There are so many sagas I could tell you about me and my hair. The stories could probably fill a whole book. I could call it “The Hair Monologues.” Suffice it to say my relationship with my hair has been a huge factor in my life.
It started with the basic premise, around 13, that I simply had the wrong hair. My hair was naturally curly and brown. Barbie’s hair was blonde and straight. All of the models featured in the magazines had straight hair, and almost every issue offered advice on how curly-haired girls could straighten theirs. Almost all of my friends had straight hair too. Their hair was neat, smooth, and shiny, and always could be counted on to look the same. My hair was wild, dull, and shapeless and vulnerable to environmental factors, like humidity or rain, which could, without warning, cause my hair to frizz up within seconds of impact. It was, so it seemed, stressful hair to have.
So, I began blow-drying it. It required quite a bit of time, at least 20 minutes every day. It would sometimes get so hot in my bathroom that I would often move my whole blow-drying operation in front of the air conditioner, sitting on the floor peering into a compact mirror.
And then there was the weather-related stress. During high school, at the height of social pressures, and just when I began dating boys, if I had plans to go out, I would religiously check the weather hotline in the days prior to the event and often hourly on the day of. Anything over about 75% humidity, or, even worse, rain, meant my night was ruined. My hair would frizz – the gig would be up. All of my hard blow-drying work would be zapped within seconds into one giant frizz ball, much like Cinderella poofed back into rags at the ball, and I would be revealed as the straight hair imposter I was. Back then, and I kid you not, the weather had an enormous impact on my psyche and well-being – it would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic looking back. I can actually remember several instances when I actually made up an excuse and cancelled my plans because it was just too humid out there for me and my hair to venture out.
I can remember many times going to the Caribbean with my family, and how in the relentless heat and humidity, my hair was destined to be a curly, frizz ball at all times. I would try vainly to slick it back in a ponytail so my curly hair wouldn’t be so obvious, or even give off the impression that it would be straight if I just let it down. I always felt so ugly when my hair wasn’t its low humidity, straight-pretending self.
And then there were the products. I tried them all. Every new straightening shampoo, gel, mousse, conditioner – if it said it helped straighten hair, I had to buy it. I was on a romantic quest to find the absolutely perfect hair product – the magic tonic that was finally going to transform my hair. Hundreds, if not thousands of my consumer dollars have gone towards hair products.
One day, in about 10th grade, my friend Amy and I decided to dye our hair blonde. I would have to describe the color as “banana” blonde, with some over-the-counter Clairol product. From then on, I was a blonde. I was finally Barbie with my straight blonde hair. But unlike Barbie, it required a lot of work.
Note: it was around this time that for no apparent reason, I decided to call myself “Chris.” I had always hated my name – Marianne – it sounded so un-cool, so dorky, reminded everyone of Maryanne on Gilligan’s Island. Don’t ask me why I chose “Chris” – perhaps it had something to do with Cheryl Ladd’s character on Charlie’s Angels, and I guess it sounded to me like the hip girl with straight blonde hair I was desperately trying to become. I had everybody at my school calling me Chris for years. My parents weren’t too thrilled about this as you might imagine. I eventually gave it up, but my name change is immortalized in one of my high school yearbooks in a caption under my picture where it states, “Chris Schnall.” I had been victorious in convincing everybody, including myself, that I was someone else.
But, of course, back to my hair. All that blow-drying continued right through college and beyond, until I was 30 years old. That’s about 17 years of blow-drying time logged in that we’re talking about. I just calculated it at half an hour a day for 17 years, and it came to approximately 2856 hours of my life spent blow-drying.
My hair awakening started when I became pregnant with my first child. The first shift was when I decided to stop dyeing my hair blonde, because even though my hairdresser swore it was safe, my new maternal instinct just didn’t like the thought of dousing my head with toxic, smelly chemicals when I was growing a baby inside me. Growing my hair out and gaining weight while pregnant was my first body revolution. And I had an excuse back then for not looking my best since I was pregnant. But I was actually happy to get back to my own light brown color. For the first time in my life suddenly everyone was telling me how much I looked like my mother.
What happened after that was that once my baby was born, it got harder and harder to find the time or energy to blow-dry my hair, to keep up the hair charade, which suddenly didn’t even seem so important. And so I just stopped. Cold turkey – just like that. It was very freeing – I gained a half an hour a day, and had one less thing to do, a welcome development in the chaos of a newborn baby. However, I still didn’t like my hair, and thus began another raid at the drugstore of every curly hair product. Now my goal was to have shiny, springy, frizzless ringlets à la Nicole Kidman (when she wasn’t straightening hers). I was the hair product industry’s best customer – my graveyard of hair products could fill up this whole room.
What has happened since then has been a subtle evolution, but I have grown to accept my hair, to even love my hair. I have even found the perfect hair products, the Alterna line, which happens to made from hempseed. I must be fully stocked at all times. This doesn’t mean that I always think my hair looks great – it has its good and bad days – but thank god I don’t have my whole well-being wrapped around it anymore. Rainy or humid weather doesn’t even faze me. Sure, my hair might get a little frizzy but we’ll all live through it. What this all represents to me is about so much more than my hair – it is about acceptance of myself, who I am. I look in the mirror now and see me – me and my hair – the way God created me, the divine artwork that I am, that we all are, with all our unique qualities and features. What I am working on grooming now, on making smooth and shiny, is on my inside. Hokey, but true.
I have two daughters who are beautiful – my 5 ½ year old has wavy brown hair and my 2 ½ year old has straight blonde hair – go figure. Yes, I gave in to the Barbie dolls, in fact my older daughter has lots of them, but she has lots of other types of dolls too, so they are just part of the population. She gets into very creative, imaginative play with her dolls, which appears healthy enough at this point. But you can be sure I am on alert, on the lookout, for any emerging hair neurosis. And I will also be on the lookout for eating disorders, too. I have unfortunately have also had various manifestations of eating disorders over my lifetime (in high school one of my best friends was anorexic, another bulimic), which I have only recently overcome. How unfortunate that we women spend so much time and energy fixated on how we look. Many of us have had times in our lives where we stepped over the line from just wanting to look good to downright obsession. Hopefully we can be conscious enough to catch ourselves, stop ourselves. Value ourselves. Love ourselves.
Meanwhile, my hair isn’t such a big part of my story anymore. It is now, just that, my hair. When I get compliments from people with straight hair about how lucky I am to have curly hair, I have to laugh and think, “If you only knew.” In fact, I was so convincing with straight hair that I have actually had people who knew me back then ask me if I got a perm.
One more story – for much of my life, my hair concerns had prevented me from swimming underwater, even on the hottest of summer days. However, this past summer, on my birthday, I had promised my older daughter that I would jump off the diving board at the pool – something I have no recollection of every doing ever before. I did a “pencil” – just jumped straight down with my arms closely at my sides. It was as if in slow motion, like a baptism, sinking down into the cold, clear water. It felt wonderful, and symbolized a sort of rebirth. An hour or so later, while we were still at the pool, we suddenly lost power, as did much of the East Coast – this was August 14th when the blackout occurred. I hope my hair cataclysm didn’t have anything to do with it.
Anyway, the moral of the story, if any good or wisdom can be gleaned from this hair opera, are the lessons contained in those 2856 wasted hours of my life – which doesn’t even count all the time spent calling the weather, worrying about my hair, and buying hair products. The lesson is obvious, cliché, but bears repeating – to accept yourself for who you are, to love your body, and to teach your daughters to do the same. It is still perfectly fine to have fun dressing up, looking good, tending to our looks, just as long as we don’t let it define us. We are so much more than that. Our power, our genuine beauty, lies within.