She’s sporting a cobalt streak and a barbed wire tattoo around her neck. My widened, menopausal hips spill over the edges of her chair like soft bread dough overflowing the sides of a pan. It’s a rainy Friday and my introduction to a brand new, highly recommended hairstylist. “I want it to look like…” My voice trails off then I sigh, exasperated, “like I just have more hair.”
I slide a wrinkled sheet of paper from my purse, an internet photo I’ve printed at home. “See here,” I say, “this is Hilary Swank about ten years ago at the Academy awards. See how her hair kind of poofs up in the back?” Now she’s fingering the ends of my hair like wilted lettuce leaves.
It occurs to me that pivotal moments in my life always occur when someone has their hands in my hair. My mother’s hands used to wind my damp, copper-colored ponytails into shining spirals every morning. She spooled them around her index finger and bobby-pinned them in place. Sometimes her aim missed. I’d get a sharp poke in my scalp, but I always grinned through the pain. I knew the kids in Mrs. Pearce’s first grade class would be whispering to each other that I looked just like Buffy on Family Affair -- a comparison so critical to my first-grade public image that I carried a Mrs. Beasley doll under my arm to drive the point home. By lunchtime, the spools had dried. I removed the pins and unfurled each ponytail like a new fern leaf, creating spirals down either side of my neck, transforming me into Cindy from The Brady Bunch. The scowling, sideways glances from Cynthia Schultz did not go unnoticed by me. She was jealous.
Is it normal for kids that young to need peer admiration? I certainly did. Everyone in town knew my mother had just served time in jail. Stinging arguments and insults between a neighbor family and ours had smoldered for years until it ignited one night during one of their big parties. A dozen men swaggered into our yard reeking of beer and attacked my father. Mom had grabbed the little pistol they kept in the closet for emergencies. No matter that she’d shot the gun to save my father’s life, or that no one died, the judge had still sentenced her to 60 days for assault with a deadly weapon.
When she walked through the door two months later, her scraggly hair drooped from missing her weekly hair appointments. Even at the age of six I knew how important those appointments were to her.
Our city paper had screamed headlines about my mother’s trial on their front page for weeks. Teachers whispered about it. Parents of classmates knew and talked about it in front of their children. One boy shouted on the playground, “Don’t play with her or her momma will shoot you!” So, normal or not, it was essential for me to believe the other kids admired me for something -- even if only for my hair. Cynthia Schultz was probably never jealous of me. But it made me feel good to think she was.
Ten years later, I traipsed to the Center Point mall in my platform shoes, rhinestone purse bouncing against my hip, bulging with three months of babysitting money. I presented the crumpled bills to the hairstylist and announced I was there for a Spiral Perm. “Make it look like Donna Summer’s hair.” I told her with my chin raised. The stylist was an old woman -- at least 40 -- who still wore her hair in a dyed-blond shag. She was so Shirley Partridge. Figuring she would be too old to know who I was talking about, I’d come prepared. I reached into the rhinestone bag and pulled out the Bad Girls album cover.
“Oh but Hon,” she said, “this here’s a black woman.”
“So?” I said, crossing my arms. That Donna Summer was black and super-cool and I was as white bread as Olivia Newton-John was a detail that didn’t concern me. The woman blinked at me a couple of times before wrapping a blue smock around my neck. What difference did it make that Donna Summer was a different race? She was glitteringly beautiful. When you’re sixteen years old and come from a scrappy family who screams so loud you have to close all the windows in the house to keep the neighbors from hearing, beautiful goes a long way. I wanted to look like somebody else because I wanted to be somebody else. And if it’s someone on the cover of 16 Magazine whose concerts pack in millions of fans, then all the better.
I raced home from the salon that day, high on the fumes of defiance. As I twisted the knob to the front door my stomach twisted with it, anticipating the volcanic reaction.
“What the hell have you done?!” My mother shrieked, dropping her mixing bowl and sending a cloud of flour onto the floor. “You’ve ruined your hair! Goddamn you! You’ll be on restriction until you turn eighteen!” The look of horror on her face was satisfyingly sweet. It had been my teenaged way of flipping her the bird.
