I have bad hair. I don’t mean that I have bad-hair days; I mean that my hair itself is bad. In what way bad? It’s thin. It’s limp. It’s straighter than spaghetti. It doesn’t hold a curl. It doesn’t hold a wave. It’s barely holding on. When I go to get it cut, the stylists sigh: no referrals here. They know nobody’s ever going to ask me who does my hair.
My mom had bad hair, too. It was just like mine: flat, flaccid and an indeterminate brown. She attacked the problem with the preferred method of her day, the home perm. The smell of whatever that stuff was is seared into my memory—the smell and the little blue and yellow snap-on curlers. When she took them out, her hair would be thin, frizzy and fried. That, I decided early on, was no improvement over thin and flat.
Eventually my mother realized this as well and started buying wigs. We’re not talking Dolly Parton here, which is too bad, since if you’re going to wear a hot, sticky wig, it might as well be utterly outré. But Mom’s were pretty much like her regular hair when it wasn’t permed, only somewhat thicker, like little bobbed brown helmets. Sometimes if I was scrabbling through her dresser for loose change, I’d come upon one and scream, sure I’d found a dead critter.
I don’t know if wigs have come a long way since then. As an ex-hippie, I find them unnatural and unappealing, so I’ve never tried one. Instead, I’ve just resigned myself to my hair. Every five years or so, somebody at a salon will coax or guilt or badger me into trying some magical new thickening elixir, one that inevitably costs $50 for a month’s supply. I’ll start out using it and check in the mirror each morning: Is it any better? Is it just a tad thicker? But the hope soon fades, and I’m furious with myself for being suckered again. If any of that stuff actually did the job, the whole world would have hair like Adele’s by now. True, Rogaine works. But once you start, you have to use it for the rest of your life. I’d make that sort of commitment to dialysis, maybe, but not to a hair thickener.
And yet there are times when I’m overcome with hair envy. One of our interns at work wears her hair in a braid. My hair, braided, looks like a rattail. The intern’s braid is as thick as my forearm. I would kill to have hair so full and unruly. I can’t for the life of me understand curly girls who iron their hair flat. I want my hair to match the wild woman inside me. My hair is so bad that when the magazine I work for runs my photo, strangers gratuitously remark on it. “Nice hair, Sandy,” they’ll type into the comments online, or “Wow, great haircut.” They know how to get to me.
In my entire life, I’ve had one great hair day. It was in the fall of 1978, my senior year of college. And in an unbelievable bit of luck, it happened to be the day I had my photo taken for the yearbook. My roommate, Paige, who had—still has—terrific hair, thick and blonde and adaptable, lent me her curling iron. I used it, but I didn’t have much hope. The weather was dreary and gray, and humidity sucked curl from my locks the way my then boyfriend sucked smoke from his bong.
So I wasn’t expecting much when, a month later, the proofs arrived. I gasped when I opened the envelope. Who was that girl with a thick, wavy ribbon of hair flowing perfectly over each shoulder? What had I ever done to get so lucky? To this day, when I look at that photo, I feel deep inner peace: That’s the hair I was meant to have, as rich and full as Elizabeth Taylor’s, as Princess Caroline’s, as Joan Baez’s, the glory the Bible says a woman’s hair should be.
In the years since, I’ve occasionally taken up the curling iron and attempted to re-create that magic moment. Lightning, alas, has never struck twice. Any hair implement more complicated than a simple brush feels awkward and unnatural to me. I get flummoxed trying to blow-dry my head while looking in the mirror: Forward? Back? Which hand am I using? It’s as though the hair gods took a look at my locks and collectively said...Nah. No sense gifting this one with the ability to turn a curl.
My daughter, I regret to say, inherited my hair (and my styling skills). Oh, my son’s is thick and shiny and black, like my husband’s; my daughter’s is...thin and an indeterminate brown. I’ve sympathized with her efforts to defy her destiny for every special occasion of the past 24 years: the chorus solo in sixth grade, the ninth-grade dance, the nightmare that was junior prom. No amount of gel or hairspray made a difference. By senior prom, she’d surrendered. While her peers went to salons to be primped and fussed over and have their hair swept into elaborate (if stiff) updos, she didn’t bother—she just wore it straight and down.
I recently discovered, though, that she’s not as resigned as I’d thought. A while back, she moved in with a man from Kenya. He crops his hair, but even so, you can see that it’s wiry and bursting with curl. I tried to talk with my daughter about the difficulties she might face if the relationship became long-term—two different cultures, two different races, such diverse experiences of the world. She shook her head impatiently, eyes aglow. “But Mom,” she said, “think what this could mean for my kids’ hair.”
SANDY HINGSTON is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.
Next: SOS for Thinning Strands
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