Life Notes: Hair-Raising Tales
A life-long story of style and struggle

I remember the day I started hating my hair. I was in sixth grade. I sat behind Helen, the prettiest girl in the class and the one who seemed altogether perfect to me. Helen had pink cheeks, enormous blue eyes and a perfect cap of strawberry-blonde hair that turned under at the ends.

More than anything else in the world, I wanted hair like Helen’s. I wanted it so badly I began studying myself in the mirror and hating what I saw. Let us not forget that the female obsession with looks – and with hair – begins frighteningly early.

That fall, I begged my mother to give me a home permanent. I reasoned that once the magical potion hit my hair, I’d have beautiful waves like Helen’s – and my hair, too, would tuck under at the ends. My wise mother warned that I might not like the results of that permanent – and she emphasized the word “permanent.”

But I persisted. Begged. Whined.

So one Saturday afternoon in the upstairs bathroom, I got ready to say goodbye to the straight, limp hair I hated and was poised to transform myself into…Helen. The sensory memory of that afternoon lives on, decades later.

I can remember the towel around my shoulders, the tug of those rods and the hope that filled that white-tiled bathroom. I can remember the horrible smell of that home permanent. I can feel the impatience that seeped into me as I waited for the magnificent moment of truth: my glorious new look.

But what I saw in the mirror was horrifying: tight, frizzy curls leaped out where none had been. When my sister saw me, she laughed. I cried. I made a dramatic announcement: I would never, ever go back to school. And nobody could make me. It was a very long weekend. Returning to school turned out not to be an option. It was a parental mandate.

“You’ll get used to it,” my best friend Jane Lee promised. But I knew she was lying. “It’s just hair!” beautiful Helen attempted. I hated her for her magnificent mane and loathed my tangled tempest even more.

It took nearly a year for that horrible permanent to grow out. It was the same year when I felt every insecurity known to the pre-adolescent female.

I wish I could say I outgrew the hair obsession the moment I presumably embraced adulthood. But ask any woman about whether hair has almost mystical powers, and if she’s honest, she’ll tell it like it is. Hair matters.

My old pal Joycie has always gone au natural, letting her hair take on a soft gray she’s never disguised. I don’t think she’s changed her basic bob since high school.

Linda keeps her shiny dark hair in a short, sleek style that somehow makes her huge brown eyes leap out at you. But she once confessed if the guy who cuts it ever moved to Tahiti, Linda would be on the next plane.

And I’ve been a victim of the hair wars since that sixth grade fiasco. I’ve lived through freaky coloring mishaps when my hair turned orange. I’ve gotten asymmetrical haircuts that left me feeling lopsided and loony. And in one memorable phase, I even tried a wanton gypsy look, followed by a severe helmet-style that made me look like some mad scientist.

I’ve bought hundreds of dollars worth of “product,” those lotions and potions that promise miracles and end up in the back of the closet or shelf or drawer.

Recently, I’ve found salvation in the form of a sensible hairdresser named Eileen. She works at a cozy salon minutes away and trims my hair every four weeks, but doesn’t turn it into a mystical experience. She listens carefully to my requests and even understands the words, “Just a trim, please.”

And I blush to admit that if Eileen took off for Tahiti, I wouldn’t be far behind.

May 2016
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