A Brief History of Bad Hair (Part One)

Bangs: I had long straight hair and heavy blunt cut bangs for most of my early childhood. My own mother was entirely responsible She was a competent amateur hairdresser, (also tending to my father’s hair, my sister’s hair and sometimes, between trips to the actual salon, her own). Photographic evidence shows that Mom was pretty handy with a straight line, even if my own hair—straight, fine, prone to ghastly tangles and gravity defying cowlicks—failed to live up to her vision a solid 90% of the time. Part of the problem was that I hated brushing my hair. Another part of the problem was that I hated having my hair blown dry, which my mother insisted on, citing a consistently high threat of incipient, possibly fatal pneumonia in every season save the sultriest months of summer. The combination of de-tangling and blow-drying that followed every hair-wash as a child was a real emotional experience for everyone involved. I frequently cried and screamed. Mom would try to coax me into compliance with animated singalongs to Tin Pan Alley standards, classic Broadway showtunes and lightweight 60s folk, hence I learned to harmonize over the whine of an ancient Conair hairdryer as we belted out duets in the upstairs bathroom. The night would usually end with me relieved the torture was finally over and Mom grumbling about how it would be infinitely easier if I just had short hair. I found this notion even more intolerable than hair-drying. Not because I was opposed to short haired women—many of my then-heroes had short hair (Julie Andrews, QEII, my Nana, Aretha Franklin and at times, Elizabeth Taylor) –but because I worried any step down that androgyny road prior to puberty might end with me accidentally and quite literally turning into a boy. This was a fate too tragic and ghastly to even countenance. Boys struck me as inherently weak creatures with narrow-minded views about things like tulle and sparkles, and to be on the safe side even with long hair, I avoided wearing trousers until I was about eight years old, at which point I figured the pale pink pink pleated pin-striped jeans/legwarmers combo required to stay on-trend in the third grade would not force me to stop loving old Cary Grant movies and start caring about sports, cars or guns instead.

Braids: There was a girl in my ballet class with cornrows. I idolized her. I used to watch her dance around the classroom, braids flying, beads clacking, and think she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I came home demanding similar braids. My mother insisted my hair wouldn’t do that, in a veiled reference to race, and from my clear perspective, an obvious falsehood. In the late 70s and early 80s, lots of different kinds of people had cornrows. Bo Derek! My hippie ballet teacher for a minute! Everyone cool on Soul Train! I’d already been disappointed to learn that it would be hard, if not impossible to coax my hair into a perfect afro, like mid 70s Diana Ross or Roberta Flack or any halfway fashionable disco diva. It seemed obvious to me then that I if would spend many evenings of my adult life as I intended–twirling the night away on some illuminated dance floor in strappy gold sandals and some kind of sparkly chiffon jumpsuit situation surrounded by beautiful weirdos and glitter–long hair and blunt cut bangs were not going to cut it, nor were the pinafores, smocked dresses and (god forbid) monogrammed sweaters and the actual kilt(!) my horrifyingly out of touch mother forced me into me into. Not a single, solitary sequin among them. Not even the slightest hint of lamé.

In Kindergarten, I got to be friends with LaShawna, who had as much trouble keeping still during naptime as I did. She had magnificent braids, that looked almost like a tiara, glittering with brilliant, gem-cut beds on the ends of her figure-eight-shaped hair ties. I spent hours sitting on the bathroom counter trying in vain to make my hair do what LaShawna’s did.  My mother came home and found me sobbing and once she calmed me down long enough to figure out what was going on tried to explain to me again that your hair won’t do that, honey. Still, I balked.  The next day I put my mat beside LaShawna’s during naptime. I tried to explain the situation to her. Is it possible that my hair will never be like yours? She didn’t know, but she told me she’d told her Mom she wanted hair kind  like mine. Long. Straight. With bangs. But, you know . . .blonde.  And her mom had told her the same thing mine had your hair just won’t do that, honey. I was indignant. It’s not fair, I said. It’s really not fair, she said. Then we both got in trouble for talking during naptime.

