Awesome Women, childhood, Crystal Tipps, curly hair, Feminism, Hilary Hayton, Hillary Clinton, identity, Life Lessons, Memoir, mother daughter relationship, serious hair, seventies, straight v curly hair, unregulated hair care industry, Women and Careers, women in movies
“Didn’t we used to call you Crystal Tipps?”
Why yes, you did. Relentlessly. It was funnier to you than it was to me.
Teetering on the edge of adolescence in the early seventies, I instinctively knew that Crystal’s coiffure, a big triangular purple frizz, belonged only on the BBC, in the groovy world of cut-out animation created by Hilary Hayton.
Someone, probably not a feminist, had deemed more acceptable and in my case, forever elusive, that silken sheet of hair that hung straight down the backs of other girls in standard-issue blonde, brown, black or grey. Crystal, with Alistair by her side, was not cut out for corporate. Upside down, afloat in the sky among rainbows and bubbles, she was maddeningly oblivious to the very concept of “a bad hair day.” I did everything in my power to distance myself from her, which in retrospect is a bit sad, because Crystal was her own girl. It was no small task, as I was reminded by the boy – now middle-aged man – who reached across an impressive stretch of time and distance to ask on Facebook if he used to call me Crystal Tipps.
The 1970s represented the dark ages of hair care in Northern Ireland, with the curly among us left largely to our own devices. Major hair-care discoveries of the twentieth century were on the back burner – anti-frizz serum, leave-in conditioner, mousse, spritzes, and spray gels. Diffusers. Ionic hair-dryers. Microfiber towels. Accordingly, there were major hair mistakes – one of my most spectacular being a spiral perm that I rationalized would mathematically cancel out the natural curls. That paled in comparison to the fateful day when I allowed a desultory hairdresser in a Ballymena “salon” to cut my hair short. Like most of the nation, he was undeniably smitten with then-Lady Diana Spencer, whose short hair helped her achieve the kind of acceptability – and accessibility – that Crystal Tipps had been denied. Brandishing his Clairol 1200 hairdryer and a round brush, he presented me with glossy magazines devoted to hair that led me to believe a Lady Di do was just what I needed; it would be “tidier” and “far less trouble,” its short layers, very short. Liar, liar, pants on fire. Had I known better, before the first snip, I would have asked him to recite the laws governing curly hair, which include the following:
- Curly hair is unpredictable.
- Manageability of curly hair is directly related to the unpredictability of the curl.
- Curly hair is longer – much longer – when combed through wet.
- Would-be princesses and Charlie’s Angels have crews of “people” on hair duty. Working class girls do not.
- Shampoo in moderation. Only condition the ends.
- No two curls are the same.
- Curls must be cut one at a time.
- The curls will win. Every time.
While most everyone else was distracted by Lady Diana’s sapphire engagement ring, I was growing out The. Worst. Haircut. Ever, immortalized in a Valentine verse composed during his tea-break by a boyfriend (who, incidentally, had great hair). It went like this: “You’re very special /you’re very rare/even though/you have no hair.” ‘
‘Twas a lovely ditty, followed shortly thereafter, before I went off to college, by “The End.“
For a time, I was convinced of a conspiracy around curly hair. It was reminiscent of the way mothers withhold information about childbirth. No, the styling of naturally curly hair is not the same as giving birth, but both must be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated. I am still a little bitter that when I was pregnant, not one of my friends-with-children divulged any of the more painful details of childbirth. When I asked about The Pain, and told them to spare no details, they just mumbled vaguely, as though in a trance. Avoiding eye contact, they lied and said they could not remember any of it, yet in the same breath would tell me to be sure to ask for an epidural – “just to be on the safe side.” My mother, to give credit where credit’s due, remembers at least two important details: it was a forceps delivery that “you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” and it was Good Friday which she thought was a good sign. Of what I’m not sure. To boot, there was snow on the ground which delayed my father’s arrival to the hospital. In Ballymena. Invariably, this detail will lead to an extended treatise on the unpredictability of Irish weather helping her deftly avoid any elaboration on the forceps.
But back to my hair. Natasha Hughes, in a recent Canberra Times article, points out, correctly, that
Curly hair makes a statement when sometimes the only sort of statement that’s desired is: ‘ I belong; I blend in.
Precisely. In the classroom, the boardroom, the waiting room, the conference room – the Oval Office – we just want to belong, but not in a way that feels uncomfortably like conforming or settling. It can be a tough row to hoe, often requiring compromise if not complete surrender.
I had begun brokering a kind of peace with my hair because of the products available by 1988, and then along came Melanie Griffith’s Tess in Working Girl chopping off her hair because, after all, if “You wanna be taken seriously, you need serious hair.” Seriously? Adding insult to injury, a decade later, Up Close and Personal Robert Redford’s character tells a big-haired shoulder-padded Michelle Pfeiffer who just wants to make it in broadcast journalism to “do something about the hair.” By the end of the film, her character has a short, brunette bob and a top job at the network. And just in case we were in any doubt about what might happen when women let their hair down, we watched Thelma and Louise drive off a cliff.
Then there is Julia Roberts whose characters are almost always winners, big hair notwithstanding. Before she was Erin Brockovich, back in 1997, she was “the best man” in My Best Friend’s Wedding, but not very “serious.” Meanwhile, I was enjoying pregnancy, my hair reaping the benefits of all those pre-natal vitamins. Big belly. Big hair. Big hopes for motherhood. Instead of commenting on my lustrous hair, colleagues would muse aloud, “Haven’t you had that baby yet?” or, bizarrely, “Are you still here?” followed by, “Really? You don’t know what you’re having?” Even sales people – strangers – would look at each other in disbelief and whisper loudly, “She doesn’t know what she’s having.”
