Hair and Ego: Part Two, Adolescence

Hair tragedy number two was in junior high, painful and stuck in suburban teen angst. In my unconscious quest to both identify myself apart from the crowd and connect to the "real me," I got my first perm.

It was a disaster. Or a tribute to Elizabethan hair fashion, depending upon your outlook. For me, the pessimist ruled: I saw the glass almost empty. I was as parched as my crinkly coif.

The perm rendered my virgin, thick, wavy hair into a bird's nest of kindling. I started at my reflection: was that me? Where was I in that fro of frizz? The look was discordant with my self-image: my hair's soft and smooth texture was a constant. Now I looked like the local Renaissance Faire's village harlot after too much wassail.

Still, I couldn't help but be amazed by my metamorphosis: a few chemicals, dozens of plastic curlers and a quick 90 minutes at the salon transformed me from a sixth grader into a fraidy cat straight out of Tom and Jerry.

Oh. The horror.

I ran out of the bathroom, away from the reflection of my heinous hair, and threw myself onto my bed, panicked. What was I going to do? I couldn't stay out of school the months it would take to grow out my mistake. Or could I? Maybe I could fake mono and get my homework sent home. Everyone would wonder what had happened to me. Questions would turn into rumors until my mysterious disappearance would become urban legend. I'd be popular in absentia! Perhaps my tragedy was really a blessing in disguise.

And maybe the chemicals had gone to my head. I knew I'd be back in school tomorrow, and that if any change in social status were to result from my fiasco, it would most certainly be movement downwards. My life was over.

Then I remembered the stylist's advice: in order for my perm to "stick," I shouldn't wash it for two days. I quickly hopped into the shower, shampooing and conditioning my hair three times. I prayed for a miracle: deactivate, chemicals, deactivate!

That's when it happened.

Waiting for my hair to air-dry, I noticed that I looked... different. My soaking wet hair made my face more prominent, but it also seemed more aware: it was subtle, but it was real.

Slowly my hair dried into the follicular disaster that would define my sixth grade, but there was a new feeling accompanying my remorse. It wasn't recognizable, but I knew that it wasn't bad. Encouraged, I hoped that whatever it was would get me through the days to come.

The next morning I entered science class with my head held high, my shoulders back and my countenance calm. Whatever should occur that day, I reminded myself, it was just hair. The perm would grow out.

"What happened? Your hair?" demanded my lab partner, almost giving the old me a backhanded compliment. Nearby students tracked her outburst and ogled at me unabashedly.

I slumped into my chair, my ego stripped, my bravery gone. I had no idea how to answer her; someone with the perfect, natural ringlets I so coveted. The obvious felt trite considering my experience the night before. I had gotten a perm, and a very bad one at that, but something else had happened, too. Unexpected and as yet unexplainable, the change was genuine.

So I just shrugged my shoulders, opened my book and looked up at the teacher. Class started.

Ah, adolescence.

Looking back I see that it was the experience of the perm that altered me, not the perm itself. That process, commonly referred to as "growing-up," set me apart from my peers and gave me a new sense of individuality. But not without a price; I wanted to be unique, but I was also terrified of what it entailed. Without comparison how could I identify myself? Innately, I knew that there was no going back. My face had registered that growth, though I had yet to catch up emotionally. I fretted inside, aware that something meaningful was happening, but that I was at a complete loss to understand it.

I wish I could go back and explain to sixth grade me that my feelings of separation, of individuality, and on some level, of loss, were all very normal. Everyone was going through it, just not necessarily by way of a bad perm. Adolescence is chock full of such minuscule but momentous events. Why mine often dealt with hair, both others' and mine, is a mystery for another blog.