By Carolyn Benedict:
For my mother, my hair was always a big problem.
Every time I came near her, she whipped out a comb and tried to rearrange
my bangs. Even after I went away from college, the first thing she did
when I came home for a holiday was to sit me down and begin to brush the
hair away from my face. The real trouble was that my mother’s hair was
thick, a beautiful chestnut brown, glossy and long, with a natural wave.
She could arrange it in many ways, always attractive. My hair was baby
fine, thin and stubbornly straight. It was black and shiny, but there
was no way it could be arranged gracefully on my head-it always ended sticking
out in every direction. The Dutch bob I had worn all through my pre-teen
years was the way it would behave in a dignified manner.
When I was fifteen, it was inevitable that mother
would insist that I have a permanent. In 1935, the beauty shop business
was still in a primitive state. The instrument of torture which made curls
was a tall, floor-lamp shaped machine on wheels, with a series of electric
cables hanging form a pole. The wires ended in clamps, one of which fastened
to each strand of hair to be curled. After being shampooed, the hair was
dipped into an acrid, foul-smelling solution, wrapped in foil s trips and
clamped one at a time onto the machine. I was sure I would be electrocuted
when the machine was switched on, but all that happened was a sizzling
noise and a concentrated gust of the permanent wave solution that blew
into my face and caused an immediate headache and a feeling of nausea.
To distract myself, I began examining my surroundings. The room was large,
bare and clean. The ceiling was very high, covered with sculptured tin
tiles, painted white. Three sinks, and three chairs and tilted drainboards
were lined up against one wall, and three chairs with hooded dryers were
against another wall. The permanent wave machine to which I was fastened,
sat in a corner, next to a table of magazines. I realized I was a prisoner,
and visualized myself running away, flying down the street, still attached
to the machine, rolling along behind me. The ticking of the timer brought
me back to reality and to calm myself, I began sorting through the magazines.
I had never seen any of them before. Our reading at home was Harper’s and
Atlantic Monthly, American Magazine, and McClure’s and Delineator for fashions.
Here I found True Confessions Magazine, and several movie magazines. On
examination, I found them to be from another world, about which I knew
nothing. I could not identify with them in any way. My headache worsened
and I wondered if I could hold out. And then the timer finally rang.
The operator came over and slowly removed the
clamps, took off the foil papers one by one, and led me back to the shampoo
chair. After another quick shampoo I was taken to the mirrored table where
I had bid a fond farewell to my straight hair, a couple of hours before.
I looked, with horror, at my reflection-Kinky, wet black snakes crawled
all over my head. As the attendant combed my hair, pulling through snarls
and tangles, the odor was still stifling. When I was combed to the assistant’s
satisfaction , the stylist came in and began separating strands of hair
and forming them into pin curls, which he fastened with metal bobby pins,
all around my face, on top of my head and across the back of my neck. I
was led to a dryer machine, stuck under the hood, and left to toast. The
metal pins burned my head and my ears, and the heated permanent solution
steamed around my nose. My face began to swell up. (Many years later, this
was explained as an allergic reaction).
When the pin curls were combed out I had a head
as big as a basketball. It didn’t belong to the rest of me. But then the
stylist began doing clever things with a comb and brush, turning some of
the hair under, brushing some of it back, until it began t o look like
the pictures on the wall – but not like me. When he was done, he backed
off with a sigh, very pleased with his creation.
I felt strange as I walked home. I wasn’t me,
any longer. I really didn’t know how to act. By the time I got home, the
wind and scarf had tangled and mashed the arrangement created by the stylist.
It never looked the same again. Mother and I combed at it, brushed it,
and when mother wasn’t looking, I even took the scissors to it. I finally
got it under control to the point that I was willing to expose myself at
the basketball game. The first person I saw as I walked into the gym was
the man who had wor ked on my hair a few hours before. He looked at me,
looked away, and looked back again with a strange expression on his face.
I nodded at him, and quickly moved on. Later, his wife told my mother that
he hadn’t recognized me at first. He couldn’t imagine what I had done to
with my hair – it had looked perfect when I left the shop.
After a night’s sleep, I realized my new hair-do
was hopeless, and I combed it down as straight as I could. For weeks I
trimmed the ends, smoothed it out, and finally achieved about the same
effect I had before the permanent – a straight, short Dutch bob, smooth,
My first permanent
was my last one.
Image courtesy of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis