Split Ends: A Woman's Life with Her Hair by Richard Stein

Marjorie Rosen

n interesting thing has happened to hair: Anything goes. Long or short, green or white, braided or even bald, it's all fine, as long as it suits you.

It wasn't always this way. In the 50s, when I was a girl, whatever your hair type or color, it was wrong. Brown hair was supposed to be blonde; blonde, platinum; straight hair needed to be permed and kinky hair straightened. Women used to visit the beauty parlor every single week, hospital stays and death being no exception. There, their crowning glory would be washed, set, dried under huge metal machines, then tortured into the style of the day. Finally, these "do's" (really don'ts) would be lacquered into helmet heads exactly like one another, the ozone layer be damned; at night, they would be preserved for the following day in yards of toilet paper secured with a hair net. A woman could be tossed, buffeted, and whisked away into the perfect storm, but one thing was sure; her hair would never move.

By the early 60s, young women were beginning to challenge such stifling decorum. Still, we all longed to be au courant; and toward that end, some of us even ironed our hair straight as a ruled edge in order to achieve the look du jour: I will never forget how one friend, born with thick, kinky hair, decided to have it professionally unkinked. At the time, this could only be done in a beauty parlor -they were not yet called "salons" -catering to African-Americans. But the straightening solution, which worked wonders on black heads, was, as it turned out, too strong for hers, and every hair on her head fell out.

My friend, however, was in indomitable spirit, determined not to let baldness ruin her social life. So she bought herself a wig. It was expensive and featured luxurious black curls that had once been on someone else's head, and which, she was convinced, transformed her into Elizabeth Taylor's twin -at a time, you understand, when Liz was still the most glamorous creature on the planet. (The rest of us, of course, teased our friend that she looked more like Liz's poodle.) If I'd been open to valuable life lessons in perseverance and ingenuity (which I was not), this classmate would have taught me well. After all, she had the presence of mind to tie a colorful babushka over her wig, as much to make sure her store-bought hair didn't fall off her head when she went out on dates as for any fashion sense; yet the happy result was that everyone called her "Jackie" in the belief that she was a devotee trying to mimic the First Lady's impeccable stylishness.

Not long after "Jackie's" hair fiasco, I had one of my own. It also concerned a wig of sorts -a waist-length ponytail, in fact -which I bought to wear while dancing and singing my way around the University of Michigan Varsity swimming pool in a drama-department production of Aristophanes' The Frogs.For frolicking in a toga, the add-on, or fall, was fine. What was not fine was that I saved it and on those "bad hair days" after college would occasionally wind it around my own short ponytail, hoping for a look that was very Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's when in fact, what I'd actually achieved was neo-Madame Nu. Nor did I calculate far enough in advance in deciding when to wear this fall. And so, inevitably, I found myself in the midst of a passionate assignation, getting up from bed while my hairpiece remained behind. It had gone the way of so many of those 60s-era false eyelashes, wayward butterflies adrift on conjugal pillows, however, this little bun simply detached itself and lay beside my sleeping paramour like an abandoned horse's tail. Returning from my ablutions, I swiftly reattached it, but never wore it again.

Nor did either of us speak of it until many years later. By then, we had broken up, gone our separate ways, and then renewed our relationship. One evening, laughing shyly, he brought up my hairpiece, which he remembered with considerably less delicacy than he might have, as "lying there like a big old horse's tail." Worse, he wasn't the only one. A mutual friend, whom he'd apparently regaled with the incident, also brought it up. "Yes, he still talks about that wig," she laughed, repeating him word for word, "Lying in his bed like a big old horse's tail." Ha ha.

Let's be frank. What would you do when confronted with such a recollection? Probably you'd be mature and well-adjusted, and you'd laugh louder and longer than either friend (or at the very least, you'd give an amicable little trill). Well, I wasn't, and I didn't. Instead, I did the only thing I could. I lied. “You're thinking of someone else," I assured my former Romeo. "He's getting me mixed up with another woman." I insisted to my friend.

That hairpiece had transformed itself into a hair shirt, a penance for my vanity. Yet which was worse? Confusing me with another woman in the sack? Or not confusing me, and thinking that my perfectly fine tresses were so lame, so pathetic, so - (scroungy, dirty, thick,badly cut, overdone, you fill in the blank), that I needed to wear a really bad wig to bed?

As far as I was concerned, there was no contest.

Marjorie Rosen in the author of the books Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream; Mia and Woody: Love & Betrayal; and the novel What Nigel Knew. Currently, she is deputy editor at the New York Times Magazine’s special issues, Women’s Fashions of the Times and Style & Entertaining.

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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