Comb-Over: Early in my third grade year, I told my mother I was through with bangs. She sighed and helped me fasten two awkward barrettes on each side of my that would pretty much stay there like two plastic tortoiseshell sentinels guarding what I would soon come to believe was a dangerously oversized, widow’s-peaked, zit-prone forehead for about a year. I also submitted to a haircut, the shortest I’d ever had, that left me with what the girls now refer to as a shoulder-grazing “lob.” I’d recently read some novel—maybe “Little Women”—about how some girl had cut her hair and it had grown back thick and lustrous. I believed mine would end up looking like a cross between Kerri Green’s in “The Goonies,” and J. W. Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shallott,” you know all lush and curly and rich auburn, instead of stringy and flat and mousy. I believed in transformation. I’d been raised by a mother who read me stories from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which she said wasn’t real but sounded at least as credible as what I could be bothered to work out about Christianity.[1] I knew I might be at risk of getting turned into a spider or a tree or but it was also true that I might become or a goddess or a constellation of a lithe, impossibly gorgeous, tanned (it was the 80s) teenager who would  arrive at prom in a rose dress with chiffon panels like rose petals, with my Pre-Raphaelite hair floating around me like a fiery veil. As it happened, transformation was real, to a point.  My bangs grew out and I transformed into a fat pre-teen.

Short Hair (Vol. 1): I became weirdly obsessed with “The Legend of Billie Jean,” a b-movie about sexual harassment and class and getting ripped off on scooter repair featuring Christian Slater, Lisa Simpson, an earworm of a Pat Benatar song, and a pixie cut. Around the same period of time, Madonna and a bunch of the cool girls in my class got these feathery short haircuts that could were somewhere between Princess Di and Alex P. Keaton. I couldn’t decide if I wanted that haircut or not. For one thing, I couldn’t tell cool girls even liked me enough that they might have it in them to like me better with short hair. And what would this do to my burgeoning (Community and children’s theatre) acting career? Best case would be to luck into a role that forced the issue. Like getting the lead in “Peter Pan” or like Alyssa, my cast-mate from from “Annie” who played young Patrick in “Mame” because boys were so unimaginably dull they couldn’t even be bothered to put aside soccer practice for long enough to audition for the theatre, the greatest thing in the whole world. What poor deprived idiots! What fools to never know the thrill of performance, the transcendence of applause, the glory of doing the grapevine beside the pancake-wearing prosecutor who would one day take Jim Bakker to trial! I never got one of those roles. Instead, I hemmed and hawed until my Mom cut my hair pretty short one night after dinner. It was not her finest work, nor, by a considerable margin, a flattering haircut. A couple of days after I got it, we ended up at Showbiz Pizza, where I was already out of sorts because I was informed that I was too big for the ball tank. My mother tried to make me feel better about it, that ball tank is for little kids, you’re just too grown up. But I suspected the real deal was that I was just too big, too tall, too fat and didn’t my jeans feel too tight and didn’t everybody look at me with pity and disgust when I asked if I could have another piece of pizza. At ten years old, I was just beginning to feel ashamed for taking up space—a rite of passage for most all girls, especially the not-pretty ones. So instead I sulked and played Skee-ball. I took my tickets to the prize booth. The visor-ed teenager behind the counter gave me a long look, “What can I get you, sir?” he asked. Horrified, I dropped my tickets and ran off to hide in the women’s bathroom until my mother promised that we could go home.

Perms: Years ago, I was showing a picture of myself at my dead-level worst—early seventh grade, braces, baby fat, zits, short sleeved mock turtleneck with shoulder pads[2], aged twelve in 1988 in all of its most horrific excess—to a friend I thought might find it funny. “Oh God,” she said, “You had Jersey hair! You had like total Jersey hair.” I did, though at that point I don’t think I’d even been anywhere in actual New Jersey (though my mother did have an intense fling with several Bruce Springsteen albums for a while in the 80s, which may have imbued the house with a kind of gasoline-scented ennui and general lingering Jersey-ness). I don’t know who exactly is to blame for popularizing the spiral perm and its accompanying mall claw and frankly, I’m a little disappointed that in the decades since we haven’t delivered this monster to justice. I guess I should be thankful that in all the retro love for the 80s hasn’t sparked a desire to bring back big hair.

What I can tell you is that everything and everyone I ever wanted to be had big hair. My grandmother, Nana, was the first to talk me into what she called “a permanent wave” when I went to spent June with her in Virginia when I was about eleven. I went to a fancy salon with lots of black and white  tile and neon pink signs and stylists with new wave haircuts  (it  was in the new mall–the one with the Benetton in it–so you knew it was cool) and let this chain-smoking stiletto heeled woman named Crystal, who told me  she’d recently left her husband because he visited a hooker (a mostly new concept[3] for me) as she twisted my hair into tight rollers, doused it with urine-scented chemicals and shoved me under a hot space helmet for a couple of hours until everything felt brittle and crispy. Once the curlers were removed, my hair (chin length, roughly, grown out from its brief flirtation with non-glamorous androgyny) resembled a swiggly triangle,  teased with a hair pick and shellacked into place with a heroic amount of some overpriced, aspirational Aqua-Net clone.

