Hairmiliation: My 7th Grade Perm

Twin B, aka “Butterbean,” is already long overdue for her sixth haircut.  Her older (by a minute), but less hairy sister has only had one trim during these first 19 months, and won’t need another for quite a while.

All the haircuts so far have been performed deftly by Dr. Mom, whose keen eye and a steady hand have been able to prevent any medical or aesthetic disasters.  I mean, she’s done brain surgery before, so this is really no big deal.

But still, whenever we set the kids down in the kitchen and start snipping, I can’t help but think of all the humiliation I and countless other children have suffered at the hands of parents who think they are stylists.

We have friends who take their toddlers to professionals coiffeurs, but we think that, a) that’s a little extravagant; and, b) our kids would freak out if a stranger touched their heads.  So we do it the way our parents did.  Slap a bowl on their heads and start hacking.

By the time I became cognizant of things like hairstyles, my sisters were going to the same stylist my mom did.  But, as a boy, I was not given that opportunity.  I could either go to the army barber on the base, or have my dad cut my hair.

Even my dad didn’t trust the army barbers, and he had been cutting his own hair at least since he joined up back in ’57 or so.  He could have even been cutting his own hair before then.  I know he still cuts it to this day.

Anyway, Dad was pretty good at cutting his own hair. Other people’s–not so much.  But at least he would attempt styles aside from the good old “high ‘n’ tight.” So when I could no longer avoid getting a haircut, I would let Dad do it rather than face the clippers of some half-blind geezer at the PX.

But even though the haircuts from Dad were surely not as terrible as I thought they were at the time, I always fought tooth and nail when my parents decided they couldn’t stand my hair hanging in my face any longer.  Not only did I dread going to school with a freshly dorked-out hairdo; but I also wanted to look like the cool dudes with the long hair on the covers of the records the older kids had.  You know: Boston and BTO and Peter Frampton.

The hair wars in our house dragged on until I was about seventeen, at which point my Robert Smith hair was the least of their worries where I was concerned.

During the time of strife, I would usually only have to get my hair cut about three times a year, so my insurgent techniques were fairly successful overall.  There was really only one time that my parents almost crushed my spirit entirely, and it was all my mom’s doing.

I had been using my tactics of avoidance and willfulness to avoid a haircut for a good six months, and my lank hair fell to my shoulders and completely obscured my vision.

My parents had been on me about it for weeks when my mom finally tried a new approach.  She told me that she didn’t have anything against me wearing my hair long, per se; but that she just didn’t like how lifeless, flat, and “flyaway” it got.  Wouldn’t it be great, she asked, if my hair were fuller, thicker, and more manageable?

I heard her out.

She had been giving herself and my sisters home perms for years, and they seemed to work out pretty well.  Of course, I didn’t pay much attention to their hair, so what did I know?

Mom told me that I too, could benefit from this technology, and that if I agreed, she wouldn’t make me get my hair cut.

But I didn’t want to have curly hair, I told her.

This won’t be a curly perm, she told me.  Just a little “body wave.”

I went for it.*

The toxic home perm smell was certainly nothing new to me, but the tight little foam rollers and the burning sensation on my scalp were highly discomfiting, to say the least.  I read Astrix comics for what seemed a lot longer than the twenty minutes the solution was supposed to stay in my hair.

When Mom pulled the rollers out, I almost cried.  Okay, I did cry.  I also huffed, whined, and accused.  You told me it would just be a little “body wave,” Mom!  You lied to me!

What I faced in the mirror was no body wave.  Instead of flopping comfortingly over my ears and neck, my hair clung to my head in tight little coils.  My head looked like Iowa from 30,000 feet, segmented into little rectangular fields delineated by furrows of exposed scalp.  Except instead of corn, my head was cultivating ammonia-scented rolls of crispy hair.

Don’t worry, Mom said.  It will relax in a couple days.

Then she blow dried it and brushed it out to try to make me feel better.  Or so I thought.

