When I was an androgynous toddler, strangers would stop my mother on the street to pet my shiny blonde baby ringlets, over which they oohed and aahed. They probably also wondered about my gender – but that is another story.
I inherited my father’s hazel eyes and his thick wavy hair. Mine, indeed, is beyond wavy: it is downright curly. I also inherited his hairsplitting attention to detail, his exquisite sense of smell, his multitudinous pet peeves, his overall irritability, his underlying aggravation and dissatisfaction, his impossible insatiable perfectionism and his generally Nervous Temperament. But, this is about my head of hair, not about the troubling gray matter in the cranium underneath the hair.
My preadolescent solution to problematic curliness was the perpetual painful ponytail, pulled so severely it induced headaches.
Curly hair was cute enough in the 1950s. But, when the 1960s and my personal burden of adolescence hit, straight hair became not just the rage, but a sudden American cultural imperative.
Some girls resorted to products like Curl-Free, stinking of ammonia like the Toni home permanents endured by straight-haired girls wanting curls. Such products stung the scalp like sulphuric acid. But, it hurts to be beautiful – as my mother would say.
We experimented with ironing our own long hair. Ear to the ironing board, with only a dish towel between the hot press and the tresses, we prayed the temperature setting was not too high. Much hair was singed in the process. The stench of burning hair is most unpleasant. It was hair-raising.
My personal nightly high school hair-straightening procedure was complex. After shampooing, I made symmetrical twin parts in my wet hair, combed up the central frontal portion, folded a square of toilet tissue – an “end paper” – around the tip of the segment, pulled hard while wrapping it around a coiled metal and plastic-netted roller nearly two inches in diameter, and inserted two scalp-scraping hair clips to hold the mechanism in place.
I repeated this rolling process three times up and over the top of my skull, followed by two rows of three rollers each across the back, and then a column of two rollers on each side. An additional bottom row of anti-curl devices on the sides and back rolled upward, to form the Flip. The final touch was a hairnet tied around the whole construction. (After years of this, my fingers knew exactly what to do. It is an altogether different challenge to describe it here.)
I managed to sleep on all this hardware. I dreamt I was an interplanetary, satellite Humpty Dumpty, my head as big as a hot air balloon, a veritable dirigible.
Each morning, I removed the rolling apparatus and the clips, disposed of the end papers, and brushed out the disciplined locks. I then teased the top area for lift and further control, followed by smoothing. With vigorous flicks of the wrist, the upward-flipped tier was brushed up, forming a perfect earlobe-level tube, a kind of skirt, around the bottom.
The final phase of the procedure was the application of aerosol hairspray. I had to hold my breath while spraying, as this AquaNet stuff could make you pass out.
When completed, this Flip hairdo was quite hard and stiff. It was not going anywhere. The humid Jersey dog days and autumn’s rainy days, however, presented the challenge of frizzy hair. Frizz, the f-word, was to be absolutely avoided. One carried at all times a clear plastic rain bonnet – kept folded into its own little plastic case – to prevent the stationary Flip from reverting to the dreaded, uncontrollable frizz.
My high school yearbook shows lines and lines, pages and pages of girls sporting page-boys or Flips, and boys with flat-tops or crew cuts. We were interchangeable.
At my all-women’s college, the long dormitory corridors were haunted by nocturnal zombies in robes and fuzzy slippers, hair rolled up in orange juice cans and secured by hairnets. We were the Stepford Wives, collegiate robots, Frankenstein brides. We sleepwalked our way down those halls, from semester to semester. Our brains were temporarily full of freshly-inserted microbiology and trigonometry, but our enormous rollers were vacant and void. We mastered sleeping on them. Fathead clowns with inflated numbskulls pranced through our schoolgirl dreams.
Suddenly it was the late 1960s: we all blossomed into Flower Children. We burned our virtual bras, stopped shaving our actual armpits, and quit our bouffant coiffures. We let our hair grow wild. Overnight, my highly-maneuvered Flip transmogrified into a Janis Joplin mop of psychedelic bristles. I had made a stylistic hairpin turn.
My 1968 passport photo shows me with this maniac fright-wig hair, my stoned slit-eyes sneering rebellion at the camera, and my threadbare flannel shirt wrinkled and half unbuttoned. I was headstrong and I needed a head shrinker. Would you admit this person into your foreign country?
As my checkered bohemian life took a decidedly lesbian turn, the long hippie hair got cut shorter and shorter, but remained curly. Today, I waver between a nice soft bubble of curls and a postmodern butch fade.