Bad Hair: Is it Really? Or is it Just Me? by Sharyn Ellison

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Woman spraying hair with styling product..As I opened the front door and walked out onto the porch, a wave of moist heat washed over me like an incoming tide. It wasn’t even noon and already the Savannah heat was as thick as a swamp. This did not bode well for my just-coifed hair ,which, in its natural state, puffs up like a cloud of dandelion fuzz

My naturally curly hair is like a recalcitrant child. It is stubborn and willful, and I have spent my lifetime attempting to tame it. For years I kept an arsenal of weapons at the ready in my bathroom closet—a hairdryer with the power of a leaf blower, a brush as big and round as a new roll of toilet paper, and a flatiron the size of an omelet pan. I even had back-up—straightening creams, molding pastes, anti-frizz mousse, moisture barrier waxes, and mega-hold moisture-blocking hairspray, all of which I deployed almost every day.

Taming wild hair is not for the faint-hearted, nor, for that matter, the budget-conscious. It is a tiresome and costly endeavor. I am not bragging about this, as I have not seen the shy side of 40 in more years than I care to divulge, and the amount of money I’ve spent on hair products would have fed a family of four until the kids went off to college. My hair rarely waved the white flag, but when it did, I felt victorious, even if for just a short while. On the aforementioned summer day, however, victory eluded me.

I sighed and huffed out to the end of the driveway and yanked open the mailbox door. The box was stuffed with solicitations and flyers, which only added to my ill humor. Irritated, I snapped the door shut and turned to see old Mrs. Pettigrew hobbling toward me with Moses, her ancient cocker spaniel, dragging along beside her. As I waited for them, I felt the stealthy tickle of humidity against my scalp, wrapping around my hair follicles like tentacles.

“Hey there, Mrs. Pettigrew,” I said, trying to be pleasant despite my foul mood.

“Good morning, my dear,” said Mrs. Pettigrew, eying my hair with interest.

“How’s that arthritis today?” I asked, in an effort to divert her attention.

“As you might expect,” she replied, “but I’m getting along.”

Mrs. Pettigrew raised a hand above her eyes to block the blinding glare of the sun, the better to observe my crimping hair, and said, “My dear, your hair looks lovely today.”

“Thank you,” I said, as I reached up and patted my hair, feeling the familiar spongy bounce beneath my hand.

It was not a mystery why Mrs. Pettigrew thought my hair did, indeed, look lovely. Her own long, snowy-white hair was scraped back from her crinkly face and wound around her head like a garden hose. The coil was held in place with a half-dozen multi-colored butterfly clips. I had to admire her creativity.

Mrs. Pettigrew and I gossiped briefly about the goings-on in the neighborhood, but it was getting hotter by the minute, so we parted company and I slumped back up the driveway and went in the house. As I tossed the stack of mail on the hall table, I looked in the mirror on the wall. My hair rose from my head like the topknot of some strange jungle bird. I headed to the bathroom to drag out my weapons.

I have been wrestling with my disobedient hair for almost as far back as I can remember. It was all very well to have curly hair as a small child. Little curly-top children are so cute. I will be the first to admit that my baby pictures are adorable. But those photos are from a time long ago, an age of innocence that lasted until I entered the third grade. It was about that time that boys discovered my hair.

Before I left for school each morning, my mother cinched my long curly, blonde hair into a ponytail. It dangled from the back of my head and swung like a pendulum, making it the playground target of little boys with grabbing hands. In the classroom, I sat in front of Jimmy Rufus. Some days he could not resist a quick pull of my hair, so my yelp of astonishment alerted the teacher to his misconduct. His punishment was to sit on a stool beside her desk. Jimmy didn’t care. In fact, I always thought he looked quite pleased with himself as he sauntered to the front of the room to take up his post.

By the time I reached the fifth grade, I had had enough. I pestered my mother into letting me have my hair cut short. Back in those days, the “Pixie” was the latest style, and I did want to be stylish. I took a picture to the beauty shop and showed it to the hair stylist. The model in the picture had straight hair, and I fault the stylist for not pointing this out to me. When she had snipped off all of my hair, I did not look like a pixie at all, but rather like a Bichon Frise. I cried into my pillow every night. That was the beginning of the dysfunctional relationship with my hair, but it was years before I understood that.