The result of the styling was slightly better than what was revealed when the rollers came off, but still not acceptable.  My hair now formed a translucent Afro that seemed to hover around my scalp without really touching it.

What I only realized some thirty years later was that my mom knew exactly what she was doing.  She figured that if she destroyed my long hair, I would have no reasonable choice but to cut it off.

What she didn’t count on, though, was the fact that I was as unreasonable as she was crafty.

I lived with my permed hair until it grew out and my parents finally browbeat me into getting it cut.  It didn’t relax “after a couple days” either.  I had to blow dry it and brush it out every day for months in order for it not to assume the shape of an asymmetrical dust-bunny.  And God forbid I allow a droplet of moisture to touch my hair: it would immediately return to Richard Simmons mode, prompting great hilarity among my classmates, from whom I had somehow managed to keep the shame of my perm a secret.


This was after several months of "relaxing." And yes, I know I looked like a girl.

So now that I have my own kids, I wonder if my wife and I will humiliate them by enforcing our aesthetic standards upon them.  Or, will we allow them to humiliate us by expressing their own sense of style?

*I could have included this episode in a story I recently wrote about living in Moscow as a little kid, but I didn’t because it just seemed too preposterous to think that as a seventh grader, I would have owned a full-length fur coat, vinyl pants, a suede cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it, AND had a perm. But weirdly, that’s all true.
*I also could have included it in a guest-post I wrote on Ron’s blog (Clark Kent’s Lunchbox) about the heartbreak of losing one’s hair.

About BetaDad

BetaDad is a fortysomething stay-at-home dad who is sometimes allowed out to build stuff out of wood or teach college students how to write. Most of the time he just chases his toddler twin girls around though. He Dad can also be found at his personal blog as well as Daddy Dialectic, Dad Centric, Insert Eyeroll, and Man Of The House


  1. Naps Happen says:

    There is absolutely nothing that I can say about my own bad (girl) eighties perms to even touch this. I did want to share, though, that I also grew up in a military household, where my brother tested my father’s hair-tolerance by sporting a spiky mullet and wearing a Metallica back patch on his denim jacket. The one thing he wasn’t allowed to do…ever…was pierce his ear. So of course, he got a girl named Daniella to do it in the girl’s bathroom at Bear River Middle School with a safety pin. Not having the proper hygienic instruction, he wore a little dangly guitar earring in the hole during school and then removed it at night. But he quickly realized there was a HOLE THERE and told my parents that he glued a stud on it and then ripped it off…and that’s why there was a mess on his lobe. Eventually, he forgot to take out the earring and came home wearing it. He was grounded for a month. But at least he didn’t have a perm.

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    • BetaDad says:

      Yep. I have a whole ‘nother story about the earpiercing debacle. Seems it wasn’t that popular for boys to have pierced ears in Virginia in 1982. Especially not popular with my parents.

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  2. Stacy says:

    That photo is awesome. I keep a photo of my husband’s old college ID on my iphone so I can whip it out and share the joy with friends at random moments. He loves it.

    We let our girls do whatever they want with their hair. It’s not permanent (no pun intended). My one rule is that whatever they decide to do with their hair, THEY have to be able to maintain it. My 6 year old wants to grow her bangs out, but wants me to keep it clipped out of her eyes for her. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but she’s the youngest of four girls, so I’ve been here before. I’m not new. Her growing her bangs out will mean I have to keep a pocket full of clippies handy and follow her around all day fixing her hair. Bleh. So for now, she has bangs and a chin length bob that allows her to run around at the park without stopping every 5 minutes to have me fix the clippie that is dangling in front of her face. Once she’s older and can manage the clippies (or headbands) on her own, then she’s free to do whatever she wants with her hair.

    (Same goes for pierced ears at our house, too, btw. They can get them pierced as soon as they’re at an age where I know they’ll be able to take care of them all by themselves.)

