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Restless Hair



Though I don't often admit to caring much for appearances, I have always harbored a secret envy and affection for the Breck girl. The '90s equivalent was the Vidal Sassoon model with the kind of shiny, swingy hair that you know is not messed up when she gets out of bed in the morning, the kind of hair one proudly and comfortably throws over her shoulder for a lifetime.

Cybil Shepherd was a Breck girl back in the late '60s when she was a teenage beauty queen in Memphis, and her hair looks now just like it did then, except shorter. Breck girls posed with their mothers for airbrushed full-page photos that appeared on the back of slick magazines like Life and Look. The theme of the ad campaign was a combination of good hair genes like mother, like daughter and the beautifying effects of Breck shampoo and conditioner. (Later we were told that you could remove grease spots from the garage floor with Breck, but who knew?)

For girls like me, endowed with natural curls that pointed in whatever direction they damn well pleased, no amount of Breck products could make a difference. I spent years torturing my hair into compliance, rolling it on orange juice cans, ironing it, plastering it with Dippity Doo, Scotch-taping my bangs to my forehead, doing whatever I could to stifle its natural will.

Finally, when I was 18, I cut it all off, and thus began a 30-year search for hair I could live with. My hair has been permed into a white woman's Afro, has been less than an inch long, has been shagged, has been arranged in so many different styles that friends finally just stopped commenting on my new look.

My daughter inherited my willful, restless hair, and I spent many hours of her childhood taming it. Braids, French braids and Princess Leia roll-ups contained her wavy blonde locks if they weren't flowing free from a headband or barrettes. She began experimenting with color early on, going from blonde to black around the age of 14, when lipstick the color of bruises first came into vogue. When she discovered henna, she became a redhead.

I marveled at the earthiness, the sheer sexiness of one winter afternoon when her boyfriend, a blooming artist, hennaed her long, curly hair over the kitchen sink, and walked away stained orange up to his elbows.

At my daughter's urging, I succumbed to the spell of henna for a period of time. It smelled like dirt. It was organic. It felt like a mud bath. It turned my hair the shade of a pomegranate.

In recent years, both my daughter and I have turned to professionals for help. She cut her long locks off and entered the twilight zone of a lifetime of hair adjustment. Like mother, like daughter -- we are hair vagabonds, ever wandering from one coif to another. And we have learned to love placing our trust in the skilled hands of hair stylists.

They shiver with delight when they see us coming.

Most recently, I walked into the hair salon, told my stylist to chop it all off. I announced that I was done with hair. My color is now salt and pepper, soon to be silver. There will be no growing out period.

I am ashamed of my middle-aged hair timidity when I think of my daughter's ongoing commitment to hair adventure.

One Thanksgiving holiday, she came home from college hankering for a hair fix. Her last color job had grown out, and her close-cropped cut had gone to an unruly mop of stand-up curls. We debated all week which way to go -- complete color change or discreet adjustment. The morning of her hair appointment, she left me in a state of suspense.

Imagine my pride when she emerged. Her instruction to the colorist was truly inspired -- make it look like flames. Coiled strands of yellow, orange and red, tipped with black, stood glowing atop her head. I experienced that swelling sensation parents feel when their children have transcended their wildest ambitions.

We may not be Breck girls, but we share the bond of restless hair genes. When we are reunited after long periods of separation, we first embrace, then glance at one another's hair. She tells me I look great, no matter what shape I'm in. I look at her and marvel at the possibilities.

-- A version of this essay was first published in 1998

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