By JUDITH NEWMAN
Published: August 5, 2011HAVING curly hair makes me taller, more literary and better in bed. Perhaps not everyone agrees with me, like, say, my husband and the 500 men I dated before him who dumped me. But forget that. I know it’s true. Or at least it’s the story I tell myself every time I have a bout of Straight Hair Envy, when I ponder the possibilities of the Brazilian Blowout (surely formaldehyde seeping into the scalp can’t be that bad?) or wistfully cruise the aisles of Ricky’s jonesing for Fekkai Silky Straight Ironless, Redken Align 12 Ultra-Straight Balm and John Frieda Frizz-Ease Straight Fixation Smoothing Crème.
What curly head hasn’t had the Pantene Fantasy, where she shakes her head, and a glossy curtain of light-reflecting hair swooshes behind her? Let me reiterate the sound effect: That’s swoosh, not boing.
But. If I had straight hair (so my internal monologue goes), I would be going against my true nature. I would be trying to tame the untamable creature within. And those of us who are big curly heads are hard-put to remember a time when our hair wasn’t a striking part of our identity, from the very moment we heard that rhyme about that girl with the curl in middle of her forehead. Milton’s Eve in “Paradise Lost” has long golden hair that falls in ringlets. Botticellis and Titian nudes have wild flowing manes that cover the naughty bits. When the Sirens in the Odyssey lure men to their deaths, they don’t do it with a Jean Seberg do.
Not to say I always felt so adamant about what is, in truth, the defining aspect of my appearance. I must have been having a Moment in high school, judging from my yearbook photo, where my badly ironed hair made me look like Nigel Tufnel in “This Is Spinal Tap.” (That is, Nigel with a pretentious yearbook quote from James Joyce.) And then, more recently, when I allowed myself to be talked into a two-hour blowout for a magazine photo shoot (“Straight hair takes off 10 pounds!” the stylist said cheerily) — prompting my son with Asperger’s and poor facial-recognition skills not to know who I was, and my husband to note that, “if the look they were going for was Bored Suburban Housewife, they succeeded.”
For most of my life, changing my curls seemed disrespectful of my ethnicity, my family. I might as well have moved to Greenwich, Conn., and started wearing pearls.
“Look, it’s not what I want, it’s what wealthy men want,” Patti Stanger said. I had called Ms. Stanger, the star yenta of Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker,” because I’d noticed that whenever she auditions women to meet her millionaires, she almost always tells them to lose the curls. “Curly hair is like redheads — they just don’t get a lot of play,” Ms. Stanger added. “I don’t know why. I just know that to be a dream girl you need straight, long, silky, humidity-resistant hair. Also, I think curly hair reminds them of — well, let’s be polite here. Let’s just say a pterodactyl nest.”
By the end of our conversation, I was practically weeping with the knowledge that Ron Perelman would never be mine.
I’d like to say that curls are enjoying a renaissance; after all, for fall fashion week, designers like Rebecca Minkoff and Nicholas K were featuring something they called “next-day hair”: disheveled, slightly frizzy curls that one stylist described as “hair that looks like you’ve been living in the woods for three days.” Finally, my time had come!
But in real life, one always gets the sense that curly hair is the consolation prize. Products from Ouidad and Devachan, both specializing in curlies, seem to be patting us gently on the back and saying: “Listen, we know what you want. We know. But be proud. If you can’t have straight hair without massive amounts of time and effort, at least we’ll help you look like you didn’t stick your finger in an electric socket.”
And then there’s the rise of Drybar, whose motto is “No color. No cuts. Just blowouts,” for 40 bucks. There are five locations in Los Angeles, where it sometimes seems that, if you have curly hair, you are a sad yet whimsical accident of nature, like that two-faced kitten. Not surprisingly, a Drybar is soon to open in New York City, much to the relief of one friend who claims to have gotten R.S.I. from blowing out her own hair three times a week for years. With affordable blowouts, she said, she plans to “leave it to the professionals.”
