Sometimes your hair just gets away from you. You put in a few highlights, next thing you're sprouting colors previously unseen on humans. You declare war on your curls—until you realize you're spending 70 hours a year working out with the blow-dryer... Four women talk about the moment they realized their hair wasn't them anymore. And what they did about it. And how they feel now.
By Whitney Fuller
Every morning when my alarm goes off, I reach over and feel around my nightstand until I find the offending object and the button that will buy me exactly eight more minutes of peace. And then eight more. And then eight more, until I know that the consequences of another eight—being late to work, skipping my morning coffee—would sabotage the pleasure of that last snooze. Wakefulness seeps in, and thinking about the challenges and the pleasures of the day ahead, I see my safe, dream-filled cocoon for what it is—a threadbare down comforter—and the world beyond as a place immensely more interesting. So I cast off my blankets, brave the chill of the hardwood against my bare feet: I get up.
In the past seven years, I've scheduled as many appointments with the intention of cutting my hair. And the first six times I sat down in that swiveling chair, I backpedaled, opted for only an inch, then asked my stylist how she would cut it if, the next time, I went through with it. Then last October I found myself, black smock on, hair wet, with the pedals locked in place, because my long blonde hair had become a bit like my comforter: safe and snug to the point of stifling.
My wake-up call came in the form of someone from my past—a fling who had never been more than a crush but who, in the two years, nine months, and 21 days since I'd moved to New York, had morphed into a symbol of everything my life wasn't. He worked on an organic farm in Hawaii; I work on the 36th floor of a skyscraper on an island of an entirely different ilk. One autumn Thursday, Casey bounced back into my present, putting my current life into sharp relief: I recognized how much I'd grown, and how young Casey seemed, the same idealistic, airborne soul he was when I first met him. I also recognized my reluctance to accept that fact. In looking back at what things could have been, I'd failed to see what they had become. I'd failed to see that my life was interesting—fascinating, really; it was just waiting for me to catch up. All this was running through my head the following Saturday afternoon; my hair happened to be the metaphor of the day. So I placed any trepidation I'd had about chopping it off—my mother's words of warning against doing something I'd later be sorry about ("Boys don't like short hair!"), my own insecurities over whether she was right—behind me.
My new hairstylist, a compact man with Zenlike focus, actually giggled when I told him it was my first time going short. "Change is good," he said before he made the first cut. I nodded in agreement, apprehensive nonetheless. But my nerves steadied; as Kaz snipped and the dead ends fell to the floor, I surrendered. By the time he was done, I was the one laughing—at my new sense of freedom, at my understanding of how ridiculously exaggerated my hesitation had been. By the time I walked out the door with hair clear up to my chin, I was so exhilarated by my new cut that I'd forgotten what long hair felt like.
People complimented me for the next couple of weeks, whether out of a sense of duty or sincerity, I don't know. I didn't care. Someone could have said I looked like a middle-aged man, and it would have rolled off my shoulders—because they were newly bare, and it was a pleasure to show them off.
Whitney Fuller is a former assistant editor at O.
By Chee Gates
Every black girl I knew—whether she was ebony-skinned or the color of butternut squash—wanted the same thing I did: hair that hung silk-straight. Our collective desire was rooted in the self-deprecating mentality that kinks were gross and had to be concealed, if not corrected. Straight hair promised romance, laughter, abounding beauty. If I wanted to be happy, I had no choice but to unravel every nap on my head. There was only one method that would do it: I'd have to get a perm, also called a "relaxer."
That first perm is like a black girl's bat mitzvah. It's a coming out—a rite of passage into womanhood. What's different is that the initial relaxing doesn't happen at any set age. And waiting too long could retard a girl's social progress. Here's why: Before your hair is relaxed, you're viewed as a child. (Or even a dope. Or you aren't viewed at all.) Because being invisible doesn't jibe with an only child whose astrological sun is in Leo—I could barely wait ten minutes to be in the spotlight—I got my first relaxer before I was even old enough to wear deodorant, thinking it would accelerate my path to stardom.
