From the time I could recognize myself in the mirror, my hair has driven me crazy. Big, brown, a hodgepodge of curls, waves, frizz, ringlets, and cowlicks, like a wild horse, nothing would contain it. Barrettes popped under the strain. Rubber bands went flying, as if the strands themselves were launching pads for projectiles. Headbands sat on top of the chaos, unable or unwilling to dive closer to my scalp.
A friend said I had Jewess hair. I looked it up. I couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. I didn’t understand.
I always wanted hair that moved. I wanted hair that blew in the wind. I wanted to bend my head forward and have my hair cover my eyes. I wanted to throw my head backward and let shimmery tresses cascade down my back. I wanted soft braids, pigtails, or a cute little flip. I wanted to channel Rapunzel.
In my teens I tried ironing my hair. I used tomato soup cans for rollers. I used rattail combs, double-wide brushes, lemon juice, petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, and my uncle’s Brill Cream. I smelled like a combination salad bar and gas station.
My hair seemed to grow wider rather than longer. I tried cutting it short. The cowlicks prevailed. I tried a French twist. I used industrial sized bobby pins and a can of super hold spray to keep it in place. That worked for a while, but defeated the purpose. I wanted straight hair that moved. I wanted hair like Lady Godiva. I wanted hair like Cher.
The women’s movement and self esteem books and conversations with friends demanded a different response. I should be happy with who I am. I should revel in the countenance that stared back at me in the mirror. I must glorify my Self. I am woman.
Some deep, primal need to try something different—to not actually become someone else, just a happier me—prevailed. So when I heard about a process that would once and for all rid my hair of frizz, cowlicks, wired curls, and waves, I knew it was time for a change.
So I had my hair “treated,” sort of like therapy, but with a hairdresser instead of a psychologist. We spent hours applying creams and gels and irons and driers and possibly some Brill Cream thrown in for good measure. When I emerged from the salon I had long, straight hair. Hair that moved. Hair that I needed to push back from my face with a flick of the hand. Soft hair. The hair that I had always wanted.
I know it was a frivolous choice. There are other actions I could have accomplished with my time and money. I also know I do those kinds of things all the time and there are a few times in my life that I must do something selfishly, totally just for me.
I kept thinking if you squinted and wore sunglasses and it was midnight and I was standing blocks away, there was a small but very real possibility that you might have mistaken me for Cher. I was content.
I did it for a few years. My hair swung. It moved. I looked like the Pocahontas of my dreams. And then one day a few months ago, as we headed towards another “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” Washington summer, my hairdresser pointed out that my hair was technically not my hair. It was an impostor.
At the same time, I had been diagnosed with DCIS. I had a lumpectomy but was spared the ordeal of radiation and chemo. I would keep my hair. It was time to be me again.
In the scheme of things, I realized that the hours in the chair—straightening, tugging, building muscle mass in anyone who dried my hair straight—was less important than the near miss I had just experienced.
So now I am curly. There are days I gaze in the mirror and see the 4-year-old me. There are days I see Chico Marx. There are days I go to work channeling Mufasa.
And there are also times I look in the mirror at the scar from the lumpectomy and move my eyes upward. I see my Jewess hair. It looks somewhat like the box of lost computer and phone cords residing at the back of my closet. But not as neat.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a good thing.