Tuesday, January 11, 2005

On Being a Woman: Long as God Can Grow It

“I’m growing out my hair,” I said, as I nibbled on my cranberry scone, even though I wasn’t hungry.

“How long are you growing it?” Kim asked.

“Until it stops.”

Natasha piped in: “Oooh! Then you can let me flat iron it!”

Natasha is mildly obsessed with straightening my hair, but I always just laugh it off and tell her that someday I’ll let her do it. And just like when I promise that someday I’ll have lunch with my old co-workers, this, too, is a lie.

“You keep saying that! One day I’m just going to sneak up behind you with chloroform, and then you’ll wake up with straight hair!”

We all laughed and drank our overpriced coffees, but... I wasn’t laughing on the inside. Deep down, I felt a little scared.

My friends say a lot of things they don’t mean, so I wouldn’t normally give the flat iron comment much concern. However, given the fact that a) Nat has mentioned straightening my hair no less than 30 times over the past two years, and b) her father is a doctor, giving her ready access to both chloroform and gauze pads, I no longer consider this threat an idle one.

I think my fear of heated hair implements might go back to a horror I witnessed as a teen, on my first trip to Paris. I was sixteen, and sharing a room with my best friend, Carrie, and another girl we didn’t know very well. I can’t remember her name, so I’ll call her Rhonda. Rhonda was new to my high school, and had moved to Wisconsin from somewhere down south. She had beautiful platinum blonde hair and, in her slight drawl, would call me “Kitten,” which I found immensely charming.

One morning, Carrie and I came back up to our room after eating our complimentary continental breakfast, walked through the door, and almost instantaneously vomited up our croissants and Nutella. We had to cover our mouths and noses to protect ourselves from the stench that was coming from the bathroom.

I cautiously opened the bathroom door to find Rhonda sitting on the floor, sobbing.

“Rhonda! What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

She had her head in her hands and her shoulders were heaving as she gestured toward the garbage can. When I got up the courage to look in the direction of the pungent smell, I saw a blackened curling iron, with long chunks of charred platinum blonde hair melted to it.

“Oh god. What happened?”

Rhonda wiped her tear-soaked cheeks and took her hands away from her face to look at us. I audibly gasped – she had burned her bangs off all the way to her scalp. As I later learned, Rhonda hadn’t fully read the “Know Before You Go” handouts that our teacher had given us, otherwise she would have known that European appliances operate on a different voltage than American ones, and if you plug an American curling iron into a French outlet without a converter, it reaches the temperature of the Earth’s core in three seconds flat.

For the rest of the trip, Rhonda worked on perfecting a female comb-over technique to give the illusion that she still had hair on the right side of her head. I bought her a beret. She never called anyone “Kitten” again. Sometimes I can still see that blackened curling iron, Rhonda’s smoking hair desperately clinging to it. It gives me chills.

Now anytime Natasha mentions taking a flat iron to my hair, I envision huge clumps of brown curly hair snapping off at the root, leaving gaping bald spots that would take years to grow out.

So yes, I am a little sensitive when it comes to my hair. Maybe it’s because all my life, I have been defined by my hair.

Which one is Jenny?

The curly haired one.

Not the tall one, the short one, the clumsy one, the athletic one, the skinny one, the pudgy one, the funny one, the smart one. But the curly haired one.

My grandfather used to tell people that I combed my hair with an eggbeater. And my grandmother could not comprehend the fact that I didn’t brush my hair.

“But grandma – you can only brush curly hair when it’s wet. I couldn’t possibly get a comb through my hair when it’s dry.”

No matter how many times I tried to explain this to her, she just didn’t understand, so one day, I brushed my hair out for her and took a picture of it. I looked exactly like Roseanne Rosannadanna. She no longer asks me why I don’t brush my hair.

The worst school photo of my life can be blamed on the lunch lady who helped the principal out on picture day. It was 4th Grade and I had a short afro, such was the style at the time. Okay, it wasn’t so much the style as it was my only option. These were the days before high quality hair gel and curl relaxing conditioners, so my mother’s solution was to keep cutting my hair short.

When it was my turn for a photo, I sat down, looked at the camera, and just as I was about to say, “Cheese,” the lunch lady swooped in with the free plastic comb we all received, and tried to rake it through my hair. After a few of the teeth snapped off, she just started pushing my hair around with her hands, and then dejectedly walked away. And that is why, in my 4th Grade class picture, it looks like someone slathered a gigantic pile of brown mashed potatoes on top of my head. That is also why my mother only ordered wallet size that year.

Then came 6th Grade, when everyone had beautiful feathered Farrah Fawcett hair. Damn you Farrah Fawcett! Damn you to hell! I spent hours in front of the mirror each morning, trying to part my hair in the middle and using a curling iron to make the curls go to the right and to the left like they were supposed to do. But anyone with naturally curly hair knows that you don’t tell your curls which way to go. They tell you. And you like it.

Particularly in that era of stick straight, long Marsha Brady hair, people would often ask me if I wished I had straight hair. I understood that the answer they were looking for was the affirmative, so I would just shrug my shoulders and nod my head yes. Of course I wanted straight hair. Wasn’t everyone supposed to want straight hair? Except for the people with straight hair, because they were all getting perms. But it was clear that they were just taking a short vacation in Curlyville. They could leave anytime they wanted, but I had to live there. Forever.

For as long as I can remember, people have tried to tell me what to do with my hair. My mom wanted spit curls. My girlfriends said barrettes. My hippie boyfriends wanted it long and wild. And now Nat wants it straight. Of course, the one time I was left to my own devices, I commanded my hairdresser to give me a tail, so perhaps it’s best that I always left my hair decisions to others.

But now, I have reached a point in life where I have come to understand and appreciate my hair. It has special needs, and as long as I respect its power, it will respect me right back. And thankfully, modern science has made huge strides in the gel and mousse department.

I finally understand that my curls, just like Samson's locks, are the true source of all my power. Without them, I imagine I would have no personality whatsoever. I'd just become another face in the crowd, another body occupying a seat on the train. So now when people ask me if I ever wish I had straight hair, I can honestly say no. No, Nat-Delilah, I don’t.

A home for fleas
A hive for the buzzing bees
A nest for birds
There ain’t no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my