Illustration by Marianne Chevalier
When I was in elementary school, my mother took me to the mall salon for a haircut and perm. I think she envisioned that with my natural waves I’d come out looking like Little Orphan Annie, all perky and bouncy. Instead, my hair was flat on top and unruly as ever on the sides.
Afterward I told her, “You’ve ruined my life of a child!” with all the questionable grammar and indignation I could muster. I vowed that if I ever had children, I would allow them to wear their hair as long and straight as their hearts desired.
Even before that fateful perm, the idea that women’s hair required special upkeep was evident to me. Every so often my mother would declare, “I’ve got to get my rutz done!” and dash off to the salon to have her grays colored. The short, clipped way she pronounced “roots” is seared into our family’s catalog of impersonations.
Sometimes I accompanied my mother to these appointments, watching as she sat under the hot dryer, her reddish-brown hair encased in foil and magical chemicals. I’d flip through the fashion magazines and see models with impossibly straight hair, from blunt, jawline-accentuating cuts to long, lush locks that covered their shoulders like silken curtains.
Shortly before my 14th birthday, Bill Clinton was elected president. While I don’t remember much about the inauguration, I do recall the media coverage surrounding his daughter Chelsea, who was 12 when the family moved into the White House. A flurry of cruel remarks and jokes centered on Chelsea’s appearance in general and her thick, unabashed curls in particular. Some people defended her, but the message to girls and women was clear: If you don’t want people poking fun at you, get your hair under control.
Today Chelsea’s trademark ringlets are nowhere to be seen. In a 2015 interview with Elle magazine, she shared that her curls gradually disappeared as she got older. When my frizzy hair persisted into adulthood, I took aggressive steps to rein it in, learning to blow dry and flat iron it like a pro. I also spent a small fortune on chemical treatments that forced my tresses into submission. Although the results were temporary, I relished them. With smooth, straight hair, I finally looked like a woman who was composed, confident and worthy of being taken seriously.
Deep down I knew it was a lie: Those sleek locks did nothing to reduce the anxiety I’ve struggled with for most of my life. But tamping down the natural whims of my hair was an attempt to control something in a world where control has always been an illusion.
After my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through chemotherapy, her hair grew back almost completely white. She decided to dye it blond, joking that she’d always wanted to test the theory that blondes have more fun. This was the color of her hair at my wedding in 2003. Despite the medications she was taking, she smiled all day long, beaming in a sparkly blue dress. Watching her twirl on the dance floor, I wanted to believe she could hold the disease at bay forever, that she’d be there as long as I needed her. Ten months later, she was gone.
Nearly 20 years after my mother’s death, the granddaughters she never got to meet are entering seventh and ninth grade. Some days, I imagine my mother appearing in my kitchen with her hair back to its original, warm brown hue, “rutz” and all. She’d sip coffee, I’d pour out my troubles and she would dispense the exact right mixture of understanding and sage advice.
I wonder how she would approach hair care with her granddaughters — an issue that is as fraught for my children as it was for me. While neither of my children has straight hair, my oldest has inherited my type to a T: as in thick, tousled and miles away from straight, but not quite curly either. Like me, she was determined to temper the wildness. And just as I had promised all those years before, I was determined to help her.
When she started eighth grade, we spent mornings in front of the mirror with my trusty flat iron. We scoured YouTube and TikTok for advice, watching slick videos of stylists explaining how to achieve that perfect, straight look in a few easy steps. But the results never satisfied my daughter. She presented me with a litany of reasons: We used the wrong product, or we didn’t section the hair properly or glide the iron slowly enough.
On school picture day, I made a critical miscalculation when applying serum, leaving her hair flat and greasy. “Mom, how could you do this to me?” she moaned. I thought of my mother all those years ago, listening to me rant about how she’d destroyed my childhood.
Even on the rare days when our routine produced satisfactory results, unless my daughter remained as still as a mountain, her hair always returned to its natural state within hours. Our morning sessions became a chore we both dreaded. My hands ached from holding the flat iron and dragging it across each section at what felt like an agonizingly slow pace. More than once I felt my annoyance rising when my daughter decided to give up and pull her hair into a ponytail, rendering my efforts moot. One day I threatened that if she hated her hair so much, I would simply cut it off. She looked at me wide-eyed, then scurried away.
Later that fall, as the air turned sharp and the last wisps of summer faded, she tried something she’d never considered an option before: She decided to embrace her waves.
“Mom, I’m going to do this wavy hair routine,” she told me, eager to use methods she’d discovered online. For weeks I watched her coax the curves back into her hair. She became adept at influencer-touted strategies like “squish to condish,” a technique to get water and conditioner into the hair, and took pains to keep her locks in braids overnight. The change suited her: Her hair gleamed, loose spirals cascading down her back. Free from the drudgery of the flat iron, my daughter and I ceased sniping at each other. School mornings felt like a leisurely dream. I sensed a shift in her, a willingness to worry less about what others thought of her hair and think more about what made her happy.
Her hair journey inspired me. When I decided to tiptoe into the world of wavy hair care myself, my daughter was excited to share what she’d learned. She taught me how to scrunch my hair after showering, demonstrating the “prayer hands” method to spread products evenly. We took impromptu trips to Target for conditioner and curl-friendly mousse. As my waves slowly reemerged, my daughter cheered.
That December, I had surgery for breast cancer — a diagnosis I’d always considered not a matter of if, but when. Unlike my mother, I didn’t need chemotherapy. “It’s so nice you get to keep your hair,” a clinician said during one appointment, as the room blurred and darkened around me. “Nice, yes,” I repeated, numb.
For six weeks after the operation, I was on strict instructions to keep my arms at shoulder height or lower. Washing and styling my hair was a tricky endeavor, so my daughter stepped in to help. “Flip upside down,” she’d say, scrunching my wet locks with the no-nonsense air of a seasoned stylist. On other occasions, knowing how much I still loved the sleek look, she straightened my hair, showing more patience with the flat iron than I’d ever conjured up.
Each time she tended to my hair, shame and sadness swelled in my chest. Would I have done this for my own mother if she hadn’t lost her hair? Too often, I’d treated her cancer as an inconvenience and resented her for the way it impacted my life. I’d even let it slip once that I thought she’d given me “bad genes,” and that it was her fault I was now at higher risk for the disease.
Did I do enough to help her in the end, to make up for my mistakes? I’ll never know.
I’m back to styling my own hair now, and more days than not I find myself squishing and scrunching, cajoling my hair back to its natural state. I can’t undo the hours I spent toiling with the flat iron, frying my hair into oblivion. But I hope that if I can embrace my waves, maybe I can also learn to accept some of life’s messiness and uncertainty.
Gina Rich lives in Mequon, Wisconsin, with her husband, Kevin ’00, and their two daughters. She writes about motherhood, health and nature at her blog, lovehopeandcoffee.com.