by Beth McKim
“Oh, you have such pretty curly hair.” I heard that often when I was young and took the observations as compliments. It never occurred to me that it could be any different. That is just the way God had made me. My mother made my hair even curlier by wetting it and pinning bobby pins into it on Saturday nights so that it would look extra cute for church on Sunday.
The only annoyance I had was when I tried to put it into a ponytail or pigtails. The hair did not stay up and curly strands fell to the side of my face. The whole point of wearing it up was to look neat, not messy.
Years later, when I got to college, I suddenly realized that I had borne a terrible burden all along. All of the cute girls there had long hair that was straight as a string. They washed, dried, and brushed their lustrous locks and looked like surfer girls. The brunettes reminded me of Cher. The blondes looked like Michelle Phillips from “The Mamas and the Papas.”
In a concerted effort to help remedy my birth defect, my dorm-mates began to come up with ideas. I grew my hair longer and they rolled it with discarded orange juice cans. This made for a fluffy, straighter look, but one that was still unfashionably wavy. Next, they tried cardboard toilet paper holders to combat the curl. The results were somewhat better, but not much. I was interviewed on television once at the scene of an accident, wearing my hair in these cardboard “rollers.” The lucky viewers that day are still probably shaking their heads at what they saw.
Then they tried Straight Set, a boxed at-home treatment that was the reverse of a permanent wave. This helped some as well. We learned that combining that the treatment with frosting or streaking my hair with a blonde color took some of the dreaded curls away. Years later, when Nature started streaking my hair for me, I looked back with wonder at what we had done.
For special occasions, I received the ironing board treatment. Sections of my wet hair were wrapped in towels as my friends laid them down to be painstakingly ironed, one at a time. It was an improvement, but I still didn’t look like a surfer girl.
And always, there was the “teasing” of my hair. That meant sitting still while my roommate took a few strands of my hair at a time, using a “ratting comb or brush” in an up and down motion, trying to erase any strands of the remaining enemy curls. That made my hair look big and straight in what I consider the Texas style. This worked best when hair was slightly dirty.
In this period of time, I learned to sleep on my right arm, either to keep my pretty ratted hair in place or because I could not sleep on the orange juice cans or toilet paper rolls. Sometimes I still wake at night finding my arm in this protective position.
Then I met Lulu. All of a sudden, during this period of time, wigs for young girls came into fashion. The day I purchased Lulu changed my life. I found her at a local wig store. She was light blond and long, with just a little flip on the ends and, of course, straight and smooth all over. When wearing Lulu, I was the stylish girl I had always dreamed of being. Lulu and I went to classes, parties and dances together and we were bouncy and shiny, like rays of sunshine. To make Lulu more exotic-looking, I began to stuff the top of her with wads of toilet paper. She looked more stylish with the added height, and I looked taller.
One afternoon Lulu and I had a mishap at Astroworld Amusement Park and I lost the trust I had in her. We were on a first date with a cute boy, flying through the air on a wild, spinning ride called the Black Dragon. While my date held onto me, I held onto Lulu. After we came in for a landing, we dizzily walked the pathway between other rides when we suddenly heard, ”Ker-plunk, ker-plunk, ker-plunk.” As we looked behind us, I noticed with horror that Lulu’s toilet paper wads were hitting the ground. The poor young boy, having no idea what he was seeing, asked only, “What the hell?” as he discreetly looked at my bra. Lulu and I never saw him again after that day.
Lulu was put on a shelf shortly after that, but I kept her in my closet for many years, just in case I needed her. Turned out I didn’t, since curly hair finally came into vogue and I found peace.
Birmingham Arts Journal, Write Place at the Write Time, The Mayo Review, and Cell 2 Soul. Beth still wears her hair short to keep from battling the curls. She can be reached via e-mail.