Editors' note: Nora Ephron passed away June 26, 2012, at 71. She was a longtime friend of this magazine, and this essay—one of our favorites—shows her trademark thoughtfulness and wit. (And here are two more of her pieces—about a late-arriving Aha! Moment and the 6 books that send her into a state of rapture.)
You know what maintenance is, I'm sure. Maintenance is what they mean when they say, "After a certain point, it's just patch, patch, patch." Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won't have to hide behind a stack of canned food. I don't mean to be too literal about this. There are a couple of old boyfriends whom I always worry about bumping into, but there's no chance—if I ever did—that I would recognize either of them. On top of which they live in other cities. But the point is that I still think about them every time I'm tempted to leave the house without eyeliner.
There are two types of maintenance, of course. There's Status Quo Maintenance—the things you have to do daily or weekly, just to stay more or less even. And then there's the maintenance you have to do monthly or yearly or every couple of years or so—maintenance I think of as Pathetic Attempts to Turn Back the Clock. Into this category fall such things as facelifts, liposuction, Botox, major dental work, and the general area of Removal of Unsightly Things—of varicose veins, for instance, and skin tags, and those irritating little red spots that crop up on your torso after a certain age for no real reason. I'm not going to discuss such issues here—for now, I'm concentrating only on the routine, everyday things required just to keep you from looking like someone who no longer cares.
We begin, I'm sorry to say, with hair. I'm sorry to say it because the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.
Tell the truth: Aren't you sick of your hair? Aren't you tired of washing and drying it? I know people who wash their hair every day, and I don't get it. Your hair doesn't need to be washed every day, any more than your black pants have to be dry-cleaned every time you wear them. But no one listens to me. It takes some of my friends an hour a day, seven days a week, just to wash and blow-dry their hair. How they manage to have any sort of life at all is a mystery. I mean, we're talking about 365 hours a year! Nine work weeks! Maybe this made sense when we were young, when the amount of time we spent making ourselves look good bore some correlation to the number of hours we spent having sex (which was, after all, one of the reasons for our spending so much time on grooming). But now that we're older, whom are we kidding?
I myself have taken Draconian measures to reduce the amount of time I spend on my hair: I never do my own hair if I can help it, and I do my best to avoid situations that would require me to. Every so often a rich friend asks me if I'd like to go on a trip involving a boat, and all I can think about is the misery of five days in a small cabin with a blow-dryer. And I am never going back to Africa; the last time I was there, in 1972, there were no hairdressers out in the bush, and as far as I was concerned, that was that for that place.
I'm in awe of the women I know who have magical haircuts that require next to no maintenance. I envy all Asian women—I mean, have you ever seen an Asian woman whose hair looks bad? (No, you haven't. Why is this?) I once read an interview with a well-known actress who said that the thing she was proudest of was that she could blow-dry her own hair, and I was depressed for days afterward. I'm completely inept at blow-drying my own hair. I have the equipment and the products, I assure you: I own blow-dryers with special attachments, and hot rollers and Velcro rollers, and gel and mousse and spray, but my hair looks absolutely awful if I do it myself.
So, twice a week, I go to a beauty salon and have my hair blown dry. It's cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting. What's more, it takes much less time than washing and drying your own hair every single day, especially if, like me, you live in a large city where a good and reasonably priced hairdresser is just around the corner. Still, at the end of the year, I've spent at least 80 hours just keeping my hair clean and pressed. That's two work weeks. There's no telling what I could be doing with all that time. I could be on eBay, for instance, buying something that will turn out to be worth much less than I bid for it. I could be reading good books. Of course, I could be reading good books while having my hair done—but I don't. I always mean to. I always take one with me when I go to the salon. But instead I end up reading the fashion magazines that are lying around, and I mostly concentrate on articles about cosmetic and surgical procedures. Once I picked up a copy of Vogue while having my hair done, and it cost me $20,000. But you should see my teeth.
Next: The most powerful weapon: hair dye