all of the selves we Have ever been
You might say we’re hair-brained.
I blame it on Ali McGraw. During our teen years my friend Kay and I wanted to look like Ali. Mostly, we wanted her long, thick, straight hair. It was difficult to tame our fine, wavy locks. The hairy romance turned into a horror story starring Dippity-Do and sleepless nights with our heads covered in hard plastic curlers the size of orange juice cans. As the years went by, we continued to be out of step with the latest hair styles, but that didn’t stop us from trying. We slowly shifted from Love Story to the Hair Wars Trilogy: stress, menopause, and aging. Dippity-Do didn’t do it for us, and our hair disappeared faster than Jedi morals. At last I could claim thinness, but it was the wrong part of me.
With the invention of the internet, Kay and I trolled like a couple of conspiracy theorists looking for ways to overturn natural selection. We both consulted dermatologists. We spent small fortunes on shampoos, chemical potions, powdery fibers, and essential oils. Nothing worked. At some point, we began to weigh the hope of voluminous heads of hair against the health risks of so many potions. We moved on to the more benign products: concealing haircuts, hairpieces, wigs, and a variety of caps.
We made frequent vows to “not worry about it,” to live in a Zen-like state of mind, to be brave and magnificent in our self-acceptance. That usually lasted until one of us heard about a new product or strategy. With the internet offering a cure a minute, our bravery and magnificence became as straggly as our graying locks.
Most recently, Kay called me with a new discovery: “apply raw eggs to your hair—it’s some kind of high protein diet for your head.” My friend continued with the internet advice: “Don’t get the shower water too hot or it will cook the egg making it difficult to remove from the hair.”
We discussed our reservations. Kay shared her fear that she would not be able to get the egg out of her hair and would awaken one morning to find mice nibbling on her head. Kay has a mouse phobia. In addition to growing more hair, her life’s work includes a daily inspection of her property for signs of mouse activity. The quality Kay desires most in a man is an exterminator’s license. And yet, she remained invested in this strategy. Ever-supportive, I said: “You go first.”
I checked in with Kay a week later. It was a hot summer day. “How’d it go with the eggs?”
“Well, it was hard to get them out. I went for a walk, and my hair puffed up like a soufflé. When a car door slammed, I ended up with egg all over my face. I am trying to salvage my sunglasses.”
There should have been a lesson in that, but I left the conversation with the idea that maybe I could tweak the recipe and achieve a better outcome. No longer one to say dye, I cannot seem to put the idea to rest. If you hear that I am being pursued by a fox, assume it’s not an extremely handsome young man.
The recovery literature states that
the first step is admitting you have
In my defense, I did not bring this problem upon myself. Really…
Age, hormones, and cancer did. The gene pool I swim in might have been a factor too. Nonetheless, I need to come clean:
I have ponytail envy. No more denial or self-deception.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Most religions consider envy to be a disastrous emotion—like Cain killing his brother Abel. Just to be clear, you have no need to be afraid--mine is a benign envy. My pain is not directed at the good fortune of young women with full heads of hair who sport bouncing and swinging tresses. Mine is not a spiteful adolescent envy. I do not wish to inflict misfortune upon ponytail-wearing women or reduce their healthy, youthful status. My envy is more the type that longs to emulate, be one of the gals, preserve an element of youth and own this symbol of energy and potential.
Whenever I see a long, full ponytail, I think of the old rock and roll classic Chantilly Lace that was first released in 1958. According to Wikipedia, Chantilly Lace was the third most played song that year. I was not yet listening to the radio in 1958, but the song is so catchy and popular that it continues to be played on rock and roll stations and has had several remakes. You might recall the words:
Chantilly lace and a pretty face
And a pony tail a-hangin down
That wiggle in the walk
And giggle in the talk
Makes the world go ‘round
The song is as lively as a long ponytail in the heat of a hundred yard dash. If you listen to the song, you will want a ponytail too.
I frequently get the Chantilly Lace earworm during my walks along the shared-use bike path. It is a time when I am thankful for the mask mandate because I can’t resist singing a few bars. This public display of my lacking vocal talent is the direct result of a young woman who passes me on my left. I know I shouldn’t blame others for my actions during recovery, but this gal is a trigger. She jogs past me like I am standing still. The runner is young and fit. Attired in tight leggings and a sports bra, phone in hand, buds in ears, her long blonde ponytail swings left then right keeping pace with her feet. Despite her speed, she is not even breathing hard. I watch her move up the path, the ponytail is like a metronome that marks her time and regulates her pulse and breath. Her movements are smooth and graceful like a beautiful ballerina. I would need a magnifying glass to find a drop of sweat on her. Perhaps the ponytail acts as a fan as well as a metronome.
