Waves

The beige receiver felt heavy in my hand as I dialed. The phone rang several times before my mother picked up.

“Good morning, Constitution Elementary.”

“…Mom?” I whimpered.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded without saying hello. “Are you okay?” My voice had caught her by surprise. It was 9:15 on a Thursday morning and I should have been in class.

“Yeah, but I did something…bad.” I twisted the phone cord around my index finger until the tip started to turn red. “Mom, I cut my hair.”

“And…?”

“And I can’t leave the house.”

“What?! You’re not in school right now?” I had never been late to school a day in my life, let alone skip class.

“I know, I just… My hair was all wrong this morning. I couldn’t get it to curl, so I thought I would trim the side that didn’t look good.”

“And?”

“Well, I trimmed too much on one side, so I tried to trim the other to match, but I couldn’t see all the way around. I figured that I could still even it out, so I kept cutting and now I’ve cut off, like, four inches on the left side and it goes up even farther in the back. Please, Mom, I can’t go to school like this!” I pled.

She was irritated since she had to take time off of work to get me, as well as call school to excuse my absence. She sighed and shook her head when she saw what I had done, trying hard not to laugh, as I was taking the whole thing so seriously.

“My junior high graduation photos are going be ruined,” I insisted, when Alison, her hairdresser, evened up my hair all around. “And I look like a boy.”

“Sorry, honey, you only have yourself to blame on this one,” Mom said, putting her arm around me as we walked out.

Since then, I’ve come to realize that, if one thing unifies all women, it is not motherhood or menstrual cramps—it is our collective struggle with hair. Seriously, have you ever met a woman who was happy with her hair in its natural state?

Look in any woman’s medicine cabinet and you’ll find an array of products that she has tried over the years —curl enhancer, smoothing infusion, deep conditioner, hairspray, gel, pomade, hair color— not to mention blow dryers, curling irons and thousands of hair clips and accessories. On top of it, there is the perming, tinting, foiling, baliage, chemical straightening, extensions and other insane what-not that she pays a stylist to do to her every month.

In spite of all this, I’ve heard that the hairstyle one adopts in adulthood reflects the happiest time in a person’s life. (I’m not sure this applies to men, though, as their hair looks the same from age twelve. This either indicates the age that they revert to emotionally, or perhaps a rubicon perpetually unmet.) In any case, we women wander, follicularly and otherwise, over the course of our lives, led by complex emotions and indoor plumbing as much as ever-changing hairdos.

For those of us who explore style after style, does that mean that there was never one “happy” time we can fall back on?

Things were fine for me until age six. Before then, we lived in Michigan and my mother let my strawberry brown hair grow out in large tousled waves with blunt-cut bangs. In every photo from this time, I am smiling. This was not the case after we moved to Phoenix. After our first summer, my mother thought that my long hair would be too hot, so she asked Alison to shear it without consulting me first.

I walked into the tacky beauty shop looking like Brooke Shields and walked out a very disgruntled Dorothy Hammill. That’s when we learned that cutting wavy hair like mine creates an unruly nest.

At first, my mother was more sorry than I was, since she felt obliged to style it for me. Each morning, she blew it dry and curled the ends so that they didn’t stick out so badly. Around age nine, it became my battle.

As if the blow drying and curling weren’t enough, I also had light brown hair, which was a no-no in Arizona as all of the popular girls had straight blond hair. Given the number of my fellow brunette students, the Phoenix metro area must have seen record sales of Sun-In during the 80s as we all walked around with brittle orange-blond split ends.

The years that followed were no better. During high school, I tried perming my hair to control the wave; in college, I paid stylists to add blond highlights. Through it all, I could never get my hair to sit smoothly, so I began straightening it with a flat iron every morning. By my early 30s, my graduated bob was so blond and so straight that a friend teased, “So, which Desperate Housewife are you?”

That comment was my bottom.

Looking at a photograph of myself, I couldn’t quite understand who was looking back: seemingly, a young woman with perfect hair—smooth, shiny and carefree. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.

For all the friends, co-workers and strangers who have complimented my hair over the years —many, as my stylists will confirm, since they get the referrals— most have no idea how hard I work for it. “Perfect” hair is a mask; people think they know who I am (serious, professional) and they think that my hair comes this way naturally.