This was a wholly unsatisfactory response that typically provoked a protracted agonizing debate over whether my human child’s nursery should be pink or blue.
Tired of all this, I decided one Friday afternoon, towards the end of the third trimester, that rather than go to Target to stock up on green or yellow non gender-specific clothes for 0-3 month-old humans, I would have my hair “done” at a swish salon in Scottsdale. It was one of the best, I had been told, by someone with children and straight hair. There I was, my hair freshly colored in a caramel-honey hue, trimmed in long, manageable layers. By this time, I was proficient in the lexicon of curly-hair-care. I knew all the right products to use and had even mastered special drying techniques including the art of scrunching, diffusing my hair upside-down, and air-drying (or using a paper towel) to avoid “disturbing the curl.”
Given all of this, it defies logic that on that particular evening, I would allow an intense stylist, dressed like a hungry Johnny Cash, to blow my hair dry with an enormous round brush, thus taking me back to those heady days following Princess Diana’s engagement. I remember choosing to concentrate on my magazine rather than the mirror, but when my stylist was distracted by the early arrival of a straight-haired woman who reported the news on a local TV channel, I looked up to confront my reflection. There were four impossibly large round brushes nesting in my hair. Four. I resembled a failed test subject and wanted to cry. But wait. There was a method to his madness. Once he removed those brushes, and spun me around in that chair, choirs of angels began to sing. My hair would have been the envy of any morning news anchorwoman. It was big, but by God, it was straight and smooth. It was almost presidential. I had straight hair. Granted, it lasted only for five hours – as long as it took to achieve. I savored every minute – running my fingers through it, throwing my head back, tossing my tresses around – because I knew that once a drop of water hit my head, it would all be over.
Think hair doesn’t matter? Think again. The writers of Elle magazine consulted a psychologist, with a real PhD, to answer the question that keeps us awake at night: “Is Your Hair Holding you Back?” Well, is it? Hillary Clinton, arguably holding one of the most important positions in the world at the time, made the headlines more than a time or two, not because of some act of diplomacy that might prevent yet another war, but because she had gone out in public on what some considered an unacceptably Bad Hair Day, made all the worse because she had done so without make-up. When Madame Secretary changed the rules of engagement, the critics flipped out.
Then last night, the Democratic party made history and nominated Mrs. Clinton as its presidential candidate. She made history – and so did her hair – each highlighted on the fashion page of the New York Times the morning after:
Mrs. Clinton looked supremely unflappable: perfectly tailored and in control. Not a hair out of place (but some hair nicely waved). The kind of person who could carry the nuclear codes with aplomb.
I remember in response to learning I had cancer, a life-long friend’s initial response went exactly like this:
Oh no! What about your hair?”
Observing that I still had my hair several months later, the same person felt compelled to ask about details of my treatment and to pass judgement on my decision not to pursue chemotherapy. Here’s the truth. Some of it had to do with hair loss. I was afraid to lose my hair. I know. It’s only hair. However, hair-loss, albeit temporary, is a distressing possibility – eyelashes and eyebrows, the hair on my head. People told me “it’s only hair – it will grow back,” or “your bald head will show the world you’re battling cancer and winning.” Remember, I told them, I am an unwilling conscript in this battle.
In my quietest moments, I try to trace this fear to its source. One of my favorite writers, Edna O’Brien, tells us we can never escape the themes of childhood. And so, maybe it was my mother who often alluded to the Bible, referring to a woman’s hair as “her crowning glory,” or the whimsy of my grandmother comparing my hair color to that of a new penny. More harrowing perhaps, is my recollection of stories in the news, when I was a little girl with very long hair, stories of young Roman Catholic women who were tarred and feathered, publicly humiliated for having associated with British soldiers in the late 1960s in Northern Ireland. To this day, I am haunted by the thought of a barbaric punishment that left them shorn and exposed. Whatever its source, this fear of chemotherapy is irrational, and it feels shallow to have spent at least a part of each day since I first heard “tumors,” fretting about the fate of my hair. And, should the cancer spread, and if my oncologist tells me that chemotherapy is the sensible thing to do, then we’ll play the numbers.
The prospect of losing my hair to a cancer treatment also made me feel guilty about the numerous times I have cursed it, and all the time and money I have spent trying to coax it into being more “sensible.” Like many women, I have abused my hair for years with products from a largely unregulated industry that may even have contributed to my cancer. So instead of wasting my time with drivel about whether a woman should be taken more or less seriously depending on whether her hair is straight or curly, short or long, how about helping me understand what needs to happen in order to address the lack of regulation that allows our shampoos, conditioners, cleansers, and more “exotic” – toxic – treatments, to contain the very chemicals that may have caused the cancer diagnosis that rocked my world?
All in vain, I still partake. I color my hair and use products that, upon closer inspection, should scare me into stopping. Every single day, the curl is different; and every month, the gray stubbornly returns, reminding me that I am not really in charge.
Almost a decade ago, I found a drawing my daughter. It has become my favorite picture of me, for me. Where art again meets reality, my budding artist was clearly struggling to get my hair just right. Frustrated, it was with a long sigh and a scribble of orange crayon and black marker, that she forced it into semi-straight submission and pondered A Bad Hair Day. She nailed it.
That hair is almost a triangle, resurrecting Crystal Tipps, for whom I have developed a belated respect. I like her, almost enough to believe Kristianna Michaelides, Australia’s leading curl specialist (now there’s a position that did not exist in the seventies), when she waxes philosophical:
Curly-haired people are seen as mischievous, with a sense of humour. I associate curls with creativity. People with curls tend to be at ease with themselves – if they’re not fighting their curls, they must be happy within themselves.
I’ll take it.