The first memories I have of the beauty shop are tainted by large hairdos and a harsh chemical smell. As a child, approximately twice a year I’d be taken to the beauty parlor, sat in a booster seat, and have my head caked in cotton and curlers – or what is otherwise known as a perm. “Oh, you’ll look so beautiful,” the ladies would coo at my unnaturally heavy head. I would sit while the women twirled up my hair, sat me under a dryer, and then would inevitably blow dry my hair until I looked like a triangle. Thick hair in a bob + permed hair and giant bangs = triangle. It’s simple math.
I came out of the womb with thick, dark mounds of hair, the kind that most children lost withing a few weeks so they grow in normal hair. But mine, the coarse, fast-growing ruler-straight hair, was as unruly as if I’d been on tour with a metal band. In fact, on one perm application, the procedure had to be repeated. “Her hair is too rebellious,” the hairdresser said. “The perm didn’t take.”
My mother said the perms helped “control” my hair … although really, it didn’t so much tame the mess as make it taller. But even though it was my hair, I didn’t have much say in the matter. Once I tried to argue, express that I didn’t need a perm. Why not buy hot rollers, which allowed for the best of both worlds, I asked. “Well, you either get a perm, or we cut it off,” my mother said, in a noncommittal voice. As a child, her hair had been regularly put into a ponytail, then chopped clean off after she’d fussed about the length. That’s how I knew my mother had meant it. Not only did I have curly hair for the next three years, I was somehow glad.
Spreading my Hair Damaging Knowledge to Others
In college, at the height of my roommate count, I lived with four other girls. Our apartment was in a constant supply of tampons, light beers, and flashy new hair products – and when I say “flashy” I mean “on sale.” We were poor, and to us, White Rain was the new Revlon. But being frugal not only meant cheap hairspray, it affected our lives in every aspect of beauty; no one could afford salon-quality color. But luckily, my former perm-sitting days had taught me a lot in the way of coloring hair … which meant that, ten years prior, I regularly watched others perform the task.
Every month or so, my roommates and I would take a trip to the local dollar store, oohing and nope-ing each other’s potential new hair colors. That’s-too-darks and Is-this-blonde-ashy-enoughs were exchanged until the perfect shade had been agreed upon. Then once we got back to our place, I would color everyone’s hair. It’s untrue to say they couldn’t have done it; it was glorified shampooing. They were too chicken, or were simply finding a way to avoid the task. Either way, I had become our apartment’s official colorist.
After months of this routine, a friend, Kim, decided she’d like to join our hair coloring parade. We brought her to the ceremonial choosing of the colors, waited for everyone to pay in exact change, and went back to cash in on the main event: hair that transformed before our eyes. But once it was time to apply the dye, she’d changed her mind. A few weeks later, when my roommates were all out, Kim said she was ready. That the new highlights would make their official debut. In all fairness, I didn’t tell Kim I’d never done highlights before – that plop and coat had been my only skill set. But we put her in the cap that looked like a lettuce bag and I strategically placed the color in vertical lines down her head. Then once it was finished, she cried.
I immediately apologized, looking for any noticeably flaws. But frankly, I couldn’t even see the highlights. Her hair was light brown no.1 and the highlights were light brown no. 1.5 – they were a water balloon fight away from being completely invisible. Through her muffled sobs, I was able to make out, “I just got it back. I can’t believe I’m ruining it.” I had assumed she was crying because she didn’t like it. But the thing about Kim, the thing I am never sensitive enough to remember, is that she had cancer. Full on, completely bald cancer. It was before I knew her, and, because she didn’t like to talk about it, we rarely did. The reason she was crying wasn’t because I’d messed up her color, it was for the same reason she can’t eat cafeteria food: it reminded her of the cancer.
Fat Hair Becomes Useful
It was after this encounter with Kim that I found a way to appreciate my fat hair. While it may grow by the truckload, it is one feature that many do not have. People like Kim, people who are going through chemo. A few days later, I canceled my haircut, and for months after that, I let it grow. Once it reached the lower portion of my back, I went to my hairdresser (a new one who has yet to give me a perm) and told her to chop it off. She nervously asked if I was sure, then picked up her scissors and hacked until my hair’s rope-like strength gave way. As I left, she handed me the rattail leftovers of my haircut, so that, in 3-5 days, wigmakers could bask in their new materials that was my unfortunate genes. (I’ve been told that thick hair makes fabulous wigs.)
Since then, I have grown and chopped my tresses to help those who are hairless from disease. To date, I’ve donated about an average baby-height of hair, which may not seem like much over time, but, saying, “My hair grows fast” is kind of like saying, “I got my tax refunds quickly.” And despite my former hatred for my fumed perm sessions, for locks that have a mind (and strength) of their own, I’m happy to have found a use for my giant mane. While I may still grow hair that requires two-a-day leg shaving sessions, my head hair has finally shown itself useful: helping keep balding heads warm.
You can read more from Bethaney Wallace here.