“I am not my hair.”

Here’s a note from a Mirth-Marks reader about this essay:

“I am beginning to have a ‘hate’ relationship w/my hair – I have no idea what to do as it is graying. My grays are white…and often curly too. That means they stick straight out of the rest of my straight hair.  And of course w/my 40th birthday not far away I guess it seems like added insult to me. I’ve never pictured myself anything but blond.”

“I am not my hair.”

I should have grabbed that refrigerator magnet last fall when I saw it next to a cash register. Now I wish I had that magnet. Because I am not my hair…even if it’s usually my most noticeable one-chance-to-make-a-first-impression feature.

Growing up curly…
For one thing, the cursed curl of it colors most of what I remember about my growing-up years. Oh, how lucky I was, the young girl with the naturally curly hair. This, of course, from my mother’s adult friends, to whom “curl” meant a regular seat under the hair dryer at the local beauty shop…and a satin pillowcase at home to keep everything in place for the rest of the week until it was time to visit Flo’s again.

For me, however, managing curl meant huge orangey pink foam rollers with huge rigid hinged clips. Then an hour under a plastic bonnet that mushroomed as the hot air roared to it through a ribbed hose that snaked across the bed to a flat UFO-shaped heating element. To get more teenaged sleep time, I frequently endured this arrangement at night so that in my waking hours, my hair did not appear to be naturally curly…even if it never quite approximated the more acceptable stick-straight, parted-down-the-middle, 70s-It-Girl style.

The big-hair 80s…
I gave up this masochistic ritual a few years later in my sophomore year at college when I woke up one night to see sparks skittering across the covers, signaling with frightening finality the demise of the UFO and end of my hot bonnet’s usefulness.

Ah, but my roommate had new electric magic, magic that you could hold in your hand—the blow dryer. I used hers once while she was out, but I now believe the blow-dry method would also have required at least an hour’s investment of time. I’m not sure, because about 30 minutes in, right before it quit blowing any air at all, the dryer blasted supernova-heated air on my head, gave off a terrible stink, and actually shuddered in my hand. Another electrical appliance had fallen victim to my curls; my roommate never quite forgave me.

Wrestling with my roots…
What has colored my more current memories is, literally, the color—or the lack of it. Having come to terms with the curl over the years through a series of shorter and shorter cuts and the miraculous introduction of styling gel, I then began the age-old wrestling match with my roots. Heredity was raising its ugly head in the guise of gray hair.

Just peeking over the age of 29, too young to even hint at being old, I immediately began to write a check every month for brown hair. My hairdressers became my close friends, my confidantes, often, the arbiters of length, color, and styling time…and in the process, indispensable. I moved away from one of my friend/hairdressers to go to graduate school for a year and ended up driving two hours each way every four weeks just for my brunette boost.

These symbiotic relationships went on for years…even when   my friend/hairdresser Cyndi wanted to help her husband with his business, I begged her to keep me. She did. When I left for a new city and new job, I carried a careful picture of how I wanted my hair to look forever, and the names and numbers of all the colors and products she used to keep it that way.

Friend/hairdresser Patti in my new home knew how to do curly hair. She even convinced me to let my hair “grow out.” Anyone who has ever grown her hair out knows the agony of plastic smiles when greeting people, behind which we are really saying, “NO, I don’t like my hair! Do you think I wear it this way on purpose? Haven’t you ever grown your hair out?”

Fast forward four years to the longest hair of my adult life, which looked like ringlets if I used a teeny tiny-barreled curling iron to even out the natural twists, or if I paid Patti for the extra 45 minutes she needed to pull it out straight with a blow dryer. I think I also owe her for some carpal tunnel treatments.

Who IS that?
Recently, however, when I had already started writing checks three weeks apart, I was forced to face up to both the curl and my gray: I was going to live overseas and couldn’t seriously expect to commute from Central Asia. Getting me ready for this adventure took two months and four haircuts from friend/hairdresser Patti. We ultimately exposed the natural seasoning in the half-inch or so of hair that I had left; the salt, that is…I had virtually no pepper. Nevertheless, I acquired some head scarves and departed for Turkmenistan with these wisps of white hair to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and to dance “These Boots are Made for Walkin’ ” with English language students there.

When working in a foreign country, you tend to end up in a lot of photographs because the people there want to remember you when you are gone. I was always shocked to see in the pictures that the young-at-heart blue-eyed American with the big smile had a head full of short white hair. I wasn’t sure that’s how I wanted to be remembered!

The defining moment, though, the moment of hair clarity, occurred when I boarded a local Turkmen bus with several of my much-younger American colleagues. The bus was typically hot, crowded, and noisy in a language I was just beginning to understand. As we all inched down the center aisle in search of a strap to hang from, a daiza (a Turkmen “aunt,” clearly older than me) reached out, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to an empty seat by the window beside her. As the bus ride continued and my mortification increased, I watched as other women gave up their own seats to the daizas that got on the bus. The next day I went to the market, picked out a shade, and dyed what was left of my hair black.

What’s next?
Now back home, I’ve already booked my next check-writing opportunity with my friend/hairdresser Patti. Patti will trim what’s grown out so far into some sort of shape and she’ll attend to the inches of white roots with a slightly softer color…that won’t rub off black on my pillowcases.

After decades of short hair, bracketed by a couple of rounds of long hair and multiple electrical appliances, I continue to make peace with what nature and my parents handed me. In a way, I’m starting over with how I want to look at this age. What are my options for length and color, and how will my whole self look, put all together? I’m pledging to you today that wherever I go from here, I’ll be doing it for myself.

But if you should happen upon those magnets at any checkout counter, would you please send one along?

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