A few days ago, whereshappy posted about getting a horribly disappointing perm when she was eleven years old. That post made me laugh and it made me sad. I remember well how disappointed I was with a couple of perms I had when I was kid. I went in envisioning lovely big loose curls and I ended up looking like a poodle. But my mom and aunt (who performed the act) were so pleased with the results that I pretended I was delighted, although inside I felt uglier and more loserly than ever.
When that first perm faded away, my mom took me back for another one. I absolutely put my foot down this time and told them I didn’t want a full head of tiny curls, but rather I wanted nice wavy curls at the bottom. I imagined my hair flowing in casual curls to my shoulders (never mind that my hair wasn’t even shoulder-length at the time). What happened? My auntie curled the bottom third of my hair—all the way around my head—in the same tight, tight little poodle curls, so it looked like I was wearing a tight beanie with the curls exploding out from it like a chrysanthemum.
I know now (and really, I sorta knew than) that it was just hair. But adolescence is already so hard. Weird hair when you’re an adolescent is one of so many stressful things to deal with, like pimples and periods and grandpa’s wandering hands and French grammar (I still flinch when I come across Le Bescherelle on my bookshelf) and self-harm and an irritating younger brother. I had no sense of perspective yet in adolescence (was that just me? Or is it a legit developmental thing?) and so every problem seemed of equal magnitude: my brother using my hairspray was as enraging as the English teacher who kept trying to look down my shirt. But the thing is, at least my hair was something I could try to control.
Going for that first perm was a really exciting day for me, because until then, my hair experiences had all been so frustrating and disappointing. I had always wanted long hair, for as long as I could remember. And by “long,” I just meant around my shoulders, not some Crystal Gayle ridiculousness. I’m not sure why I wanted long hair. My mom had super long hair when I was a kid, long enough to sit on, but I don’t remember wanting long hair in order to be like her. I just wanted it. But whenever my stepmom took me to get a haircut, I ended up with what I felt was a boy’s haircut. My stepmom loved it: it was short and neat and easy to wash and groom, and I looked like a decent, respectable, well-cared-for child (the opposite, she always managed to imply, of what I would look like if my grooming and appearance were left solely to my mother). But I was miserable every fucking time. I would tell the hairdresser, Gisella, exactly what I wanted, and she would assure me in her thick German accent that she would make me look pretty (always implying that pretty was something that took a lot of work), but she would cut my hair to my stepmom’s specifications Every. Single. Time. And when I tried very carefully and nervously to explain to my stepmom that I would prefer a different haircut, she dismissed me: “No, you don’t want that. Why would you want THAT? That’s not what you want.”
So having my mom take me to get my hair done, being asked what I wanted, and embarking on the perm adventure was so exciting! They do say the higher you fly, the harder you fall. And boy did I fall. And because I was the kind of kid who had learned very early and very well that the way to be loved and praised was to never complain and always be grateful, I did not complain and I faked gratitude for all I was worth.
When I was in high school, I got the third (and last) of my poodle perms, but this time I got it done my way. In keeping with the times (the neon 80s), I got one of those asymmetrical haircuts: very short at the back and one side, and longer—with those tight poodle curls—on the top and the other side. It didn’t stop the mean girls at school from pointing and laughing, but I felt pretty good about having truly chosen (and received!) my own haircut for the first time ever.
Very shortly after that (at 17), I started going grey and I started letting my hair grow out. My mom would urge me and my stepmom would shame me to get me to do something about my hair. But by that time, I was actually very scared of having my hair cut. After so many years of having my wishes disrespected, of having the will of others imposed upon my body, of having my own desire for physical autonomy mocked, denied, or simply ignored or unheard, I could not bear to run the risk of re-living those experiences. Also, I had strongly internalised that caring about my hair was a luxury, a vanity, and quite frankly a ridiculous waste of time, so I was embarrassed that I cared so much about it—and at the same time, I neglected it. Nobody ever taught me how to take care of it properly, and weirdly, I have still never spent the time and energy to learn that for myself.
