The New York Times Magazine

It's the Hair, Stupid

et's lay the blame where it belongs. It is not an act of God. It is not an affliction; it is not even genetic. Bad hair is a result of ignorance, of a refusal to keep abreast of the great technological strides in the hairgrooming industry. Americans spend $40 billion a year on their hair. For that money we should be a nation of bouncy, springy locks from sea to shining sea. Instead (according to shampoo ads at least), there's a pandemic of lifeless, dry and dull. Not to mention split ends.

Part of the problem is that a lot of money spent on hair goes into wrecking it. Joanne Crudele, a research scientist with Helene Curtis in Rolling Meadows, Ill., says the most damage comes from coloring, permanent waving and overgrooming. Nevertheless, customers want to continue to abuse their hair, and they want to feel that it's O.K. In customer surveys, Helene Curtis discovered that three out of four women used heat to groom their hair, knowing it was bad but wanting it to be good. (The dietary equivalent of this kind of thinking would be asking that beer and potato chips somehow be made to increase muscle mass.) Undaunted, the best hair-tech minds at Rolling Meadows came together and invented Therma Silk: shampoos, conditioners, mousses, sprays and a gel that work with heat to make hair softer, shinier and more manageable.

Therma Silk is just one example of the profuse flowering of innovations in the industry. Many of us, however, are afraid to go after the information that will unlock the mystery of which products do what. While we are free to discuss sexuality in public, and encouraged to confess drug habits, nattering on for hours about the state of our hair is likely to get us branded as airheads. Learning how to match product with problem requires hours of study, testing and consultation with friends. The window society allows for this is between the ages of 13 and 15, after your homework is done. And that's for females. Males are forced to experiment alone in locked bathrooms.

This atmosphere of shame leaves adults nonplussed when it comes to problems they face with hair. Richard Stein, of the Richard Stein Hair on Madison Avenue, works on the heads of many psychologists and therapists, including Dr. Ruth. He says that his clientele, although learned, is woefully inarticulate in the chair. "They usually end up saying, 'I need some height.'" Stein says a stylist must be a kind of therapist, winnowing out hopes and desires from inchoate babbling. He encourages clients to clip pictures from magazines as an aid when words fail. He believes a sympathetic, talented stylist can lead a person into a state of hair harmony and balance.

As technology became more sophisticated, manufacturers became aware that the public was not keeping up with advances. In an effort to dumb-down choices, they grouped products around obvious hair problems. In 1990, the stylist John Frieda caxne out with his Frizz-Ease line - a shampoo, conditioners and styling aids geared to fuzzheads. Now Frieda has introduced Sheer Blonde: shampoos that remove dulling minerals, conditioners that moisturize and products that correct brassiness or add shine.

Thin hair is another focal point. Charles Worthington, a London hairdresser, presents Big Hair - balms and emollients that give body to fine, limp hair without weighing it down. He also has special hairbrush rollers; you brush them in, unclip the handles and leave the rollers in to set.

In an effort to guide even the most benighted customer, a company called BeZI - which manufactures Senscience, Iso and Bain de Terre - has installed computers on the ground floor of the Pierre Michel Hair Salon on East 57th Street. By touching the screen, you answer questions, and a list of suggested products comes up. You can request information on ingredients and how to use each product, as well as very detailed styling instructions. Then you take your printouts to the beauty bar and sample the suggestions, using available combs, brushes and dryers, without charge. If the last time you did this kind of experimentation was in the era of DippityDo and sponge rollers, you may find that one lunch hour will not suffice.

As in every art form, there are the shock troops. They are way past manageable, soft and shiny. Their goal is to look as if they've been sleeping on the A train. You would think that this effect could be achieved without beauty aids. Not so. Sebastian International XTAH offers Twisted Taffy, Vinyl, Primer and Crude Clay - a cream, a gel, a spray and something that looks like shoe polish - in suitably industrial graffitied packaging that marries well with body piercing.

Maybe someday we will all be in this enlightened state, when we can go around with a mop that sticks up, sticks out or lies down in a flat, greasy slick and feel good about it, but I fear that we will continue to allow ourselves to be victimized by bad hair. On the way home from the BeZI computer, I stopped in at a gallery where there was a show by Petah Coyne (now closed, unfortunately). Vast webs of hair, ensnaring animals and birds, were stretched across the walls. In corners stood small Madonna-like figures weighed down by yards and yards of tresses. It was a poignant reminder of how many of us are still living in ignorance, trapped and martyred by our own hair.

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