I envy the youth and health and strength of ponytail-wearers. The movement and the energy reflect all of the potential within them. Somewhere along the way, from all of the dress-for-success feature articles I read, I think I gave up too soon on ponytails. Who was it that decided we get too old for ponytails? We need an investigation into this bad advice that leads to premature aging.
Now that my hair is too fine and too sparse to sport a full, swinging ponytail, I have regrets, and so I move onto steps two and three of the recovery plan. I turn it over to a higher power and thank God I survived the cancer and all of the other challenges that made my hair so fine and thin. I continue to work on steps six and seven, acceptance and humility. Eventually, I will move further down recovery road and forgive those dress-for-success gurus for their bad advice and forgive myself for rushing the process of aging back when I was in a hurry to be all grown up.
It was the 1970s.
Everyone wanted to be Ali McGraw.
Everyone also wanted a love story and to never have to say you’re sorry. But mostly, we wanted long, straight, sleek hair parted in the middle.
What was a frizzy-curly-haired teenager to do?
I lost a lot of sleep over it.
Not from existential angst, but because of my curlers. I am surprised I don’t have chronic neck pain and insomnia from the tight rollers. Sure, the curler cap helped to hold the curlers in place and catch any loose bobby pins, but it did nothing to cushion the pain even if it was a fashion statement when paired with a matching nightgown.
Folks who wanted curls or waves had it much easier. But they tended to be over 40. Those looks could easily be achieved with pin curls and some small bobby pins or maybe pink sponge rollers. Curly styles allowed for beauty sleep. Black brush rollers were another option for the curly set, but those pink picks could lead to a puncture wound if the wearer rolled over in her sleep.
For the sleek straight look, a gal had to go BIG. I am talking the biggest, hardest curlers to be found. Those “magnetic” rollers were also secured with bobby pins but bobby pins of a size to match the scale of the curlers. Some people even washed out and re-used orange juice cans as rollers. Thankfully, in a house with four curly-headed females, we had quite a collection of curlers.
We slept stiff as corpses in our rollers because it was too painful to roll over and it was critical that the hair dry fully before removing the curlers. This was the age before hand held hair dryers. The only other option was to wash our hair during the day and then set it with rollers. At that point, we had to stay home for the remainder of the day, or wrap our heads in scarves to go out of the house.
Unfortunately, despite all of the time and trouble, for those of us with curls and frizz, the set didn’t last too long. Within an hour or two of removing the rollers and styling, our hair “fell” back into its old ways. The return time was shorter in the event of rain or humidity. It was best to check the weather forecast before giving too much time to hair washing and setting.
We had basic supplies, maybe the family-size tube of Prell or some VO5. Sometimes we had Breck Shampoo and imagined ourselves as one of the “Breck Girls.” Back then a teenage girl couldn’t just run out and buy whatever products she wanted. There was a long period of rumination during which we studied the ads in magazines. This was followed by an additional period of longing and saving. Sure we tried home straightening kits too. Generally, these proved to be as much of a disaster as the later home perms did. No amount of Dippity-Do could conceal the damage.
And if a kid fried her hair, there was no emergency visit to the salon. Back in that day, a young lady might visit a salon for prom, high school graduation, or her wedding day. Otherwise, haircuts were given at home. Bangs might get a trim if we complained of poor eyesight. The rest of the head might get shaped up if we dozed off and our chewing gum fell out of our mouths and got stuck in our hair.
Later in the 1970s, hair products and shampoos proliferated as manufacturers began promoting daily hair washing. Handheld hair dryers and electric hot rollers arrived on the scene to soften the blow of so much hair washing. It was hard to get the sleek smooth look with the early handheld dryers, and there were never enough large rollers in the hot roller set. It is not a wonder my hair started falling out by the time I was 40.
But styles changed. Ali McGraw left Hollywood for New Mexico. Ryan O’Neal took up with Farrah Fawcett. Ali McGraw got old and wears her hair gray and pulled back from her face.
My hair is still curly and my head sports a gray and brown COVID-stripe. Nowhere in my home can a curler be found.
Turns out, when it comes to hair styling, I just have to say, "I'm sorry."