I was a follower—mimicked whatever was deemed of-the-moment. But then I started reading books like The Bluest Eye and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I saw footage of the Watts riots and Al Jolson's blackface act in The Jazz Singer. I began asking myself questions, "Is straightening my hair just another kind of minstrel show? Can I really love myself if I don't embrace my kinks, my authenticity?" I felt as if I'd been bamboozled. I'd spent the last decade idolizing an image that undermined me. Just as I came to this realization, my hair started falling out.
Stress on the hair begets breakage, according to my beautician, Yvette. She explained how overprocessed relaxed hair is "damaged beyond repair." The chemical opens the cuticle on the hair strand, gets underneath, and causes the hair to lose its strength. We shine it up with jojoba products, and though our hair might look all sleek and glossy and buoyant, the whole thing is really a sham.
My original plan was to cut back my perm gradually, while I eased into my new mind-set. Patience isn't my virtue, though. One Saturday in the summer of 2002, I woke up with an itch to do something colossally big. I called Yvette and spoke two words, "I'm ready." Three hours later, hair was all over the floor—14 inches, in fact. It took 21 years to grow it that long.
Touching my short little Afro for the first time was like sticking my fingers into thick carpet. I couldn't even believe the stuff was mine. I wouldn't look at myself in the mirror for longer than four seconds. "Who's that stranger in the black woolly cap?" I'd think.
Gradually, I got used to the natural look; I even "Chee'd" it up by donning supa-flair jeans and "Rock the Vote" buttons on my jacket. At school, people would hold up their closed fists when I passed by. I'd nod to them, aggressively. Friends started calling me Angie, short for Angela Davis. Men got all melodramatic, pulling out lines like "I truly do beg your pardon, my sistah" or "Have a gorgeous day, empress." One time the president of the Black Student Union walked up to me and asked why I hadn't been to any of their meetings or joined the movement, because "it's obvious that you care," he said. Then it hit me: Wearing my hair without a chemical had become as much of a statement as wearing it straight. I was just promoting another stereotype that came with its own potentially disenfranchising expectations. I had thought "natural" was a hairstyle, but it's really a state of mind. Doesn't matter if I rock my hair straight or kinky, as long I'm doing it for me.
Now I can get playful with my do: Afro in the back, perm in the front, and honey blonde streaks everywhere. I may switch it up in a few months. There are too many choices to stick with any for too long. And I'm open to every single one.
Chee Gates, a former O staffer, is a writer at Fitness.
The Right Cut
By Suzan Colón
Other people have bad hair days; I thought I was going to have a bad hair life. In every other respect, my Irish-French–Puerto Rican heritage had been very good to me. I got big hazel eyes and skin that doesn't automatically burn in the sun. I was exposed to both corned beef and cabbage and pernil and platanos, and both cultures were forgiving of the hips I developed as a result of my family's multicultural cuisine.
But my appreciation for my little United Nations ran out when it came to my hair. My mother's fine blonde coif perfectly complements her blue eyes and pink glow; my biological father has thick, dark, Latino waves. I ended up with a brownish, kind-of-wavy-sort-of-curly-but-not-quite-either mop, and both sides contributed a propensity to frizz on even the driest days.
As a teenager, I didn't like to brush it; a hundred strokes every night may have worked for Marcia Brady, but it took my hair from a vaguely triangular shape to a full-on pyramid. I was in my 20s in the '80s, the era of straight, spiky hair; new wave meant no wave, and I was stuck with a classic rock shag. Since a trendy style was out of the question, I had it chopped off into a short back and sides, long bangs look. It wasn't great, but I didn't know what else to do with it.
Neither, it turned out, did any of the stylists I went to. For years they cut my hair as though it were straight and blew it out that way, as if they were correcting a mistake. A hairdresser in Miami gave me a Louise Brooks bob and sent me out into the humidity with a jar of pomade and a prayer (neither of which prevented my hair from frizzing into the shape of an orange slice). When I went to a woman who later became famous for her expertise with curls, she just sheared all my hair off and gave me a pixie cut.
