Over Thanksgiving, my godmother took a picture of me hanging from a tree branch and texted it to my sister and mother, calling for intervention. In the picture, my hair was exploding toward the ground in a wild mass of dry strands that looked more lion than human. I hadn’t cut my hair in 11 months. I had hardly brushed it for years.
Growing up, I was more or less told how to be beautiful: Don’t try. Do nothing. In high school, gossip often circulated about the girls who wore makeup or altered their hair with heat, dyes or chemicals. You could hear the murmur of criticism in the cafeteria about their obvious insecurities and how “artificial” their apparent “beauty” was. “Real” or “natural” beauty could only happen by accident. It was like the student we all venerate who claims to have opened zero books and slept zero hours, yet manages to ace the exam. My hair may have been natural, but it was no A: It was unruly, knotted and brittle.
My mother always tried to help. I would sit in the kitchen reading the paper or eating cereal, and she would stealthily approach with a brush or braiding fingers. I spent many mornings watching her watch herself in the mirror, shaking a hair dryer over her head before flicking mascara onto her eyelashes.
I never learned to do the same. I insisted that I wanted people to notice what was in my head, not on it. Mostly, I didn’t want to be told how to look. I have never had the gloss and shine of those women wrapped in hair in Pantene ads, or the bounce and spunk of Shakira’s curls. In doing close to nothing, I was hoping for that accidental, “real” beauty, and if that didn’t work out, at least I would feel real. Or, more probably, accidental.
After the tree-climbing and lion-hair picture, my godmother and mother told me about a salon they used to go to in the ’80s. Within 24 hours, I had an appointment, and within 48, I was a disciple. George Michael’s hair salon, the self-appointed Long Hair Care Center of the World, has a booklet of rules about what is and is not advisable with hair care: no chemicals, no heat drying, no dyes, no rubber bands, no covered elastic bands, no metal barrettes, no angles, no layers, no middle parts. The section of the booklet about the middle part notes: “There are only a very, very few people in the entire world who literally look good with a center part.”
I was hooked. I’ve been brushing my hair at least once every day since, often more. For a week camping in the Grand Canyon, I resisted the temptation to pull my hair back with an elastic band. Not all of their rules, though, are for me. I still venture out in the cold with wet hair and doubt I will ever use Velcro curlers. I might even cut my hair short (potential heresy).
But embracing this long-hair-care doctrine helped me define my own doctrine of care, full of bristle brushes and orange shampoos and actual care. It isn’t the method of self-neglect high school gossip glorified. It’s not my mother’s hair care either, as my unruly, dark waves will never look like her smooth blond locks. It also won’t lead me to looking anything like a shampoo ad. Or Shakira.
People predicted how I might care for other parts of myself, too. Advice for self-care often included formulas about sleep cycles, eating habits and study spots. Few guessed right, though. These days, I often need to run at midnight, turn off my phone on Tuesdays, eat almond butter (plain) for breakfast, lie in the middle of Cross Campus and stand on my head in public places. Who could have known? Nobody, I think, but me. And who could have known, through the thickets of “how to” pages of preteen magazines and the motherly mix of wisdom and criticism, how to take care of my hair? I want to say nobody but me, but George Michael (now deceased) led me there first.
Many tried to lead me astray before him. I resented feeling congratulated for not brushing my hair or not wearing makeup just as much as I have resented feeling like a failure in comparison to airbrushed faces on billboards. Glorification of nonchalance has struck me as just as annoying as the unattainable standards prescribed by pop culture, and by ourselves.
I made my own standards at George Michael’s. His booklet has a space for prescriptions on the back page for individualized recommendations. After 11 pages of imperatives in bold, capital letters, my prescriptive box was left blank. If I were to fill in it today, I would write: I will care or not care for my hair however I want to, and I won’t do it for anyone else; I will do it for me.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com .