  3. Ousted says:

    I had to put my hair in curlers every night for two weeks during a show I did a few years ago. I looked like Shirley Temple with boobs. Hairmiliation affects everyone.

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  4. Mama B says:

    I have always had a head full of thick naturally curly hair. I mean, borderline afro thick. Unfortunately as a child the eighties, all of my girlfriends wore stick straight styles or braids with ribbons. My mother was a practical sort and often told me that someday I would appreciate my locks but until then, I would have to have a manageable haircut. That was when she decided to give me what she considered to be the ‘do of the day – the Dorothy Hamill. The “Dorothy Hamill” was a wedge haircut designed to give body to limp, thin haired people. I guess no one took my white girl afro into consideration but I walked around for over a year with a natural bouffant giving me an extra 4 inches in height. My hair grows particularly slowly so it wasn’t until I hit high school that it had grown out. Oh the shame!

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    • BetaDad says:

      I remember Dorthy Hamill, the ice skater and the hairdo. Yeah–doesn’t seem like it would work with curly hair. Duh. But, you know…shame can build character.

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  5. Um, WOW. That is pretty horrifying. I might have to try it on my kid.

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  6. Tanya says:

    I’m a military spouse and my husband’s assignments leave me bargaining with freaked out hair stylists on what they can manage to do to my scary African-American relaxed hair. (I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen multiple stylists panic when I ask for a wash.) I tell them they don’t have to style it – just trim it. Last time I said that I ended up with a mullet. No more bargaining now. I’d rather have split ends.

    • BetaDad says:

      Haha…my friend had the opposite experience. He’s a white guy who went into an African-American barbershop in his neighborhood, and the guy was like, “Uh, I don’t know what to do with this…” They both decided to go for it, and it was a total disaster.

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  7. Kristine says:

    That was an awesome story :)

    I got regular perms in grade school & one time my hair turned into a wax version of itself. Seriously, it was like someone had rubbed crisco through the curls. I even went to school that day…what the hell did I know? Turns out ol’ Momma Dukes had permed it after I’d gone swimming or something & long story short, I got a damn hair cut.

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  8. That’s some hair. And I should know as I grew up in New Jersey in the late 80s/early 90s when the hair was big and the perms were as toxic as the asbestos in our school gymnasium.

    Frampton has nothing on you.

    • BetaDad says:

      It’s pretty, right?

      That’s actually nothing compared to when the rollers first came out. My sister just reminded me that they called me “The Lion” for a while after I got the perm.

      Jersey is famous for big hair, and rightly so. Somebody I know from Jersey said that what the rest of the country calls “Jersey hair,” people from Jersey call “Philly hair.”

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  9. Neeroc says:

    My first permzaster made me cry too (yes I said first). Love the pic, but I gotta say, I want to see the full fro-mullet in action.

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    • BetaDad says:

      Yeah, sometimes I wish there were digital cameras back in those days. There are only about 50 pictures of me from ages 0-15, and none of them show my most ridiculous hairdos or fashion crimes.

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  10. jacksofbuxton says:

    People that cut their own hair are going to the 7th circle of hell (next to Donald “Unknown unknowns” Rumsfield.

    You are taking bread from my children’s mouths (Well,obviously not you BD.Long way to travel to Buxton to get the little ones a trim,but you know what I mean)

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    • BetaDad says:

      Don’t worry. I keep your American barber brethren well-fed, even though I only have enough hair left to keep them busy for about 3 minutes per visit.

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  11. Wait. Are you my husband? That picture looks JUST LIKE MY HUSBAND. Was it just the thing in the 70s to do the perms on boys or what?

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    • BetaDad says:

      If I’m your husband, I just want to say that I’m really, really sorry. I DO remember our anniversary date. It’s just that I forgot what month we were in because the weather was so mild.

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  12. Yash says:

    Beta Dad — I actually remember that look on you.