I didn’t look like romantic riot of gorgeous curls I’d always dreamed of, but it did look just about as willfully shitty as everyone else with a shitty perm at the time. And as this included most of the popular girls in my class, I was like, sure, this crispy squiggle horror with scorched bangs is just the kind of quotidian horror that might convince the popular kids to like me.  

I spent the next three years going for every-six month chemical ordeals at a series of increasingly disreputable salons (none even approaching the pink and black grandeur of the original)  getting increasingly baroque versions of the same deep-fried, dippity doo’ed spiral perm, with increasingly deleterious effect to both my hair quality and social life. Both were failing miserably. I remember sometime around Christmas of my seventh grade, Mom dropping me off at a place with “Beauty” (unironic) in the name that was  located in a corrugated metal shopping center beside an auto-parts store and a video arcade so famously shady I long believed “Playing Galaga” was a universal euphemism for “buying a dime bag from some dude named Randy looked sort of like Axl Rose if Axl Rose were near-sighted and maybe sixty pounds heavier and had a brother in prison for animal hoarding.”  I endured a round of literal barking from the Casanovas  smoking behind the arcade when I exited my Mom’s car. I entered the salon through a curtain of beads, dropped my things off in a room full of wicker thrones and tanning booths and let a middle -aged  woman with an accent like white lightning and blonde hair teased into the unexpected meeting place between Monument Valley and Probable Victim of the Reign of Terror give me my last ever perm. I didn’t know it was my last ever perm then, though I perhaps intuited it. The 80s were winding down. There was literally nothing left to pleat, no shoulder unpadded, no sock unslouched, no poor person yet to demonize. And thus I started the second half of seventh grade with a tsunami of  a bang that sat over my forehead like a giant flower or a cyclops eye. To maintain it required early rising and spending the gray dawn coaxing it back into shape with hairspray and a curling iron, which regularly burned slug-shaped blisters onto my zitty forehead. After a while, I realized that if I did not curl the bang into its intended shape, I could completely hide my scarred and brutalized forehead from the world, thus I shaved about half an hour off my morning routine and spent the rest of the year slinking  around hoping to disappear entirely.

By the time I turned thirteen a few months later, I’d long accepted out that I would never be the prettiest girl in the room, that I would, with alarming frequency, end up maybe the opposite. I’d mostly stopped feeling relentlessly bad about it.[4] As my perm grew out from brittle and cracked and tightly curled to just brittle and cracked and sort of frizzy, I spent a lot of time exploring the fascinating world of not fitting in alongside this nanny my mother had hired to drive us around in the afternoons.  She was maybe twenty years old and inhabited that musky velvet cross-section of Goth, Punk and hippie that ceased to exist in the civilized world after the mid-90s (though persists to this day in my hometown). She had a nose ring and this rambling old Arts & Crafts rental house with a vast living room furnished with only a shiny green electric guitar, a stereo, a Pee Wee Herman doll and a giant old clawfoot tub spray painted silver and filled to capacity with black balloons. Sometimes the nanny would come over when I faked a cold to get out of school and drove me around in her incense-scented burnt orange Pontiac full of shredded tutus and actual doll parts and Siouxsie and the Banshees tapes. We went to thrift stores and the foam and fabric outlet and  bought black lace by the pound. She introduced me to her friends who definitely looked about 5000x cooler than anyone at Middle School and not a single one of them had a spiral perm. Eventually she was fired for the perfectly sound reason of colluding with me in my plans to skip school. My mother and sister viewed her dismissal as a good riddance/bad rubbish and to this day, collectively roll their eyes when I bring her up (“she was (pause of polite distaste) very weird”). I always felt guilty for getting her in trouble (it was my idea, not hers, to repeatedly low-tech Ferris Bueller my way out of the 7th grade), because she was literally the only person who believed me when I told her that I thought middle school was killing me. She tolerated what must have been an exhaustive level or neediness and desperate attention-grabbing from an obnoxious twelve year old she was getting paid slightly better than minimum wage to hang out with. I credit her with reminding me  me that there were , quite simply, other, equally valid, ways to be than those discussed around my dinner table or in the middle school lunchroom. And thank god for that because I was never very good at following the rules and I’m pretty sure another perm would have caused all my hair to fall out.

