Permanent markers of a lifelong war on hair


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When I was four, or was it three and a half, my mother, Inez Miriam Pearl, sat me on our smooth, laminated, kitchen counter and permed my hair, late into the night, much later than I think my young self ever remembered being awake for. I know it was spring and I know the sky was ink black outside the kitchen window.

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When I was four, or was it three and a half, my mother, Inez Miriam Pearl, sat me on our smooth, laminated, kitchen counter and permed my hair, late into the night, much later than I think my young self ever remembered being awake for. I know it was spring and I know the sky was ink black outside the kitchen window.

My mother was perming my hair because I was going to have my tonsils removed the next day; she wanted me to be… pretty, presentable, perhaps a decent-enough representation of her ministrations as mother. I will never know the specific reason because my mother has been dead for almost 30 years and I never pursued an answer that would have led to my fuller grasp. The episode bounced about only as reminiscence because the anaesthetic administered that very next morning straightened my hair and my mother’s attempt to give me the curls I did not naturally produce.

I don’t remember feeling any loss; I know my mother felt outwitted though not defeated. She would continue to spend a great deal of time — it was the 1950s and my appearance as her emissary meant a lot — fixing me up.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg writer Deborah Schnitzer begins a new Free Press column exploring life lessons from women in their Third Act.

When I was sent away to a summer camp at nine or 10, my long hair was neatly trimmed, cut off without my permission: anxious to please, I feel certain I was compliant, yielding to her wisdom without complaint. My hair would take care of itself at camp, she reasoned. I would be more amenable with a pixie cut, though I was anything but pixie in appearance or temperament. I was a brooder, too large in comparison to my peers, a messier version of the tidy dresses and the trim outfits that a young girl ought to fit into.

When I was to go off to university (another privilege for someone from a small town whose family was hard-pressed to sponsor such an undertaking), my mother intervened once more. Standing in front of the salon mirror, she spoke expertly about what had to be removed so that I had the best chance of being neat and tidy. I was still larger than was feasible (she herself suffered the same condition), but if my hair were controlled, there was hope I might align my body through a similar process. (To further that end, I received weekly packages of a chocolate- flavoured appetite suppressant. I ate my way through the boxes before and after mealtimes, though I learned to starve myself during the second term of my first university year.)

I bought a perm on my own in grad school, producing a mass of tight curls so robust it took up two panes in store windows. That spread lasted for more than a year, maybe two. I loved it. My hair had this singular and fetching mind of its own. I learned not to eat once again (more about that another time), and the size of the perm became the biggest thing about me. Satisfaction. Then, of course, the perm gave way; my body grew in fits and starts, lean some years, not lean others, my interest in starvation nourished by Barbie Dolls, Twiggy and related, emaciated catwalk emanations.

When my mother entered her own third act, she arrived one spring (we lived very far apart) with a perm kit. Her hair had thinned. She was using a black marker to fill in the spaces where hair, once abundant and auburn, had formed a widow’s peak and cascade of epic proportions. She was taping her ears back so that they would wobble less in the day. She was fighting the older version of who she had become with irony and anger, but without enough wisdom. Magnificent in her talents, rich in her capacity, she remained trapped in her time having spent her own middle years, for example, with greenish-coloured hair — something like steamed kale — devoted to a hairdresser who could not have understood my mother might come out of any perming solution less green.

I could not say no to my mother’s request for the perm. Exhausted by a life that required juggling young children, a demanding workplace, and a loving but increasingly unwell husband, I nonetheless yielded. My mother was so hopeful. I suspected that her hair, grown into sparse and grey, could not hold a perm. But, I set the perm up for her: rolled the little pink rollers, applied solutions, wrapped her in a little plastic cap, unwrapped, unrolled, rinsed and voilà. Her hair — as if it too had visited the anaesthetic that left me uncurled — was straight. My mother was taken aback, in the way hoped-for but spoiled transformations of self, purchased in drug marts, are experienced.

Perm dreams persisted in my own head, however. One particularly spectacular effect achieved in my early 60s left me with something akin to dreadlocks and a plugged drain in the shower. In my late 60s, defeated by the colourlessness of life as a new widow, I bought seemingly non-permanent, spray-on blue hair dye. The initial goal — one blue streak. The reality: I could not stop at one streak, but sprayed my hair in its entirety. The spray dried and persisted as a hellacious turquoise, startling my own grown children, and enlarging the very gap my attempt at hair colour was intended somehow, in part, to close.

In my third act, I am a grey-haired one who has given up the “revitalizing” of hair, as have many other grey-haired women, a choice made during a plague when a salon salvation is, perhaps, less accessible, less automatic, less meaningful. My children often suggest I discover better products for the stainless-steel straw I now effortlessly produce. Straw, I think. A variation on Rapunzel, I think. My children, unimpressed by my comparative frames, more inclined toward prevailing assumptions about how older women could appear, hope I may become more presentable. They offer advice even as they celebrate the unique nature of my less-conditioned manifestation as a person.

Permanently marked by and resistant to the formulas and fallacies contending my older life, however, I sometimes purchase spray-on hair colour. Thus far, the “wild jaguar” green and the “panther” purple remain off limits, secured inside my bathroom vanity, their expression partially, at least, circumvented. I think of presentable within the context of alterations achieved by chemistry sets in product boxes fished off shelves in moments of dreaming carved out by grooming industries. I think of the commanding place hair colour and shape take up in our lives. I think of the sister-act industries that depose our bodies into trim and skin tight. And, I think: how can the latter not become food for further thought.

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