  13. Judi says:

    I might be showing my age here, but I like that picture. Apparently I’m the only one. ::clears throat:: moving on…

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  14. I had your classic Jewfro which we kept short. I say “we” because mom managed to convince me that it would be better that way. Around ’83 I had enough of it and decided that I wanted to have long hair like a bunch of the other guys.

    And because god likes to play with me my 9th grade photo is of a kid sporting a hedge on his head and some ugly glasses. Would have worn my contacts but I lost one the day before.

    I still get grief over that photo.

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  15. Mel says:

    I LOVE this post. As someone who has been home-perm ambushed (albeit a little less traumatic for a girl) I understand your pain.

    My dear husband was traumatized by him mom again and again with HORRIBLE haircuts. It wasn’t until he was 17 that he finally convinced a friend to cut it instead. Being that most of her haircut debacles occurred before family photos, all of their family photos belong in the Awkward Family Photo’s hall of fame!

  16. Aimee says:

    I had a mullet in grade five. That year’s school photo is pretty fantastic, I have to say. Red and white striped shirt, rockin’ mullet, impish grin, topped off with a feminine set of white heart earrings.

    Oh, 80′s fashion, how you love to mock me with your photographic evidence.

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  17. Lisa says:

    I remember my bad perm back in the 80′s as well. I had forgotton about it for so many years until I found some old photos. I had to ask myself…”what were you thinking?” Back then I thought it was cool but looking at it now I must have been seriously ill the day I allowed myself to get a home perm. To top it off my hair had a red tone to it so I looked more like a cross between Carrot Top and Richard Simmons.
    Regarding the cutting of our own children’s hair…I think I cut my kids’ hair until they were about 5 years old. I remember my daughter had beautiful golden blonde baby fine hair with curly locks at the ends. She cursed me the day I cut it off and gave her a more boyish haircut to make it more manageable…for me that is. She would cry every time we had to comb out the knots so I thought it would be easier for me, and her?, if I cut it short. Needless to say it grew back and then she never wanted her hair short again…however when she turned 16 I think she dyed it BLUE. I wanted to kill her but thought…this will be the equivalent of my bad 80′s perm. When you look back at that blue hair home dye job you will be thinking the same thing I did when I saw photos of my bad home perm.
    Thanks for sharing your story…it brought back lots of good memories and gave me the smile I needed today.

  18. Jessica Bern says:

    genius! your mother is a fucking genius!

    P.S. I take my kid to a stylist. She charged me 10 bucks. Worth it.

  19. Suzy says:

    At least your mom went stealthy, psych-ops on you. My mom kicked me while I was down. She waited for me to come down with pneumonia. Whilst I lay in my sick bed, too weak to run, she hacked off my long, glorious hair. It took 3 long years to grow my bowl cut out to that length. >=(

  20. Holy cow! I’m still trying to get over that picture. Them be some flowing locks Samson. No way I could get away with the “relaxed” look. After the 2nd grade it was pretty much high-and-tights until I was 30. I’m making up for it now–sporting a rather convincing Bradley Cooper at the moment.

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  21. Alyson says:

    Lucky for me, my hair does the curly afro thing without any extra help. If I go to bed with my hair wet, I wake up with flat sides and a giant curly mohawk. It’s brilliant.

    My daughter, however, has completely straight and manageable hair. Thank god. But she cries when you cut it because she’s a big wiener and she’s afraid of everything.

    My mom used to cut my hair when I was little too. My bangs stayed at a fluffy, totally uneven angle across my forehead for the better part of my Elementary school days. I’ll let the professionals stick to cutting Hannah’s. No matter how much she screams and embarrasses me.

  22. IzzyMom says:

    I dunno..I think you look kinda cute in that pic.

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  23. Indian says:

    I was looking everrywhee and this popped up like nothing!

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  24. tyblesbype says:

    nZ1GVp lscsdloptqcl

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Faiqa and beta dad, beta dad. beta dad said: Here's your chance to see me with a permanent wave of shame on my head: via @aiminglow [...]

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