The Hair I Always Wanted

In 1978, there was no fashion love for straight-haired women. Every where you looked, curls and Afros ruled—big, haloed heads, bobbing up and down, all sassy and free and wild. I was obsessed with getting a perm. It started with Barbra Streisand in “A Star is Born,” her formerly ordinary long hair a mass of wonderful tangles that I yearned for, even as I tried, with no luck, to curl my slack, boring brown hair. There was simply no way to get a wave or even the hint of bounce, no matter what I tried.

One day, on a whim, my best friend and I walked into a random hair salon on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, a place that looked cool and fun and had a parking space outside. I admit I was a little stoned, but even if I hadn’t been, I probably would have done what I did next, so badly did I want my hair to bounce, bounce, bounce.

“Can you give me a perm?” I asked at the reception desk.

Could they give me a perm? They were falling all over themselves, my long, stick-straight hair calling out to them: “Curl this boring stuff!”

I was so excited, I couldn’t stand it. They gave me a glass of champagne, and my friend, too—despite the fact that we were 17 and clearly too young to be drinking. It felt like every stylist in the place was assessing me: my face, my eyes, and of course my unforgivably un-curly hair.

They started rolling my hair, long as it was, in the unforgettable perm rods that any girl from the ’70s whoever curled her hair will remember. Then came the smell of the solution—strong and acrid and sweet and thrilling, because I knew this meant that soon, oh so soon, I too would have hair that defied gravity and surrounded my head in a soft, irresistible cap of loveliness. The perm solution came in two steps, and I was reminded over and over not to wash my hair for 3 days, or the solution would fail to complete its magical mission of curling and perming and making me gorgeous. The smell would linger for days, but I didn’t mind.

Many people had complimented me on my long, silky straight hair over the course of my 17 years, but I dreamed of a different sort of mane, one with a life of its own that would transform me from ordinary to va-va-va-voom. I wanted to be someone different, someone who wasn’t quite so me-ish.

Finally, the rods were removed and the perm solution was rinsed and the cutting began. It was then that there was much discussion among the stylists about exactly how to maximize the impact of this new, marvelous hair that sat coiled on my head in wet ropes. I was transfixed by the change, even before I could really see it. My hair was, amazingly, curling.

They snipped and styled and then dried my hair, turning the chair so I couldn’t see what was going on. When they turned me around I saw my face in the mirror, but the hair—the wild, curly, unruly, incredible hair—was someone else’s. It was the most magnificent hair I had ever seen, and it belonged to me. The 17-year-old girl who had walked into the salon two hours earlier was just a memory, and in her place was this woman I had never seen before.

I paid $70 for that perm, which was a fortune for me in 1978, but it was some of the best money I ever spent on anything. The thrill of a completely new look was exhilarating. I stared at myself in the mirror for hours that night, trying to see who I was becoming because of the curls that framed my face. For weeks and weeks, I would be delighted at the gasps of friends and acquaintances when they saw me for the first time with my curly head.

Of course, like all things wonderful and magical, the spell wore off after a while. Perms, unfortunately, grow out and need to be redone every few months to continue to look fabulous. And then there came the day when no more perms could be done, or the hair on my head might have begun to fall out and the money in my bank account surely would have run dry. I sadly waved goodbye to my curly-haired days and headed off to the land of the straight-haired again. It was fun while it lasted.

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3 Comments

  • I feel your pain…but in reverse. For years and years, I have tortured my hair seeking straight hair. Finally, one day last year, I said “Enough!” and have proceeded to let my hair do what it does…curl. My life is infinitely easier and my bank account thanks me.

    Women need to learn (earlier than I did, for sure) to work with what they’ve got. It makes life SO much easier.

  • OMG! You’re killing me! If only we could have done a hair transplant back then!!
    I had ridiculously curly hair in 1978 and would have given my little sister for Farrah Fawcet feathers!! It wasn’t until I was 40 and read the Curly Girl book that I finally learned to love my curls. How I wish I had been brave enough back then to embrace ‘me’!
    Thanks for the laugh and the memories!!

  • Glad you felt (and still do) pleased with your transformation Do you have any photos? I also tried a perm once on my long straight dark hair. Wouldn’t say it did much. When I look back pictures of people in perms, or see an 80s movie, tt looks a bit off to me and missing the shine. My teen daughter and I watched Mystic Pizza. Regarding young Julia Roberts, my daughter said: “Oh, my God. What’s with her hair?”

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