Any shred of hope I had about curly hair becoming cool were dashed with the appearance of Rebekah Brooks, the embattled former News International chief executive who allegedly looked the other way while her reporters tapped the phones of celebrities and murder victims. Why is it that the most glorious mane of red curls this side of Collette has to be attached to the head of a woman who’s become the poster child for amorality in journalism? Hi, my hair is red and curly and glorious, and P.S., the London papers now call me “the most hated woman in Britain.”
I realize I take this a little more personally than I should, and since so many people mentioned I was her doppelgänger, I finally gave up and adopted her photo as my Facebook profile picture. Still, it’s not just that she’s reviled. Ms. Brooks’s hair has brought up a far more ubiquitous idea about curls that irks me: that those of us with hair like Ms. Brooks’s can’t be taken seriously. That we are narcissists who wear our hair this way to a.) get attention and b.) infuriate people.
Robin Givhan, the fashion critic and reporter for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, wrote a piece for the Web site decrying Ms. Brooks for daring to testify before Parliament with her hair — well, like that. “That was look-at-me hair,” Ms. Givhan wrote. “Stare at me, remember me. Me me me.”
Let’s look at Ms. Brooks’s hair another way. Maybe her feeling about appearing before Parliament with the halo of hair was not “look at me” but “Good God, I have to testify before Parliament, I have no time to deal with my hair.”
Because, trust me, it’s not as if she does that to her hair. It was not cunningly arranged. That is her hair’s default. And this is particularly true in the Britain, because, having lived there for a year, I know there is something about the hard water in London that guarantees that, if you don’t devote an hour to it in the morning, drenching it with moisturizers and de-frizzers, a person with her kind of hair will resemble Magenta in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Or Rebekah Brooks. Or me.
Is it contradictory to say I feel sexier with curly hair, yet want serious women with serious jobs to be able to wear it curly? I don’t think so. It pains me when I see women straighten their hair in order to be considered more “professional.” Yes, I get that there is a history of funny women, from Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball to Gilda Radner and, in her early years, Kathy Griffin. (Kathy, I love you, why did you and your flat iron betray us?)
But here’s a parlor game for you: Try to find a newscaster in a major metropolitan market with curls. What, did you think they are all naturally straight? As if there’s some gene for shellacked and ironed tresses that went together with on-air talent?
What will it take to make a big head of curly hair truly acceptable? Ms. Stanger thinks it’s all about which celebrities are wearing it: “When Julia Roberts had red, curly hair in ‘Pretty Woman,’ everyone thought it was hot.” True, but she was, you know, a hooker.
I thought I was tilting at windmills until I discovered my new cultural and hair hero, the Florida congresswoman and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Recently, Ms. Wasserman Schultz made news when accusing her Republican colleague, Allen West, of endangering his elderly constituents by supporting huge Medicare cuts, and Mr. West — although not mentioned by her by name — retaliated by sending out an e-mail calling her “the most vile, despicable, unprofessional” member of Congress and telling her to “shut the heck up.” And after that, it got ugly.
Politics aside, I love the congresswoman’s guts in not bowing to the vast Blowout Conspiracy. Sometimes she’s got those blonde waves, sometimes she’s got pin-curls, but I’ve never seen her on a Sunday morning chat show with helmet hair. She is a serious, passionate voice for progressive politics in this country, and she’s not afraid to have hair that’s passionate, too.
My own passion on this subject came to the fore when my mother died not long ago. She was a humorous woman with a serious career, a physician, and had wild hair pretty much like mine. And she was a woman who never lacked for confidence. Short and chubby, she always thought she was quite the beauty. And so she was. Years ago, when she saw me during one of my infrequent attempts at straightening, she said, gently: “You know, honey, I can understand you wanting to improve your brain or even your body. But — you’ve got my hair. It’s perfect. Why would you want to improve on that?” Why, indeed.
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