It was incredibly chic and easy. Dazzled by this new hair perfection, I forgot about the rest of me—specifically, my hips—until I realized that, with my close-cropped hairdo, I was shaped like a bowling pin.
In an effort to balance my top with my booty, I started growing my hair out. This felt like reuniting with a difficult ex; I expected problems and took precautions. In the case of an ex, it means extra time with the therapist. With my hair, it meant more time with the blow-dryer.
Having a lot of hair is a blessing, except when you're trying to blow it all straight. It took 40 minutes and three different kinds of brushes, and then I would discover I missed a wavy section in the back and had a bump. To avoid frizz and waves brought on by humidity, year-round hats became a necessity. Plus, a woman with a blow-out is the least romantic person on the planet: There's no sex in the shower, and she's always extracting herself from her lover's embrace because he's breathing on her blow-out and making it curl.
It wasn't for any of those reasons that I stopped struggling with my hair. I was tired of all the work, and I calculated the amount of time it took me to blow-dry my hair. It came to almost 70 hours a year! Life, or at least nearly three days a year for the rest of my life, was passing me by as I singed my scalp.
So I put down the blow-dryer. In their natural state, my shortish curls made me look like a half-Irish, half-Spanish poodle. But people said it was cute, and a few months later it was even cuter...almost hot. The pixie I'd been growing out had layers all around; this time, the waves and curls fell gradually, naturally, sexy-shaggily.
When it got long, I found a stylist who kept me in curls with multiple layers and the tricky diagonal slices that keep thick hair pouf at bay. Daily styling is almost as easy as my old pixie cut: Along with a little scrunching, the wind is my blow-dryer. And I discovered a great trick one night: Not wanting to sleep on wet hair, I piled it at the top of my pillow, Bride of Frankenstein–style. When I woke up, I had va-va-va-volume.
Recently, a woman asked who did my perm. "This is what my hair does naturally," I said. Her envy nearly killed me. It felt great.
Suzan Colón is a contributing editor at O.
Confessions of a Blondaholic
By Lauren Iannotti
Hi. My name is Lauren and I'm a blondaholic. I've been blonde-free for going on six months. I know it's not the color that's to blame. I know plenty of people can handle highlights, show restraint, enjoy small amounts of the ivory (or ash or golden) stuff, whose lives are enhanced by it. But not me. Moderation is not within my capacity. Overdose is always imminent.
I remember the turning point. It was a late-fall day nearly two years ago, and I had just spent almost three hours getting highlights at a chic New York salon. I felt out of place among the socialites and CEOs there, but I enjoyed a mind-boggling professional rate from my days as a grooming editor at a national magazine. Here's where my habit took hold: Every three months I'd put on my most presentable threads and visit a brilliantly talented colorist for foils. And, for reasons I hadn't reflected on, I always begged her for more than the last time.
"Don't you think it's time to just go for a single process?" I'd ask, trying to hide my desperation. She'd respond by gathering around the other lab-coated stylists and presenting them with my question. It was always met with frowns. "Your natural color is too dark. It will look brassy." "You'd have to come in once a month for maintenance. You don't even make it as often as you should for highlights." So I'd convince her to at least bump up my dose, and she'd send me off with incrementally more wheaty strands in my otherwise boring, fade-into-the-background, medium mouse brown.
That October day, I probably walked out with more blonde streaks than not. But I couldn't see them. I went to the drugstore the same night and bought a box of single-process dye described, no kidding, as "Bleach Blonding." And I used it.
Natural blondes make up approximately 2 percent of the world's population. They are as rare as albinos. But you can't toss a cat without hitting a golden ponytail these days, because the bottle-amplified ilk are everywhere. Sales of at-home blonding kits held steady last year, while in-salon lightening saw an unprecedented leap, according to every stylist I spoke to. No matter that celebrities seem at the moment to be exploring their dark sides. For every Cameron there's a Scarlett, a Gwyneth, and a Nicole. We are a nation that loves to be blonde.
