“You have to suffer to be beautiful,” was drilled into my head as a child. I wouldn’t have minded the suffering, if the beauty was forthcoming.
When I was little, every spring I got a haircut and perm. The old permanents burned like Mount Saint Helen, though no one believed my discomfort. Now there are gentle concoctions for delicate scalps to prevent burned skin. I no longer have to look like a nuclear fallout victim in exchange for curls.
I was a long, skinny kid – all elbows and knees. I resembled a Q-tip with my new hairdo, until I moved. Then I changed to a walking stick with a dandelion stuck to her head.
I never had much luck with hairdressers. In high school I begged, borrowed and babysat to earn enough money to get my hair done for the prom. I browsed through racks and racks of magazines with glamorous models (whose hair was teased, braided, sculptured, curled, coiled and bobbed) to find just the right style. Triumphantly, I marched to the hairdresser’s with my clipping in hand. She’d nodded and said, “Yes, I could do something close to that.” We differed on the meaning of close.
I sat patiently through the procedure.
Washing: whereupon I arched my neck backward in a position guaranteed to make an executioner drool and me walk like Igor for at least a week.
Towel drying: here the hairdresser aired her bottled frustrations by rattling my brains.
Combing: due to the excellent towel drying, my hair was now knotted like the Griswold strings of Christmas lights. Periodically, the hairdresser paused to clean the clumps of yanked hair from her comb and occasionally empty the overflowing trash.
Wrapping: the hairdresser used little pricks to anchor the rod to my scalp, stopping just short of driving the plastic sticks into my skull, not that I could tell the difference. Here she gave a Cruella DeVille smile asked, “Comfortable?” As comfortable as a frog mating with a hedgehog.
Drying: I was parked under a loud whirling dome in search of stacks of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Love Story, and Glamour, all of which were filled with teenage models wearing perfect hair. They subdued me into submission even when dehydration caused my nails to split and my tongue to curl up like a taco chip.
Styling: Unlike today’s stylist, who generally works with the patron and uses a curling iron, the hairdresser unrolled all the curlers and stared at the result like a village witch reading the tossed bones. She back combed and pinned and sprayed until she created a hairdo suitable for a woman 20 years my elder who wore red nail polish and tight fake leopard pants. When I protested, she announced, “Your hair’s too (choose one) fine/long/short/straight for the style you picked. This is beautiful.” It must have been, I certainly suffered for it.
No matter what style I brought in, I always left with the same style – a combination of bouffant and pinned, stiff waves which reminded me of the bride of Frankenstein. I rushed home, yanked out all the pins, cried a great deal, and telephoned my sister to fix my hair or I would stretch out on the tracks waiting for the next train through town.
My sister used to help me color my hair as well. My father refused to allow bleach, so our options were limited. We learned that brown hair with auburn tints cannot be dyed blonde without bleaching first. Mix these colors and you get a particularly this vivid shade of Halloween orange.
Eventually, the hair gods smiled on me. I finally have the hairdresser I can trust. My sister learned all about color mixing and the tricks of the trade and opened her own shop. Now I can go anytime, ask her to do what I want, and emerge with a style recognizably resembling the picture. It’s a bit of a hassle though, especially in winter. Her shop is 70 km from where I live. Oh well, I couldn’t expect to be beautiful if I didn’t suffer at least a little.
September 1, 1991.
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