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The Straight Talk About Perms

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One September morning, my friend Melissa texted me from a hairdresser’s chair in Chicago. After years of fighting with her curly hair—waking up extra early to shampoo, dry, and flat-iron it every day—she had decided to spring for a Japanese straightening perm. Also known as “thermal reconditioning,” it promises board-straight hair to just about anyone. All you need is at least $200 and anywhere from three to eight hours of free time. And hair. 


With her camera phone, Melissa snapped a quick “before” picture of herself—shoulder-length hair with what she called “Botticelli curls”—and sent it over. “Really hope this works out!” she wrote. 


I got a second text update in the afternoon: “Dude it takes for f-ing ever and is a little excruciating. Still only halfway done and 3.5 hrs into it!” 


More hours passed without a word. I called her that night: So, what was the verdict? 


“I don’t want to overstate this,” she said slowly. She had been at home, involuntarily returning to the mirror to touch her hair. “But, I think this might be life-changing.” 


*** 


Hair has a strange way of inspiring this kind of hyperbole. In some ways, I could relate: I, too, went through a life-changing perm. It was fifteen years ago and I’ve since repressed the memories as deeply as possible. But when I think of women spending upwards of $1,000 on perms, I feel the need to resurrect my story. 


I should preface this by admitting that the eighties and nineties were a peculiar period, especially for hair—an era of side ponytails and scrunchies. Even Jon Bon Jovi treaded dangerously toward bouffant territory. The general principle was that bigger was better, and that meant I needed to do something with my long, slippery-straight locks. Each night, I would braid my hair, then undo the braids the next morning so that at least I’d have some wave. Within a half-hour, however, each briefly wavy strand would relax into its naturally straight state. The irony that people now pay hundreds of dollars for this is not lost on me. 


Witnessing my fruitless endeavor, my mom had a suggestion: Why not get a perm, and have wavy hair all the time? I hadn’t realized you could get anything other than a curly perm, but Mrs. Hu—our intrepid (and, looking back, almost certainly unlicensed) Chinatown hairdresser—assured me anything was possible with enough patience and perm solution. 


So, I underwent a process not quite as involved as Melissa’s, but no less fraught with anticipation. First, Mrs. Hu braided my hair—not like I had always done, but into such miniscule sections that soon I became the only Asian girl ever to sport cornrows. She then slathered on generous amounts of perm solution. (Oh, how it burned! But I thought of the rewards and soldiered on.) Then we waited as the chemicals got to work, breaking down the structure of my hair, transforming it into what I knew would be glorious, lasting waves. 


An hour later, Mrs. Hu unveiled the results, complete with a dramatic spin of the chair to face the mirror. 


I’m not sure there are words, even now, to describe my initial reaction. “Horror” is too blatant; I remember putting on a nervous smile in order to avoid offending Mrs. Hu. The tiny braids had morphed not into soft waves, but into stiff zigzags that defied physics by moving in one piece when I turned my head. Mrs. Hu had also made the curious decision to perm my bangs with traditional curlers, imparting a dissociative look that both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would have recoiled from. 


A childhood friend, Melissa—yes, the same—summed it up best upon my reluctant return to school: “You look like Totally Hair Barbie.” It was not a compliment.


*** 


But one traumatic perm does not an expert make, so I turned to Lorraine Massey, author of Curly Girl and co-owner of Devachan Salon in Manhattan. Massey has fashioned a life-long career out of advocating natural hair. She can’t understand why so many women continue to fight what genetics gave them, instead of embracing styles that complement their hair types. 


“Your hair, that DNA—you’re not going to win,” Massey says. “Nature always wins.” 


Still, perms are more popular than ever. (Nowadays, you can even perm your eyelashes.) When I went to a different salon to inquire about Japanese thermal reconditioning, I found out I was already behind the trends. Didn’t I know? Brazilian Keratin Treatment, a process in which keratin protein is applied to break down curls, was all the rage now. 


Did it really straighten your hair better than the Japanese method? I asked the receptionist. 


Bone straight,” she affirmed with a grave nod. 


It turns out the Brazilian approach has raised some safety concerns of its own, mostly over its use of formaldehyde and the possibly toxic fumes released during and after treatment. The mere mention of BKT so upsets Massey that she nearly ends the interview. 


“It’s like beating a child!” She struggles to find the words to describe her indignation. For her, any chemical process is taboo. “It basically takes the spirit out of the hair… it’s such an insult to the hair.” 


In truth, I’m less concerned with my hair’s feelings, and more focused on things like formaldehyde and 350 degrees F flat-irons—and with spending so much time and money on something so ephemeral. It’s hard for me to imagine a man plunking down a month’s rent for a chemical perm or waking up two hours early to perfect his hair every day. Wouldn’t it be better if we channeled our energy elsewhere? Besides, hairstyles cycle through reliable trends anyway, much like economic recessions. Straight may be in now, but it’s only a matter of time before things shift and women are rummaging through their attics for their old curling irons. 


To be sure, everyone has her indulgences. It’s been three months since her perm, and Melissa is “still in love” with her hair. Who am I to begrudge anyone that kind of experience? Massey agrees that the epiphany must come from within. “I always feel like somebody’s got to have a down-and-out moment, their drop-out moment,” she says. Maybe it was fortunate I’d had mine early on. Sure, it made for a rough time in seventh grade, but it might have spared me from a lifetime of hair-damaging mishaps.

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