[1] A snake invented apples. Sex and Murder.  Moses was put in a shopping cart and floated down the Nile where he was adopted by mummies. Sex and Murder.  Mary had a thing with an Angel that might have been God then Jesus! Who was killed by an airline pilot and then rose again to visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Somewhere in there Noah went on a zoo cruise. A whale named Jonah ate a lion named Daniel who taught him important lessons about sharing and David traded his mother’s cow for beans and slayed the giant and married Bathtub. Then, Esther! Wait, where is Esther? She’s my favorite because she’s both a princess and an excellent synchronized swimmer There’s a swimming number, right?  And the shepherd saw the Christmas star that probably wasn’t a plane or a satellite because they didn’t have those then, but might have been Santa’s sleigh! And according to some of my friends, if you skip the New Testament entirely you can have an additional seven days of presents at Christmas and a Bar Mitzvah with a reggae band , but you maybe don’t  get to go to heaven, according to some other friends Not 100% clear on that one.  According to one Sunday School teacher, all you have to do to go to heaven is to memorize the books of the bible in order. You’ll also get a gift certificate for free french fries at McDonalds. In heaven, you can have ice cream whenever and  you get  hang out with your racist great-grandmother that everyone says was mean and crazy but maybe you don’t get to see your old pets. And the somewhere in there is both a heresy and a schism. But you do have a guardian angel named Lily who probably looks exactly like Farrah Fawcett and brings you tiny doughnut from 7-11 if you stay in bed for lord’s sake because it is way past your bedtime, Alison, and you really need to go to sleep. There’s also hell, which is kind of like a department store for bad people, and is a probably metaphor unless you’re Hitler. Hitler is definitely in hell. What about Napoleon? Your parents don’t know about Napoleon. But there’s probably a better chance you’ll go to hell if you do end up being an evil dictator than if you don’t. So, like, don’t be an evil dictator.  Jesus will totally forgive me if  I play in your yard, crazy neighbor. Catholics think your crazy neighbor’s yard is literally Jesus. Presbyterians think you’re predestined to use your crazy neighbor’s yard. Evangelicals think your crazy neighbor is completely sane and the rest of you are probably going straight to hell.  Episcopalians will probably divorce your neighbor’s yard but in a classy way, like, with gin and boat shoes.  Quakers helped Harriett Tubman build a railroad. Mormons worship Donny and Marie Osmond inside their Pumpernickel! Kingdoms!  Power! Glory! In A Galaxy Far, Far Away! The world ends when Jesus rides four white horses and wins the Kentucky Derby and you should either sing the Johnny Appleseed Song or thank Grace Kelly when you eat! Stand Up! Sit Down! AND ALSO WITH YOU!

[2] I’m not holding out on you guys it’s just that I genuinely can’t remember where I put this picture. Next time I find it, I promise to edit it into the photo above

[3] The women in my family had, up to that point, referred to them as “ladies of the evening.” A euphemism so redolent of fancy gowns and beautiful star-scattered parties that I spent most of my young  life wishing I could be one of them. The business of the world’s oldest profession was so unclear to me that years later, I could only nod in sympathy when my younger sister, interrupted my mother on the way to pre-school  one morning to ask the difference between a prostitute and a debutante. Mom, nobody’s fool, answered with something pithy like, “Vassar and a trust fund.”  And I, a world-class know-it-all, followed up with “God, Mom. Vassar is co-ed now.” My four-year-old sister, for her part, remained confused.

[4] There’s something weirdly refreshing about realizing, from a young age, that you’re going to have to find some other way to attract people (in both platonic and romantic scenarios) because you’re nobody’s idea of a hot date. Sure, you won’t get the free drinks and accommodating clerks and job interviews and cute clothes your conventionally hot friends do, but you’ll mostly (I mean, mostly) be able to travel through the world without harassing dudes, cat-callers and worrying about ever ending up a trophy wife.  You’ll figure out that most people either define beauty as being so utterly generic that it’s boring as hell or so completely individualized that it’s sort of wonderfully meaningless.  And when those same conventionally hot friends gain a few pounds or start freaking the fuck out because they’re afraid of turning invisible when they hit middle age, you can be all, it’s no big deal. Honestly you’ll probably stay pretty hot, at least hot by your standards, because youth is not the only component of beauty and you really just won the genetic lottery with metabolism and the bone structure. But even if you were to lose your looks, you can just go be kind and listen to people and do your schtick and fake your swagger and pretend brave like the rest of us who, despite having weird noses and moles and fat rolls and downright UnAmerican teeth, have the audacity to want someone to talk to us too. It’s amazing how well it works. And as a bonus, there’s so much you can do when you no longer have to worry about being hot. Like, you can wear whatever crazy shit you want! You can get the haircut you’ve always wanted even if it’s unflattering! You can have completely uncomplicated platonic friendships with heterosexual men who will never, ever try to hit on you! It’s like magic!