The Desperate Housewife comment, combined with time-fatigue from my morning routine, prodded me to explore going au naturel a few years ago. There were some failed experiments where I tried to guide the outcome by using a curling iron to get more curl from the wave, since my hair was still too short for gravity to weigh it down.

“I like your new hair, Gabbi,” a principal at my old firm said the first time I showed it off. “It reminds me of my favorite piece of architecture.”

“Really? Which one?”

“Do you know The Bird’s Nest by Herzog & de Meuron?” he asked. His compliment was genuine. I came back the next day with straightened hair.

It wasn’t until I returned to Italy in August 2011 that I let it be. For three weeks, at least. It was so bloody hot and humid in Venice that I couldn’t fathom using my hair dryer or flat iron. Only as I prepared for the flight home did I apply straightening pomade and hot tools to tame my frizzy mane, sweating as my hair dried.

During those three weeks, I realized that I needed time to ease into my new/old self, and then just let it go. Allowing my hair to be crazy-wavy was how it worked best—the less primping, the better.

Since then, I let my hair go on humid days. I’m still surprised by how positively others react; they say everything from, “Your happy hair is back!” and “Why would you straighten it when it does this?” to “Now your hair matches your personality.” People are flabbergasted when they realize that the crazy wavy hair is the “real” me. It forces me to ask why I’ve spent so much time, money and effort trying to be someone else, even if in small ways.

We all do it. Think back to Marlo Thomas’ must-have That Girl flip or Jennifer Aniston’s famous shag, “The Rachel,” that everyone demanded from their stylists. One could argue that emulating movie stars or models is a normal part of growing up as a girl, but it doesn’t stop there. The line between fad and identity is thin.

On some level, it’s about not wanting to be ourselves. We emulate what society deems beautiful. We want to be loved and accepted. We fear rejection, thinking I won’t appear attractive/cool/professional enough if I don’t look a certain way. Altering one’s physical appearance to fit in does more than shape follicles; over time, it transforms collective perception, including our own, creating new —and some might argue false— personas.

Are we the altered person that everyone sees, or someone different inside?

For many years, I wore the skin of that Teutonic, straight-haired perfectionist until I realized that I had lost touch with the creative, wavy-haired brunette deep inside. More to the point, I was unhappy with carrying on that facade.

After a few years in Seattle, I bridged the gap back to brown hair (it looks better with my skin tone anyway), and when I feel like it, I go wavy. I often straighten my hair because I like the smooth and silky feel. Today, it’s less about looking like someone else and more about expressing what looks and feels good to me. Embracing the freedom and intention to reveal what’s inside on the canvas of my physical self is actually quite powerful.

In the end, it’s about feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. One day, the balance tips between the effort required to maintain a brand that we believe is more likable or successful versus running with what we were given, no matter how gray or wavy or eccentric it is.

Today, my hair is just long enough to pull into a teeny, tiny urban ponytail for the first time in twenty years. The purple streak that my stylist, Dan, added on the left side looks pretty wicked. Turns out, finding the right environment for living and working does wonders when it comes to growing a life in which you can express your true self.

Besides, the purple melds into my natural brown quite nicely.

I can’t say that I’ve reached my hair equilibrium yet —the reigning style that hearkens back to the happiest time in my life— but I like what’s going on at the moment. Who knows; maybe it’ll stick. Or maybe happiness is an evolution, and there will never be a stopping point.

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2 thoughts on “Waves

  1. What a insightful story this is! As a surfer guy I never really cared what my hair looks like and it shows! This gives great depth into the working of our culture and pressure on woman from a young age.
    I once feel asleep with gum in my mouth and it got in my hair. My Mom just cut it out and sent me to school with a nice bald spot, never even thought about it! Typical guy, eh?
    It is so humorous how we men try to complement woman and then end up giving an insult. Imagine comparing a woman’s hair style to a work of architecture? Great intent but bound to miss the mark. A comparison to a beautiful waterfall or some silken textural item might be better but then again I just avoid the whole thing!
    Thanks again for the keen insight, charming story, wit and wonderful power of perception…Lovely!

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