Of all the 1969 anniversaries that seem to be coming up, the one I just might cherish most is the appearance of hair straightener on the drugstore shelves, giving me my first victory in a long series of hair battles.
I will love Eugene Payne forever because he drew me without curls. Better known for editorial cartooning, and winning a Pulitzer for it in 1968, he did some portrait work in Charlotte, NC during the '50s and '60s, and my grandmother commissioned him to do pastel portraits of Emily and myself when we were six.
She arranged the sittings without consulting our mothers, so my unfortunate mother had most of my despised (by me, not her) curl cut off shortly beforehand, causing my grandmother near-apoplexy. Grandmother had instructions for Payne: "Give her curls!" i.e.: They're gone? Fictionalize 'em!
"She said she doesn't want curls," said this wonderful man. Few defied my grandmother. I still like this portrait.
Long straight unstyled hair rode in on the early feminist rebellion, but the straight unstyled look became its own thing-to-conform-to. My problem,
and it took being this elderly to prove it, is that I wanted it not because it was fashionable but because it was comfortable.
My hair was uncontrollable.I fought it, clamped it down, and hated it way before the hippie era. It wasn't about looks. The wiry bulkiness, the endless springy tickling, drove me to distraction, and it was worse to keep hearing that appearance was supposed to be all that mattered.
I hated the totally uncool "easy care" chop job that kept my bangs from curling outward. I tried repeatedly to grow longer bangs and fought a losing battle against the curl.
By 1969, when I was 15, straight hair was in, and along with it came a great product: hair relaxer for us Caucasians. CurlFree [TM] got more publicity, but I found it pretty wimpy. My favorite was Straight Set [TM]. It contained lye. It worked.
Of course, it also stripped my hair out and turned it into straw, which meant I still envied the girls in the magazines.
But it was better than nothing. Once, often twice, during the week after a straightening, I'd heat up some ultra-moisturizing conditioner in a kitchen saucepan, apply it directly to the dry hair and wrap a towel around it for a couple hours. It was a week of work for every straightening, but so worth it. I could almost be normal. I could wear bangs!
Curliness made a fashion comeback and my beloved Straight Set disappeared but products were always available in what they called the "ethnic needs" section of the drugstore.
And over and over through the years I have had to listen to the critiques of people who have a variety of reasons for shouldn't-ing at me:
"Everybody should just be natural!"
Good thought. I'll give up eyeglasses too. Loan me your car, since I'd rather not total my own.
"Be yourself! By failing to be Who You Are, you are Failing to Love Yourself!"
Lord save us from The New Age. Excuse me, but to say my hair is Who I Am would the antithesis of valuing myself as a full human being.
Women in particular go with: "Oh isn't it cute how everybody wants what the other person has! I always wanted curls!"
I honestly don't think anybody wants what the other person has. Women who pay about the same annually for perms that I do for straightening may want lovely cascading curls, but they do not want my orange afro. What most of us want is a nice-looking and easy-care happy medium. We're not trading places, you with your perm and me with my straightening. We're more like meeting in the middle.
I kept up the drugstore relaxers, with a brief go-natural break in 1990.
Let me emphasize: brief. I quickly resumed my use of Dark and Lovely [TM]. By now manufacturers apparently considered a "No-lye formula" a selling point, to my dismay. That lye was g‑o‑o‑o‑d stuff, man.
Then they invented bio-thermal hair straightening. It never wears off, leaving only new growth to deal with. I read about it in the newspaper in 2000, but it would be 4 more years before it was available locally.
It's wonderful. It's a joy. In exchange for a long afternoon at the salon twice a year, I can, for the first time in my life, ignore my hair instead of working on it every morning.
I still keep it long. I can pin it up, à la Elly Patterson, for occasions on which I need to act willing to age gracefully, but mostly I'm unapologetic. It's not my fault that the hair I wanted at 15 is only available to me now when it's age-inappropriate. They'll undoubtedly hack it off when I'm in the nursing home. Not before.