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.
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.