Friday, April 6, 2007

Hair War

My earliest memory of hating my hair — or at least feeling let down by it — was when I saw my best friend's big fat ponytail. I knew her from kindergarten through fourth grade, when, thankfully, she moved, putting me out of my misery of constantly comparing my hair to hers.

When she wore her hair in a ponytail, the diameter looked to be at least as big a bratwurst. Mine? I was lucky if my ponytail was thicker than a pretzel rod.

I have always had fine, thin, curly hair. Hers was thick, chunky, straight. She had these perfectly straight bangs that sat neatly above her eyes. That hair would haunt me for years, and those bangs, I finally stopped trying to emulate them. Bangs — straight ones at least — were not my thing. Or rather, not my hair’s thing.

I see pictures of myself now from grade school with wavy wisps you could practically see my forehead through, and wonder, “Why did I bother?” And in that same moment, I want to hug my little self and say, “Sweetheart, why do you feel so inadequate. You are beautiful just as you are.”

I still have to tell myself that.

I have come to accept my hair — better, at least — the older I’ve gotten. But that’s been a challenge. You see, as I’ve gotten older, along with my maturity and self acceptance, my hair has gotten even curlier and, detestably, frizzier. No one likes the frizzies.

No one.

So as I put hope, often fruitlessly, into products and curling irons and just the right round brush, I still resent not being able to wash my hair and just go. Out. With it wet. Oh, what freedom.

I know what you’re thinking. And sure, I could do that now. Go out with it wet. So what if my hair dries curly. Who cares? But I’d be torturously self-conscious. Almost sick-to-my-stomach self-conscious. Because I know you’d look at me funny, find me unkempt, hair askew and disorganized. I know you would.

I know it.

We live in an era where beauty is measured by media images, and perfectly managed ones at that. Apparently most American women pray at the altar of Jennifer Aniston, goddess of the flat-ironed look. I read that somewhere, that she has the most enviable hair in America. And you know what? It’s naturally curly or at least wavy. But how often have you seen it that way? Rarely. She wears it straight.

Virtually every bombshell beauty we celebrate has tame hair — Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Cindy Crawford. Sure, Farrah Fawcett was a goddess — and in her day I adored her — but even her hair was smoothed, tamed.

When was the last time you saw a corkscrew curly, frizzy-haired Nicole Kidman? Even most African American beauties — Halle Barry, Oprah, Tyra Banks — wear their hair smooth or straight. Where are the afros?

So when I see a naturally curly celebrity embracing her true hair, I have hope: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerri Russell, Julianna Margulies, Virginia Madsen, Minnie Driver. These are my peeps! Take that you stick-straight bobs.

But it’s rare. And there is a message there. No one really wants curly hair. Not like mine.

This is what I’ve come to learn:

People see straight hair as sleek, sophisticated, no nonsense. Audrey Hepburn.

Curly hair — not the big smooth rolling Miss America curls, but really corkscrew frizzy curly — equals unkempt, sloppy, wacky. Throw in some freckles and red hair and you are really in trouble. Little Orphan Annie. Bette Midler. (Even she’s gone blond and straight these days. I can’t blame her.)

It’s so much more… Acceptable?

Look at Chelsea Clinton. She was that awkward child with wild hair. (Snicker.) She had no style. Now’s she coifed. Controlled. Put together.

I’ve read that “bad hair days” for women are a more serious psychological challenge than people would guess. I could have told you that.

I remember waiting at the end our driveway for the school bus, ruing those dewy, foggy mornings as they undid all my hard work smoothing my hair just yards away in my bedroom. Just a slight bend in my bangs, an ill-placed curl, would ruin my self confidence. Why? I’d wail inside as if I’d contracted the plague. I’m better now, thankfully, but only after years of distress. A humid evening when I had a party to attend would fill me with anxiety.

Oh, I know people always give lip service to curly hair. “You’re lucky. Do you know how many people pay for hair like yours?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from hairdressers, some of whom have convinced me to let my hair dry under the sun lamp. No matter how hard I try to explain how curly it is, I usually hear: “Oh, it really is curly.”

Even friends give lip service. “I wish I had curly hair.” Liars. They don’t really want my hair. They want a tamer version of my hair. They want to go swimming and sit on the beach while their hair dries into nice acceptable waves.

