My Curly Hair as a Metaphor for Life

October 2009



My hair has followed a parabolic arc over the course of my life.  When I was a little girl, my hair was gently wavy.  As I entered preteenhood, the gentle waves gave way to gentle curls.  Then, as I hurtled into the teen years, the gentle curls tightened and became more dense and intense, and finally, in my late teens and early twenties, they lost it altogether and turned into a mass of – I’ll just say it – frizz.  I have pictures to prove all of this.

Having frizzy hair in junior high and high school in the early sixties was a test of inner strength, of the extent to which one could stand boldly and proudly outside the confines of conformity, not needing to fit in.  This was a test I failed abysmally.  I wanted desperately to fit in.  There was only one acceptable hairstyle for girls in those days – bangs and a flip – and I could not achieve it.  Worse, I tried to achieve it and failed.  My “bangs” were a bush of frizz sitting mockingly above my forehead.

I had tried a more high-tech approach to fitting in when I was in junior high school – I had my hair straightened.  I was told this is essentially the same as having a perm, only the reverse.  I loved my newly straight hair, while it lasted.  But it didn’t last very long.  Counter to my expectation that my newly straight hair was actually now “inherently” straight, it turned out that it was only conditionally straight – conditional on me setting it after washing it, just as I had before I got it straightened.  Worse, shortly thereafter, a patch of my hair about the size of a quarter broke off, right on the top of my head.  I guess the chemical was too strong.  I was able to cover it over with other hair, but that was the death knell for chemical straightening of my hair.  From then on, my war against my frizzy hair was waged low tech.

By a stroke of luck, I hit the peak of frizziness in the late sixties, right about the time the hippie movement was hitting its stride, and being “natural” was in.  My friends in college all encouraged me to stop setting my hair.  I, of course, thought, “If you only knew what my natural hair was like, you’d understand why I set it.  You’d totally understand.”  They persisted, and I thought, “I’ll show them.”  So I stopped setting my hair, and they said, “Wow, cool.”  Or something like that (it being the sixties).

It was nice to not have to set my hair, even though I thought I looked like a Brillo pad on amphetamines.  There was the minor inconvenience that I couldn’t see out the sides, since the mass of frizz that was my hair in those days blocked my peripheral vision.  So I tied my hair back, so I could see out the sides and proceeded on with my life of envying those women with naturally straight (or even just wavy) hair.  On occasion, I tied my hair into two “pigtails” – well, what would have been pigtails on any normal woman.  On me they were two great balls of frizz, on either side of my head.  I have pictures to prove this too.

By the time I was pregnant with my first child, I’d cut my hair so that it formed a sort of halo of curls around my face.  I was in my mid-thirties by then, and my hair had progressed further along its parabolic path and was now on the downward portion, having just passed the peak of total frizziness, in all its hideous glory. It was by then only very, very, very curly.  Shangri-la!  Sort of.

Interestingly, while I was pregnant and then nursing my daughter, my hair started growing in straight – not poker straight, but with just a very gentle wave to it.  It was shiny too, like straight hair often is.  This was my first hint of the power of hormones.  “Please, God,” I implored. “Please, please, please let this be a permanent change.”  But it wasn’t.  As soon as I stopped nursing, I could see the kinks at the roots.  My hair repeated its performance when I was pregnant with and nursing my son, three years later.  And again, it was only temporary.

At some point, perhaps somewhere in my forties or early fifties, I actually started to like my curly hair.  Sort of.  Partly it was the sheer familiarity – we’d been through so much together, my curly hair and I.  And partly it was that, in comparison to the mass of frizz with which I’d contended for so long – did I mention that I once broke a brush trying to brush my hair at its peak of hideousness? – having hair that was only very, very curly wasn’t half bad.

Just about the time I started to think my curly hair might actually be pretty neat (sometime in my late fifties), my hair started to take this trend of getting less curly much more seriously.  I began to notice that the hair on the sides of my head was no longer exactly curly.  It still had a curl to it when it dried after having been washed in the evening.  But in the morning, after having been slept on, the curl would be gone, replaced by … straightish hair.  Straightish, gray hair.

Yes, I neglected to mention the graying.  Somewhere along its parabolic path, my curly brown hair started becoming my partially curly salt-and-pepper hair.  Now it appeared to be taking this aging thing mighty seriously.  And perhaps that is why I’ve begun to mourn the loss of my curls – those perky, cute and springy symbols of my youth.

These days, I view the shrinking area on the top of my head where the curls have not yet given way with something approaching alarm.  What will I look like when the curls are completely gone?  A prospect that for so many years was my fondest dream, I now wish I could put off.  The irony, of course, is not lost on me.  I suppose if my curls were being replaced by the kind of hair I’d always wanted, instead of this gray tired looking stuff that has “old lady” written all over it, I wouldn’t mind.  Although, you know, I kind of like those curls, it turns out, after all.  It just took me a few decades to realize it.

As for the gray, I kind of like that too.  Sort of.  Perhaps it’s just cognitive dissonance, convincing myself that, yes, I like something over which I have no choice.  But I do have a choice – the majority of women in my general age range, whose hair, like mine, is turning gray, dye their hair.  I’ve chosen not to.  I guess I took the hippie mandate to “be natural” too much to heart.

Recently, at a dinner party in honor of our 30th wedding anniversary, my husband took some pictures of our friends who’d come to help us celebrate.  In one of those pictures, he just happened to catch the back of my head.  And there, at the bottom, by my neck, were a bunch of lovely salt-and-peppery curls.  I never really get to see the back of my head, so this was a rare look.  I saw a profusion of hair, some of it still curly, some of it less so, some hairs sticking straight out, some still dark, much of it silvery, sparkling in the light of the camera’s flash.  I liked what I saw – a kind of subdued, sparkly chaos.

Just like the frizzy hair I so hated, I know this too will not last.  Each version of my hair has been followed by another – gentle waves followed by curls followed by denser curls followed by frizz followed by very, very, very curly hair followed by just very, very curly hair followed by curly salt-and-pepper hair followed by a mixture of straight and curly silvery hair probably followed by “old lady” hair.  My hair has been a metaphor for life, in which energies and abilities (and hormones) crescendo to a screaming peak and then gradually subside, like an ocean wave.

Such is my hair, and such is life.  People talk about “aging gracefully,” and I believe in that.  Actually, it would be great if we could go through each phase of life gracefully, but generally we cannot. I certainly couldn’t – I wouldn’t call waging a war on my frizzy hair exactly “graceful.”  But I’ve done better with my salt-and-pepper mass of subdued chaos, and I may do even better with my “old lady” hair, as it begins to take over my head.  Because one of the advantages of being an old lady is the wisdom that comes with age – the “silver lining” of aging.  Well, that’s the case I’m making, anyway.


Note: Image from


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