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I Feel Bad About My Hair

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Nora Ephron, the wonderful writer, humorist and director, died recently and I will miss her. She was a role model not only for writers but for all women struggling to come to terms with their imperfect appearance in an appearance-obsessed world. She wrote valiantly about her small breasts, her drooping neckline and failing memory as she grew older, the Herculean maintenance that she needed to stay youthful in New York. Her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” is a frank, funny and heartbreaking collection of essays about growing older.

One of the many revelations in that book is that Nora got her hair blown-out twice a week and called it “better than therapy.” She was obsessed about her hair, which to me always looked perfect but apparently required major professional intervention to keep looking great. In fact, the New York Times obit for her recounted a phone conversation that she had just two weeks before her death with Scott Rudin, the producer, about an idea for a TV pilot. “If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting,” she told Rudin.

I was glad to read that Nora shared my obsession with hair, because it mirrors my lifelong struggles with my own sorry head of hair. Like Nora’s small breasts, which she wrote about so eloquently in her essay “About Breasts,” my own hair has been the source of more angst than any other part of me. It is too curly to be manageable, with a wave that goes its own way, and too thin to be luxuriant like Julianna Margolies’ or Andie MacDowell’s crowning glory. It is an exquisitely sensitive barometer of humidity; even the slightest whiff of vapor arouses my inborn frizz, defying my efforts to torture it to death with gel, blow dryer and straightening iron.

I am writing this from Nantucket, where we are vacationing with famiily. When we first hatched plans to come here I felt a little apprehensive. I still remembered my neighbors’ tales of vacationing in Nantucket a year ago, roughly the same week as this one, when their friends hosted a destination wedding here. It poured, it drizzled, and on a good day it misted. Everybody at the wedding was a soggy and frizzy mess, after paying Ritz-Carlton rates to stay in those signature weathered gray cottages and eat in Nantucket’s notoriously overpriced restaurants. I was afraid this would happen to me.

And indeed it did, at least part of the time. The early part of this week was sunny but humid, and my hair was at its worst. Despite being in the presence of my loving family, I felt like shit. My hair, which looked halfway decent after my ministrations with a blow dryer, looked like Dilbert’s boss after a few minutes outside. I cursed myself for not wearing a baseball cap, which would flatten my hair and accentuate its thinness. It was hard for me to enjoy a stunning sun-shower a few days ago.

Over the years my hair has gotten me mistaken for a boy (when I was a toddler wearing it short.) During grade school in the early 1960s, when all of the little girls wore pixie haircuts, mine was a lumpy tangle, more frizzy than curly. In one neighborhood photo I look like Larry Fine. In middle school I was asked, “Catherine, did you get a perm?” or “Catherine, do you set your hair with Spoolies?” (Anyone remember Spoolies?)

I began a lifelong series of interventions with my hair around that time. The first was huge rollers, with my hair cemented in place with bobby pins and Dippity-Do. Until we had a bonnet dryer I’d spend half my day wearing those things. Sometimes I would sleep on them, feeling like a knight sleeping in armor, tossing and turning all night. The rollers did straighten things out somewhat but gave me a puffed look, like an inverted kettle.

Then I discovered Curl-Free, the chemical straightener. After about an hour of combing a vile, tear-inducing concoction through my head, and setting my hair in soup-can-sized rollers, I looked fabulous. My eighth-grade classmates lavished compliments on me and I felt like Jean Shrimpton, the 60s model and “it” girl.

Until my next shampoo, when my curl reasserted itself. “Catherine your hair is getting curly again,” my classmates reminded me.

I remember going to a swimming pool on a hot but dry summer day and being afraid to ruin my recently set hair. I had a deluxe bathing cap that had promised to keep the water away from my hair but did not realize that its warranty did not cover diving accidents. I fearlessly dived in and was dismayed to feel the rush of chlorinated water that stabbed through the rubber barrier around my hairline. I spent the rest of the day with my hair lacquered with Dippity-Do and pulled tightly into a ponytail.

Finally, during senior year of high school my sister Julie and I began ironing our hair…not with a hair iron, but with mom’s clothes iron. One of us would kneel in front of the ironing board while the other one brushed our long hair over the board, followed by the iron. It was a religious ritual, an offering to the straight hair gods. My hair eventually broke so much it started growing shorter, but I did get to be in the homecoming court that year.

During one summer after my freshman year in college I was at a party with a group of friends, where the gathering included a cute boy I wanted to impress. My hair had been blown out; I looked tanned and summery. But an evening mist crept in and I felt the inevitable happening, with my confidence slipping away one baby hair at a time. The porch light behind me made my head cast a shadow, and as I talked with Steve I observed my sillouette’s changing and softening shape in dismay.

“Why are you staring at my shoulder?,” the guy asked, sounding irritated.

My mom would sometimes grow frustrated with my obsession with my hair, and I could not blame her. “When your hair frizzes,” she told me, “your whole face changes.”

“Couldn’t you find other curly-headed girls to share this struggle?” one might ask. Indeed, I have sisters and a daughter, all with curly hair, but different from mine. Not to minimize their own struggles, but Julie’s hair straightened out in midlife; Maria’s is still curly but much thicker…she can rock her curls, like Sarah Jessica Parker. Both my sisters struggled with their hair just as I did, but have come to terms with it far better than I did. Julie, who never wore curls after childhood, relied on scrunchies, elastics and cute baseball caps if the weather did not cooperate. Maria’s curls have a great wave and thickness that allows her to wear them with insouciance…although recently she has occasionally treated herself to the “Brazilian Blowout,” a modern and longer-lasting version of Curl-Free.

My daughter Rachel inherited my curls, and has also found a way to rock them. With her green eyes and pale skin she looks like a young Andie MacDowell. She lives in California, home to millions of identical blondes with straight blond hair, and stands out like a gorgeous wild rose in a field of daisies.

But unlike my loved ones I have not yet found a way to come to terms with my hair, because it is so fine and thin as well as curly. I did embrace it periodically over time…once in young adulthood, when I had a lot more hair in healthier condition, and the second time a few years ago when I spent a fortune to have a curly-hair specialist cut my hair with a patented method guaranteed to bring out the best of your curls and minimize frizz. Alas, my hair was too hopeless even for these proven methods. The curls were lank and my hair flattened at the top, and I could not give it height despite endless duckbill clips and gobs of expensive styling gel.

So I went back to Tammy, a stylist who comes as close as anyone to truly understanding my hair, and she gave me a much shorter cut that is longer in the front. With highlights, keratin treatments and careful ministrations with a straightening iron it looks pretty good. It’s still too thin to be swingy but if I keep it shorter I can get a little height on the top. So at least half the time I actually like my hair, thanks to Tammy.

Until the humidity rolls in, and then I go into an existential funk about my hair once again, the depression creeping in like frizz, one baby hair at a time. Keratin treatments do give me some immunity, but I am overdue for one and I feel as angry as I did when I was a middle schooler being asked about Spoolies. I am sure that my whole face has changed.

My friends with straight hair tell me they’d give anything for curls. Their hair just goes stick-straight whenever humidity rolls in, they mourn. They can’t do anything with it. They think curly hair is sexy, they reassure me.

As Nora would say, I think they are full of you-know-what.


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