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Washington Voices

Straight tale gets to root of problem

Thu., Nov. 19, 2009

“Gimme head with hair; long beautiful hair; shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen … I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy, naggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming …”

– Lyrics to the title song of the 1960s American tribal love-rock musical “Hair”

Ah, yes, hair. Not only was it the emblematic symbol of the ’60s generation and the title of what was a revolutionary outburst in American musical theatre, but hair remains a big deal for most all of us, and often for most of our lives.

No matter our age or gender, we style it, dye it, grieve its loss, spike it, make a mullet out of it, put a rug on top of it, bemoan days when it goes awry and obsess over it – but mostly, we want ours to be something it isn’t. If it’s straight, we want it curly. Dark, and we want it light. Thick, and we want it sleek. It never ends – not even when it turns gray and falls out.

My own struggles with hair began back in the ’60s. The comedian Robin Williams said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there, but I do and I was. I was in high school and, for me, the icon of hip and beautiful and everything I wanted to emulate stylewise (and especially hairwise) was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. She had long, shiny blonde hair with straight bangs down to her eyebrows, and her hair flipped back with a casual toss of her head. Oh, to have hair like that.

So there I was with a headful of cowlicks and short brown hair. I was on a swimming team, and since chlorine turned bleached hair a sick shade of green, that option was out. Long hair wouldn’t be practical for a swimmer, and that hair-flipping thing surely wasn’t going to happen with my thick unruly hair. But straight hair – I had a plan.

I bought a product called Dippity Do, which had the consistency of Vaseline. I’d wash my hair at night and comb wet bangs down on my forehead, slap on the Dippity Do and tape my bangs to my eyebrows. In the morning, I’d rip the tape off my now-cardboard-textured hair (not fun) and, voila, straight bangs!

Did I mention I lived in Miami at the time, where the humidity often climbed above the ambient temperature? I’d have lovely, though stiff, bangs until mid morning, when the humidity took over and the natural curl overrode the goop. The cowlicks would kick in, unevenly, so I’d have droopy curls in some places and corkscrew curls right-angling away from my forehead, sticking out from the top of my face like tails on little piggies. It was not a thing of beauty.

At the University of Florida my roommate Karen tried everything to get her hair to curl. Of Japanese descent, she had long, thick black hair, which I envied no end. Of course, she wanted curly hair. She permed hers, set it in all sorts of rollers and tortured it in all ways imaginable to get even a little flip at the ends. But humidity did to her hair the opposite of what it did to mine.

My friend Nancy Nelson, former director of the Africana Education Program at Eastern Washington University, has lectured about African-American hair and the role it has played in America since slavery. She presents a whole other and more serious and significant component to this than the pitiful struggles Karen and I had with our hair. And the recent film by comedian Chris Rock, “Good Hair,” goes into some of these things. I’m not trying to hijack the hair issue, but I find it so interesting how so many of us struggle with hair and the extremes we go to in dealing with it.

Sure, hair can be an expression of individuality, of the culture we live in, of our religion, of rebellion, of a whole lot of things – including grist for a popular ’60s musical. Several years ago, when lamenting again to the woman who has been cutting my hair for decades, that I don’t know what to try next to tame the mess growing out of my scalp, she suggested the obvious. Why not just let it be?

So, I did. I now wash it, towel dry it, see if a comb can tame the situation and walk out the door. My hair then does whatever it wants to do, which is different every day, depending on the humidity.

And I am finally at peace with it.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists.

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