The impulses that lead us to lighten up are as varied as the summery shades available at your local CVS. Natalia Ilyin, author of Blonde Like Me, a memoir of blonde addiction, says that for some the color signifies innocence, youth. For others it's the platinum seductress, she says, and still others are looking to be a sun-blonded mom or moon-blonded goddess. And there's a shade for every purpose under heaven.
"Once the marketers can get a woman thinking, 'What I am is not quite right,' they've got her by the narcissism," says Ilyin, who was studying symbols in graduate school when, she says, "I realized I had a cult symbol right on my head." So maybe you're at the salon, or strolling the aisles at the drugstore, and you're thinking, "What do I want to be? More innocent? Nurturing? Sexy?" "You read the names of the colors on the box, like Glamour Gold and Beach Baby Blonde," says Ilyin. "And you decide, here's how I can pump that up in my persona."
I started getting highlights after college, and I was always conservative about them, looking for a natural, summery, all-American blonde. But then I got married (which I'd never intended to do), and I suddenly felt distinctly conventional. Appearance and identity are linked, for better or worse. So it was during our turbulent second year of marriage—as my husband and I attempted to figure out what being married meant, and how we were expected to behave—that I decided to rebel against my good-girl image and change my look. I bought some very snug pencil skirts and fishnet and crochet tights, tore open my blonde-in-a-box, and made myself into what I imagined was a Hitchcockian heroine—all snug sweaters and chignons. My husband didn't care for it. Others did, not that I was looking. But it was fun to dress like I was on the make when I knew I'd be spending the evening reheating roast chicken for two.
Plum Sykes, author of Bergdorf Blondes, the literary ode to expensive dye jobs, adds, "When you achieve that white blonde, it's noticeable from anywhere in the room. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was the perfect example. You couldn't stop looking at her. It was like a halo."
Carolyn was the iconic blonde of a generation, one in a long line of glamour girls, many of whom had lit up the silver screen. But the appeal of the towhead is much older than Hollywood, according to Peter Frost, PhD, a Canadian anthropologist and expert in the evolution of skin and hair color. He believes women had to compete for men in Europe during the Ice Age, and the brightness and rarity of their hair may have given blondes the edge in survival. "The less common the haircolor, the stronger the male preference for that color," he says.
I love it when I can excuse my own strange impulses as evolutionary urges. Especially to my dubious husband, who, a few months into my peroxide dependence, moved out of our apartment. It wasn't because of the hair. But off he went. At that point I was using a trick an enabler/stylist friend had told me about: For more dramatic results, leave the stuff on for double the time recommended on the box.
Many women hit the bottle now and then without harming themselves or their hair. But for the obsessive among us, highlights are the root of the problem: Though you might start with a reasonable dose, it's easy to lose perspective. "At a certain point, there are so many highlights, the client simply doesn't see them anymore," says Marcy Cona, haircolorist, and creative director of color and style for Clairol. "The color relies on contrast to have any impact." Sometimes intervention is the only hope. Cona has staged them in her salon, surrounding the client with stylists who gently explain that the contrast underneath was why the hair looked so good the first time. "You don't talk about going darker. It's the worst thing you can say to a blonde addict. You just try to get her to tone it down in steps."
"It doesn't usually require 12. Just six months or so of slowly reintroducing lowlights until you're back to the beginning. More often than not, they'll relapse," she says. "And we'll intervene all over again."
After a year of progressively lighter hair, I looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw. Bleached out and strung out, I decided to go cold turkey. I called an old friend and stylist I'd been avoiding since I'd stepped off the precipice. When she saw me, she contained her horror and gave me a stain that would restore my natural color without hurting my hair. After a few more visits, she said, I'd be back to my brunette self.
Six months on the wagon and I feel as if I'm there. The chaotic year of being a confused-about-who-she-was bleached blonde has passed into a new one of relatively solid-ground brunettehood. My husband's back in the picture, too. I love how he calls me Sister of Mercy, after an old goth-pop band from the '80s. He used to call me Blondie, but I never really liked that. As any New Yorker will tell you, too much sunniness can be oppressive. It feels good to be in a warm, dark, all-natural groove. At least for now.
Lauren Iannotti, a former O staffer, is the articles editor at Marie Claire.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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