As my hair grew longer and slowly greyer, it turned out that I had thick and unruly curly hair. It is resistant to controlling or restraining products. It can be quite dry and frizzy, and the ends split a lot (and I don’t spend time trying to take care of it to prevent these things). For over a decade, I didn’t get it professionally cut, but when it got too straggly at the ends, I had my brother or my partner or my mom (under very strict instructions) cut an inch off the bottom all the way around, with whatever scissors were at hand.
In my early thirties, I became hyperthyroid for the first time, and by the time I was diagnosed and it was under control, over half my hair had fallen out. It was so thin and stringy. I was living in the Netherlands at the time, and my brother was visiting. He cut my hair for me, just below my ears. I was so sad to see my hair—however thin and streaked with grey—fall to the floor, like pieces of me were being cut off.
Shortly after I moved back to Canada, I was in a car with a few new friends (new friends! Yay!) who were complaining about their various perceived physical shortcomings. I was silent in great part because those aren’t conversations I care to encourage (we already hate our bodies so much; why dwell on it?) but when asked directly what I would change about my body, I reluctantly said “Welllllll… I guess I wish I had better hair.” A collective gasp went up from the rest of the group, and they all (even the driver) turned to stare at me. It was the first time I realised some other people actually liked (or even envied!) my hair.
A year and a half ago, the hyperthyroidism flared up again and I lost more hair. Again, it has not all grown back. When it is loose, it’s not even noticeable, because curls are very forgiving. And since I don’t like my hair to be tied up, it’s pretty much always loose.
I’m really going to miss my hair if I ever lose it completely. I’m trying to enjoy it now by dying it purple, but I still don’t get it cut. I don’t use product. My entire hair care routine is this: I wash it with shampoo every three or four or five days (and that’s the only time I brush it: before an actual shampooing). I wet it every day in the shower, and then comb a bit of conditioner through it (the kind you’re supposed to rinse out, but I don’t rinse it) and part it wherever I feel like parting it for that day. And when it’s partially dry, if I remember, I’ll fluff it up a bit. I haven’t owned a hair dryer since 1997. I haven’t bought product other than shampoo and conditioner for over a decade (except for a viciously expensive vial of Moroccan oil that I used—you guessed it—once). I have a handful of cheap plastic hair clips I use once in a while, reluctantly, if I really need to keep my hair back a bit.
I’m pretty sensitive about people (usually women) commenting about my hair in a judgy way. Someone who suggests that I try X with my hair is generally met with hostility. And anyone who looks at my hair speculatively and says “Why don’t you get rid of the grey?” is likely to be met with “Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?”
What I like about my hair is that it is purple and grey.
What I like about my hair is that it is curly and messy.
What I like about my hair is that it is easy (comb when wet and then go!).
What I like about my hair is that it is long (enough).
What I like about my hair is that I like it.
What I don’t like about my hair—and anyone’s hair—is how much hair matters. I don’t like looking back and wondering how much my desire for long hair with a gentle wave in it, and my horror at the tight little curls, was informed by what I had absorbed about race from my family, particularly my paternal grandfather, for whom I would never be white enough (my mom’s family comes from the south of France, and people there, according to him, aren’t really white people, not like the northern Europeans, doncha know).
I don’t like how much I cared back than about how I looked to others, and how contradictory the expectations were from various family members, from media, and from my own self. I don’t like that it took me so long to realise that this personal hair thing is actually political, not a series of individual choices made in a contextless vacuum. I don’t like that the pressure to conform can lead us to make choices we don’t really want. I don’t like that a lot of parents conflate “what others think of their kid’s appearance” with “whether or not they are good parents.” I don’t like how people get so exercised about hair, our own and that of others.
It’s just hair. It’ll grow out or fall out, one or the other. What others do with theirs is none of our business, and what we do with our own should be purely fun and for our own pleasure.
Of course, then there’s the question of how we come to know what is fun or pleasing in our hair styles or colours or accessories… How can we ever know if we’re pleasing ourselves and how much of that is the belief that others will like it, too? And how much does that matter and how do we develop our desires and preferences and is there such a thing, really, as purely internal pleasure in one’s appearance or is it always informed by the gaze of others? But that’s a post for another day. Because today is hair-washing day so I have to go find my brush.
(Edited around 2100hrs on Oct 17 to add the picture.)