The haircut solved the hair-pulling problem; however, I was surprised to find I missed the special attention my ponytail had provided, although I never confessed this to anyone. A shrink might say this was because I did not receive enough attention at home. I would not dispute that. My parents were Midwest farmers who had their hands full with tending livestock and raising crops, as well as three children. At school, I became just another little girl running around the schoolyard in saddle oxfords and jumpers, no pennant of curly hair flying from the back of my head. My new cropped hairdo did provide relief from the unexpected backward jerk of my head, and Jimmy Rufus no longer had to sit on a stool beside the teacher’s desk. I wonder if Jimmy missed the attention, too.

It wasn’t until puberty struck that I began to realize I had bigger problems than hair-pulling. At thirteen, hormones kicked in and the relationship with my hair turned abusive. The Sixties brought with them The Beatles, hip-huggers, bell-bottom jeans, flower-power, Sonny and Cher, and long, straight hair. Pop culture was born, and the pressure was on to be, or at least look like, one of the “In Crowd.”

There was no hope for me to have the goddess-like hair of Cher, Michelle Phillips, or Raquel Welch. However, “the bouffant,” made popular by the iconic Jackie Kennedy, was a style that I could manage, although it was quite labor-intensive. Each night before going to bed, I drenched my hair with Dippity-Do styling gel, wound it around large hair curlers, and trapped it beneath a nylon bonnet. The styling gel set up like concrete.

After a fitful night’s sleep on a head-full of wiry curlers, I unwound my hair and began the “ratting” process. For readers born after The Age of Aquarius, ratting works like this: lift a section of hair between thumb and forefinger, insert the teeth of a comb into the lifted hair and push the comb down toward the scalp several times until you have made a “rat’s nest.” Repeat until your hair looks like one giant rat’s nest. That’s ratting. Next, I smoothed the top layer of hair with my brush until the rat’s nest underneath was invisible, leaving me with a lofty, sculpted confection. I felt like Michelangelo.

The finishing touch was an application of mega-hold hair spray, meant to seal off my masterpiece like a nuclear waste repository. Alas, there was no guarantee that my exquisite creation would remain so for the entire school day. Waiting for the school bus on a rainy day was the kiss of death. No umbrella, hooded jacket or rain scarf, even if employed simultaneously, could keep the seeping dampness from its stealthy invasion of my lines of defense. When that happened, my look went from Jackie Kennedy to Angela Davis. An Afro on a white girl? Angela would have laughed her ass off.

By 1968, the over-the-counter hair product industry had risen to new heights with the invention of a home hair straightening kit. I bought one and followed the instructions with great care. The results were incredible. My hair was as straight as a picket fence. My dream for a head of hair that did not curl, frizz, coil, swell up, or spring out had, at long last, become reality. Victory was mine.

Gone were the days of Dippity-Do and sleepless nights. Gone was the fear of destruction that accompanied rainy days. No amount of moisture could undo the miracle the straightener had wrought. I am not known for theatrics, but let me just say, with all due respect, that I felt “free at last.”

My girlfriends were impressed that I no longer dragged a steamer trunk full of hair products to sleepovers. Some of them, however, were afraid my new sleek hair might give me an edge in competing for the attention of the boys. But the boys had lost interest in my hair way back on that fateful day in the fifth grade. At this stage in their lives hair, whether it was straight or curly, held no interest for them—anatomy did. As a late bloomer, I did not have much going for me in that regard. However, they were impressed that I could produce an ear-splitting whistle by pushing air through my front teeth. None of the boys could do it. They followed me around at school and begged me to teach them how. I developed quite a following of admirers.

My college years in Minnesota were a blessing for my hair and me, although I did not anticipate that a climate change could have a positive effect on my hair’s behavior. The air up there was so dry I could almost feel my hair crack, like parched earth in a drought.

In the dry, frigid climate of the far north, hair straightener was unnecessary, even in summer—another blessing. The money I saved on straightening solution allowed me to purchase such necessary items as Sorrel boots, thermal underwear, a down coat, ear muffs, foot warmers, hand warmers, and a power cord to plug into my car’s engine block to keep the motor from freezing up. For a few years, my hair and I lived in harmony.