When I was growing up she had forbidden me from changing anything about the beautiful red hair she loved so much. Yet it was that same hair she’d grab, close to the scalp, to hold my head in place while slapping me. Her rage would continue until she got me howling, then she finally let go. Once when I was eight, I had a cold sore on my mouth. That was the spot she aimed for and slapped until blood poured from it. The sight of blood had me convinced she was killing me.
The Donna Summer ‘do was my way of transcending my limitations. For months following the Great Spiral Perm, I camped in front of the bathroom mirror, singing into my now-unnecessary curling iron, “Looking for some hot stuff baby this evening…” I dreamed of millions of girls carrying my album cover to the mall and relinquishing their babysitting money to look like me. A me who emerged from a stretch limo instead of the little cracker box house we rented on J Street.
Twenty-two years later, in preparation for my 20th high school reunion, I told the stylist, “Cut it all off.” Imagining my classmates seeing me again with the same long hair made me cringe. An adult needed an adult image. A professional image. The image of someone who’d actually gone to college and wasn’t between jobs. Someone who was merely going through a restructuring phase in her life. “I need a grown-up look, you know?” I said. “Sophisticated.”
I whipped out a magazine article showing Annette Bening as Carolyn in American Beauty. “Oh I saw that movie,” the hairdresser said. “Wasn’t she that really screwed-up woman who was cheating on her husband and cried every day?”
I forced a smile. “I don’t want her life, I want her hair.”
The stylist slid her hands from my neck, forward and over the top. “You’re going to look great.” She went to work snipping, texturizing, sculpting, and gelling. An hour later piles of red hair surrounded me on the floor. She spun me around, and a sleek-looking executive met my gaze in the mirror. An executive who had power to hire, fire, give raises, and scare employees with a single glare.
“It’s perfect!” I said. When I left the salon I felt—well, powerful. But not as powerful as when I entered the reunion to find a sea of women with short, stylish hair. And when later that evening someone suggested I be given the award for the most changed, I silently thanked Annette Bening and the stylist!
So does this mean that hair for women is like muscle cars for young men and sports cars for their older counterparts? Does it represent power to other women? Some cultures forbid women from ever cutting their hair, or even demand their hair be covered when in public, because their hair is seen as sacred. I can’t say I’ve ever considered my hair sacred, but it has served as a tool for coming-of-age rituals at pivotal points in my life.
The brilliance of my hair color is finally fading, taking along with it my illusions about its power. After decades of hopeful hairstyles and disappointing dreams of becoming a rock star, television or movie actress, the face in my mirror now has drooping eyelids and my mother’s frown lines. My cheeks threaten to turn pendulous at any moment. I no longer stand in front of the mirror to sing. I stand in front of it when pulling on my Spanx Body Shaper. I’m not so concerned about my peers’ opinions these days as much as I’m concerned about their cancer screenings.
The cobalt-streaked stylist is bent over the counter, digging for hair clips while I watch her thonged buttocks peeking from her waistband. I wonder, Did I look that ridiculous with my platform shoes and spiral perm?
My finger points to the wrinkled photo again. “See how the sides of Hilary Swank’s hair accent her cheekbones?” I ask. “Can you make my hair do something like that?” As the words leave my mouth I realize for the first time that my role models are now younger than me. And so are my hairstylists. I feel a softening go through my shoulders and I catch the middle-aged face in the mirror smiling at me. Sitting in the chair that feels doll-sized, I chuckle and wonder what Cynthia Schultz is doing these days.
Like glossy carpet, photographs lie all over my son’s bedroom floor. They’re spread out, poured from tipped over boxes. They’re stacked in piles. They stand in a line at the back of his desk. It’s the same boy over and over again.
There he is posed in his Astros uniform. There he is holding hands with a friend outside the Exploratorium. There he is, face pressed against his brother’s as they concentrate on something just outside the frame. There he is perched proudly in front of the 1000-piece puzzle he completed the summer before starting second grade. There we are, tongues out, eyes wide...