I want that too.

I have a friend who, whenever I complain of frizz, likes to pipe out: “Product.” I want to punch this friend.

God I hate that word. As if without “product” I’m worthless. No good. That’s like saying you have to wear makeup to be beautiful. I like makeup, I like product. But I do not want to be dependent on it. And, because I have the unruly combination of very curly and very fine hair, too much “product” weighs it down. Even with product, if I let it go naturally, it’s a fluffy mass that overtakes my head with bangs — really layers I wear off to the sides of my face — that shoot up like Kramer’s from Seinfeld. Gah!

I think I have hair only a mother could love, at least in its natural state. And she’s seen it really curly. I’m amazed how much she loves it.

I think she’s insane.

In fact, outside of my immediate family and my husband, I don’t think anyone has seen my hair totally air-dried. This is how vain and insecure I am. For this I am a little embarrassed.

Even with my husband, it took years before he saw it au natural. I probably allowed it in an effort to challenge his love for me. As if to say: Take a good look because this is me. Go ahead: Laugh. Gasp. It’ll just confirm everything I have felt all my life. I will be humiliated. I will be rejected. I will be laughed at. Openly. I knew it. Damn it. Damn you all.

Instead, he acted nonchalant. It was like I was pointing out an ulcerating boil on my face and all he saw was a tiny red bump. He even said: “It’s cute.”

I still think he’s crazy.

Unconditional love. That’s it. He and my mom. I’ll just never believe it.

And my poor mother. I’m sure she withstood more whining than she cared to hear. For once, just once, I wanted to know what really thick, smooth hair was like. So, somehow, I convinced her to buy me a wig when I was about 10. This was not some toy wig, some kid wig, some Halloween costume wig. This was the real thing. It was auburn, probably human hair, and came down to little below my shoulders. I even kept it on a Styrofoam wig head stand that I drew a face on.

I don’t think it gave me what I was looking for. Somehow I thought this would make me feel better. But once I had it the thrill was gone. I’d put in on, realize I wasn’t going to wear it out, and still have to deal with my hair.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m lucky to have the hair I have. I’ve seen people with far less hair than me and hair that’s far more unruly. Few people would realize how much I fret about my hair. It’s not worth it. I’m slowly understanding that.

I’ve even had my good share of compliments. Genuine compliments. I have good hair days. Even in high school, when I wore my hair blown out with smooth curls, one friend, with super straight, incredibly flat hair, always loved my hair, the body it had. Of course, I told myself, “Yeah, but she doesn’t know I’m a humid rainstorm away from total disaster.”

I do find ways to put it down no matter what. Last year at a friend’s grandmother’s funeral, one of the grandchildren, a pretty and precocious child of about 10, called my hair “pretty. It’s fluffy.” I felt immediately self-conscious, knowing that fluffy is really just-this-side-of-becoming-frizzy.

Actually, some days I do think I have pretty hair. I’ve learned to style it, and use good products. But mostly what’s changed is my attitude. And it’s not simply accepting my hair. It’s more than that. I actually see myself more like my mother probably does. I’m not quite there, not by a long shot, but I’m getting there.

I’ve even seen photos of myself when I know I was agonizing over my hair. And I think, “You look fine.” Sometimes, even: “You’re hair looks pretty.”

And I wonder about all the time I’ve spent crucifying my hair — myself — when I could have been more loving to myself and putting my energy somewhere more productive.

I look back now on how I thought all my problems would be gone when my best friend's hair moved away — how I’d hoped the self-inflicted mockery of my hair, the hair that didn’t measure up, would leave with her, too.

Of course, it didn't. Over the years there were more girls with "better" hair. More than I’d ever have imagined back then.

But of course there would be. Someone always has nicer, longer, straighter, prettier hair.

It took me a long time to figure that out. And to figure out that no matter what, I would forever have this hair. And it was a waste of my precious time to hate it, to wish it was different.

I still have to remind myself of this. But I sure have more self-acceptance.

Interestingly, I’ve been chatting with some elementary school classmates since they contacted me about a reunion. My old best friend's name came up. They think they found her.

Great, I half-thought. I guess I’ll have to see if that old comparison still stacks up.

But I don’t think so. I’ve got a lot more going on now than just my hair.

And the truth is, I always did.

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