I would have considered making Minnesota my home since the climate was so kind to my hair, but I had met my husband. He was in the Coast Guard and, after two years of tending buoys on the icy waters of Lake Superior, he was ready to move on. He applied for a change of duty station, and we headed to San Francisco Bay.

In the Bay Area, the only thing to trouble my hair–which became more brown with age–was the incoming fog, which, on occasion, crept in and draped across my head like a veil. When that happened, my hair swelled up like cotton candy. But in San Francisco, that hardly made me a freak. In fact, the gay men in our neighborhood were enthralled with the manic personality of my hair and offered suggestions on how to style it in ever more outrageous coiffures. I won’t lie—I enjoyed the attention.

Eventually my husband’s wanderlust took us to the tropical paradise of Savannah, Georgia where we now reside. Accordingly, I auctioned off my Minnesota survival gear on eBay. The proceeds made a good down payment on the abundance of hair products I found necessary to purchase in Savannah, where the air is as steamy as a boiling pot of pasta. My hair cooked into spirals whenever I ventured outdoors.

In my search for the perfect products to tame my hair, I went to the local Ulta, a retail beauty haven for all women who seek refuge from the storm of self-dissatisfaction. If you want to change something about yourself, Ulta is like the Big Top of the Greatest Show on Earth.

I discovered there are thousands of hair products to choose from, all promising various types of transfigurations.  It’s mind-blowing. For instance, take shampoo. There are shampoos for damaged hair, curly hair, dry hair, oily hair, and color-treated hair; shampoos for blond hair, brown hair, red hair, and gray hair; shampoos that contain sulfates and shampoos that don’t; conditioning shampoos, anti-dandruff shampoos, volumizing shampoos, and smoothing shampoos; shampoos in 1,001 fragrances and shampoos with no fragrance at all.

The same goes for conditioners. To add to the confusion, there are myriads of other products to choose from: smoothing serums and curling creams; styling gels, spritzes and mousses; anti-frizz sprays; texturizing pastes and waxes; hair sprays that claim to act as moisture barriers; and hair sprays that offer light-, medium-, mega- and ultra-hold, depending on the level of immovability desired.

It was just too much.

Figuring out which products would best defend my hair against the forces of nature was so confusing. It was disheartening, really. I found that many of the hair products contained chemicals that made my skin crawl. Just read the labels. Who wants to use products containing formaldehyde and parabens, not to mention substances used in adhesives and fossil fuels and, in some cases, even have the potential to set your hair on fire? Hair straighteners appeared to be the most toxic, so I ruled them out and searched for a more suitable product to tackle the beast of southern humidity.

I wound up buying a multitude of different hair products and implements and set about experimenting. Sometimes I used one at a time and sometimes I used two or three, mixing products like martinis. The results of my experiments were always different. Some days I felt like Madame Curie. It was all very time-consuming—and expensive.

Of course, all of my experiments required the ultimate test—exposing each hair-styling masterpiece to the sultry breath of the great outdoors—which brings me to the day I went out to the mailbox and ran into Mrs. Pettigrew and Moses. That morning’s ministrations had been especially tiresome. The new mousse had been too sticky, trapping the brush in my hair like a Venus Fly Trap.

After the encounter with my ancient neighbor, I went back indoors and styled my hair for the second time that morning. Then I looked through the mail I had tossed on the hall table and discovered that it wasn’t all junk after all. I was happy to find the new edition of AARP, The Magazine on the bottom of the pile. This, of course, provides the reader some insight into how far I have traveled down the road of life, given that the recipients of that magazine must meet certain age requirements.

Although I dislike to be reminded of why I am eligible to receive the periodical, I admit that it does contain helpful articles concerning issues of importance to people like me, like tips on how to avoid loss of brainpower and what we should have done when planning for retirement. The interviews with celebrities, like Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, are always fun. It comforts me to be reminded that celebrities also grow old, and that no amount of plastic surgery can change that.

