When I was a little girl, my chestnut brown, wavy hair curled at the bottom like a smooth pipe of pasta. As a teenager, my curls would inflate as the humidity rose, and Jewish friends would tease that my hair was exposing my ethnicity.
Where I grew up in southern Virginia, hair stylists would shake their heads quizzically at my hybrid, curly-straight mane. Most of their clients sported Farrah Fawcett wings with silky tresses in shades of sand, lemon, or vanilla wafers. In the era before “blow out” referred to a hair appointment, my college roommate would spend hours scorching the stubborn curls out of her unruly hair with chemicals and a blow dryer.
Somehow, I escaped feeling self-conscious about my sometimes curly, often frizzy hair. Even at the onset of middle age, with extra wiry texture spurred by hormonal shifts and hair color to mask the gray, I was not particularly self-conscious about my frizzy crown.
Once during a trip to New Orleans, my hair blew up so much in volume, it cascaded horizontally. Instead of being embarrassed, I felt oddly liberated and fascinated by the boldness of my locks.
My hair experienced moods, with its own subtle reactions to temperature and shampoo ingredients. Although I live a quiet life defined by domestic responsibilities, my undisciplined hair reassured me that I had not morphed into a suburban cliché. I may drive a minivan brimming with little boys to little league games or religious school, but my wild hair reminds me that my spirit will not be contained. No one could squeeze the soul from my hair. Well, at least not until this past Wednesday.
I am all in favor of correcting physical problems and tending to issues that need to be repaired. Straightening teeth is important for a healthy bite. Contact lenses improve my vision. Colorful nail polish that embellishes fingers and toes does not compromise my feminist ideals. I never felt the need to alter my look, however, until people I cared about gently nudged me to “take care of that hair.”
After officiating at a bat mitzvah, someone I respect encouraged me to have my unruly tresses flattened out for future life cycle ceremonies. In her opinion, my frizzy hair detracted from the formality of the ritual. Every time I performed a wedding, I would hand over hard-earned dollars for the privilege of deflating my hair.
Who wants to see a halo of frizz hovering around perfectly coiffed brides and grooms under the chuppah? At school pick-up on Fridays before I would perform an upcoming weekend wedding, the other moms would gush over my temporarily sleek exterior.
Did I really look so much worse with my regular hairdo? Each time I sat in the chair at the salon having my hair flattened, flinching as the blow dryer approached the red and sensitive skin at the top of my ears, I wondered why the fashion world dictated that flat and shiny hair was equivalent to sophistication and competence.
My son just finished 7th grade, and many of his friends celebrated becoming bar and bat mitzvah this year. We attended services and parties for some of these young people, and it was clear that by not calming down my messy hair, I was not dressing up appropriately for the occasion.
I started purchasing value-packs of blowouts at the local “dry bar.” After a particularly humid week in June, one of my dearest and oldest friends and I decided to stop the madness with the blow dryers and take care of our defiant locks by submitting to a keratin treatment.
We allowed the stylist to paint our heads with harsh smelling chemicals, which he then locked into our hair cuticles with heat. Purchasing specially formulated shampoos and conditioners, we have now contributed hundreds of dollars to this hair leveling industry.
My hair is now pin straight. Viewing this as a pleasurable change in hairstyle, and nothing more, my friend is enjoying her calm and orderly summertime hair. For her, this was purely a decision based upon aesthetics.
Yet, I feel a small loss. Did I sacrifice my undulating waves and unkempt mane on the altar of current fashion? Did I permit society to flatten me? Is my new Barbie doll hair a symbol of conforming to one ideal of beauty? Have I sold myself out in order to feel like I fit in, or did I finally just get a decent haircut?
On the verge of 50, the half-century mark, there are days when I feel the 15-year-old in my heart wanting to look just right or not appear painfully out of sync with everyone else. Intellectually, we all know there is so much more to us than our graying hair, our lack of hair, our frizzy hair, or our perfectly smooth hair. I’ll have to wait to see whether or not I begin to feel like myself again with this strange, compliant mop of vertical keratin on my head.
There’s a Yiddish saying, “Az ich vel zein vi yener ver vet ich?” The gist of it means that if I’m like somebody else, who will be like me?
Whether a person is contemplating dyeing one’s hair, having plastic surgery, or changing a name, she or he knows that the essential self lies deeper than the hair shaft. In any event, I’ve just purchased a hideous pair of Birkenstocks. I think it will complement my new hairdo perfectly.