Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone – Joni Mitchell
For the first 35 or so years of my life, my naturally curly, frizzy hair was the bane of my existence. It wasn’t until I learned to use the right products and read a life-changing book that I finally made peace with my curls and began to nurture and appreciate them, if not always love them. And now I’m losing them.
My mother, who had straw-straight hair, and many others insisted I possessed a great asset and that I didn’t appreciate how “lucky” I was. They said they were envious. “Women pay a lot of money for perms to get hair like yours,” they’d say.
Pfft. I didn’t feel lucky. Unmanageable, un-styleable, un-tameable, frizzing up at the first hint of moisture in the air. As a kid I would howl while my mom combed the knots out. How I envied girls with straight, silky hair that grew long past their shoulders. My bushy hair grew outward, not downward, Roseanne Roseannadanna-like. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when straight was in, that was a social death sentence.
When I was an adolescent and young adult, there were dramatically fewer retail products for curly hair than there are now. The drugstore options were your basic Prell, Breck and Suave. Hair was just hair, and there was one set of products for caring for it. And with no female relatives in my life, certainly not my mom, to give advice on caring for curly hair, and no Internet to turn to, I was lost in the wilderness. Miserable.
In my twenties I started using over-the-counter relaxers just so I could style and control my hair better. I even did a disastrous $600 “Japanese thermal reconditioning” treatment one time that worked too well and made my hair so stick-straight and lifeless not even a curling iron could put a wave in it.
Curly Girl to the rescue
Then about 18 years ago, I read a newspaper article about stylist and curl “guru” Lorraine Massey and her book, Curly Girl. This book changed my hair life. I finally learned what had been going wrong all those years, and it wasn’t me.
The problem was, I learned, that curly hair is a completely different animal from straight hair and is not suited to one-size-fits-all products. Most of the general-market cleansing and conditioning products sold in stores—which were pretty much the only ones available (and affordable) to me in my youth—contain chemicals and substances that are hostile to curls and make them break and frizz. Massey said curls should be washed with a very mild shampoo, like baby shampoo, if shampooed at all. They also should not be washed every day. She advocated conditioner only.
The other revelation was that naturally curly hair should never have a comb or a brush run through it. What?? The very act of brushing curly hair traumatizes it and frizzes it up. Who knew? Curls should be air-dried and if a blow dryer must be used at all, it should be very sparingly and with a diffuser.
This was so revolutionary to me. Now it all made sense.
For the first time in my life I felt like I was in control of my hair, not the other way around. Instead of fighting my curls, damning their very existence, I embraced them. I started using the appropriate products and never touched a comb again. Gone was the frizzy bush. I had beautiful, lustrous, perfectly defined spiral curls.
Age 40, at Venice’s Bridge of Sighs. My curls traveled the world with me!
I finally got what mom and everyone else had been talking about. My curls were a precious asset, something that made me special. For some women it’s their shapely legs. For others it’s their eyes or lips. I had plenty of physical features I didn’t like, but no one could take my curls away from me.
Except, apparently, Mother Nature.
I was prepared for the hair loss and graying that inevitably comes with aging and hormonal changes. There are products for that. But I wasn’t prepared to lose my curls. I thought that was for life. My hair might get thinner, but what hair did grow would always have that curl. Hair texture, after all, doesn’t change right? Or so I thought.
2020 was a miserable year for everyone, and it was also the year I began to lose my curl. For quite a few years I’ve worn my hair in a short layered style, because it’s easy to manage and also looks good air-dried. At a certain point last year, I noticed my low-maintenance locks seemed to be growing out straighter, especially on one side.
To my mounting horror, I realized my hair now looked the same as it used to look when I put relaxer in it, wavy and smooth and styleable, but gone were the masses of thick, spiral curls. In other words what I used to have to put caustic chemicals on my head way back in the day in order to have, I now had naturally.
This couldn’t be right. I had read about certain product lines damaging hair texture and I was praying that’s what had happened. I bought deep conditioning treatments containing Biotin and hoped that would put the brakes on this unsettling development.
The result of the deep conditioners is that, six months later, my hair is glossier, healthier and more abundant than it’s been in years. And it’s also straighter than ever. The texture change not only did not reverse itself but continued unabated. Hair treatments can only work on hair that’s already emerged from your scalp, and these changes are at the follicular level.
According to my hair stylist and so-called hair experts on the Web, hair texture is affected by aging and hormonal changes in the same way that hair growth is. It’s not fully understood why lifelong curly hair changes to straight and vice-versa. And yes, apparently there is a vice-versa, hard as it is to believe.
I’m holding out little hope this is going to correct itself. To be sure, my hair still definitely has a wave in it, more on the left side than right side. And the back of the neck area seems to be holding the curl. But I wonder how much longer it will have even that.
In what I assume was an effort to cheer me up, my stylist told me that because I still have a healthy wave in my hair, if I got a perm it would last a very long time.
A perm?!? The last thing I thought I would ever need in my life was a perm. I used to need the opposite of a perm.
The ultimate irony is that the me of 20-plus years ago would have welcomed what’s happening to my hair now. Except now, I’m starting to understand what all that wannabe-curly envy from other women was all about. My hair is flat and lifeless. And I’m finding it’s just as difficult to manipulate into the way I want it to look, only in a different way than before.
True to the old adage, the more I age the more I become my own mother, physically and mentally. The straight hair only helps make the transformation complete. My mom, at my current age, had very thick, abundant straight hair.
On the other hand, maybe for the first time in my life I can grow my hair long. It has never been longer than just above my shoulders.
Somewhere in a packed-away photo album is the clipped baby curl my mom saved many years ago. Maybe I will clip one of my few remaining curls to accompany it as a keepsake.
Mother Nature, you are one cruel bey-otch.