That day the headline, “Bette Midler Shares Her Life Lessons,” got my attention. I am a sucker for other people’s life lessons. Bette told how she finally figured out that the world doesn’t always have to be about her. She also said that it is OK to let go of a dream, because sometimes dreams are just hormones, and when the hormones fade sometimes the dream doesn’t mean the same thing, so you need to get a new dream.

All of this really resonated with me (especially the part about hormones), but what really grabbed me was when she said, “You should stop beating your hair into submission, even if you don’t like it.”

I heard choirs of angels.

I sat in my chair in a trance-like state, meditating on Bette’s advice, and arrived at the conclusion that I had gained nothing by torturing my hair for all those years. In fact, it wasn’t my hair that I had tortured—it was me. My dream of having straight hair was just that—a dream, and not even a realistic one. I would get a new dream.

My husband came home from his day of photographing clouds and sat down in the chair opposite me. He looked at me and said, “You have the same stunned, dizzy look that Mr. Toad had after his famous wild ride in his new motorcar. You didn’t wreck the car, did you?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I haven’t even left home today.”

“Okay then, what’s going on?”

“I just had an epiphany, and I have a new dream.”

“Oh.” He nodded. “And your epiphany is…?”

“I’m through spending large sums of money on torturing my hair.”

His eyes lit up when I mentioned not spending large sums of money.

“And what is your new dream?”

“To embrace my hair for what it is…and to love it.”

He nodded again. “Okay, honey. I’m behind you 100 percent.”

He always says that. How lucky am I?

And so it began—reconciling with my hair. I am still working hard to let my hair be its naturally curly self. I have good days and bad days. Like an alcoholic, I take one day at a time. It’s the only way. I wake up each morning to a new day, and go through my new hair routine: wash it, towel-dry it, and scrunch it up with styling gel, then look in the mirror and say to my hair, “I love you,” and try to mean it.

A friend of mine, who majored in psychology, said it wasn’t my hair I was having difficulty loving—it was myself. That sounds so Freudian. In my opinion, the dissatisfaction with my hair was a simple matter of wanting something I couldn’t have. Who among us has not felt that way at one time or another?  The old saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” was not intended as a literal explanation of the eating habits of cows.

So I canvassed my friends. One of my short friends had always wanted to be tall, another wanted smaller feet, one of the guys wanted more hair, and my brother’s wife, who has stick-straight hair, confessed she had always wanted curly hair. Actually, since I embarked on this journey of self-acceptance, I have been amazed by the number of women with beautiful straight tresses who have confided to me that they would give their Gucci bags for curly hair. In fact, women I don’t even know have come up to me at the mall, or at the movies, and even at my nephew’s high school graduation party, and said, “I just love your hair.”

And women aren’t the only ones. Once in a while, I receive a compliment from a man (including my darling husband), although, typically, men go for that mane-of-flowing-hair look of the models in those photo-shopped magazine pictures. More often than not, it is the philosophic or artistic types who admire the natural state of my hair, although engineers are sometimes intrigued by its complexity. Intoxicated men in bars have also been known to take notice, staring at it in amazement, and then asking if they can touch it. I don’t mind—they’re usually harmless. Then, not long ago, as I was entering the public library, a man standing outside smoking a cigarette looked me over and said, “Wow, I love your hair. It’s so sexy.” I happened to know the gentleman—he’s gay.

At any rate, I’m settling into life with the hair I was born with—and we are growing more compatible every day. This new relationship is such a pleasant change from all those years of bickering. In fact, the attention my buoyant cloud of spirals sometimes attracts gives me a little thrill—not unlike those long ago days on the playground when mischievous little boys chased me, their hands reaching for my flying pennant of curly hair.

nSharyn-ellisonSharyn Ellison wrote her first story at the age of nine on a roll of paper towels. Sadly, her mother unwittingly used it to clean up a spilled pitcher of red Kool-Aid, and so it was lost to future generations of prospective fans.  She recently broke through a torturous period of writer’s block with the completion of Bad Hair, thanks to the teaching skills and encouragement of her creative writing teacher, Amy Condon. Her work has appeared in Savannah Magazine and Savannah Morning News. She lives in Savannah, Georgia with her husband, Michael, and her Westie, Wyatt. 


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