiet part of my soul, that Perfect Hair actually exists.
And yes, since you’re asking, this does make me feel like a bad feminist and an even worse body image therapist.
But the Hair Thing is better now. I no longer refuse a hug for fear of messing up my hair. I can go to the grocery store right out of bed. I threw away all the curling irons and hot rollers years ago.
Still, my body goes into a mild trauma reaction if my bangs get cut too short and I still get a little edgy if I have to walk somewhere in the rain.
The biggest revolution is that I really love my gray hair that’s coming in now, even though I can still hear my mother gasp with terror every time I catch my own reflection in a car window. I love it.
I finally look exactly, perfectly like myself.
Hopefully you will see me soon, fully gray, with my hair simply tied back, like I really don’t give a damn.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise