New Year's Guide 2008

I understood instantly that Nick was messing with me — but I also knew he was right. I was going back on my word, and I was doing it far too soon. If my oath was to mean anything ever again, I had to carry on.

Nick was immensely satisfied by my decision, but then, he was applying to colleges at the time and would soon accept an offer to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. — meaning that he'd be half a continent away for what was sure to be the most awkward period of my gestation. During his first semester, virtually every conversation we had with him featured Deb reciting what became her mantra about my hair: "This is all your fault."

In the meantime, though, something unexpected happened. My hair started looking better. The growth on top reached the point where it was visible from a distance without the use of binoculars, and the waves on the side were no longer swooping quite so uniformly. The overall effect wasn't attractive, exactly, but it fell short of jaw-slackeningly hideous. A visiting friend went so far as to say I looked good — though he warned me not to succumb to the urge to put my hair in a ponytail. I laughed at the very thought. A ponytail? The most embarrassing hairstyle any man could pick? No way on earth would I wear a ponytail.

The next judge I went before was my mother, whose sentences are dependably harsh. But to my profound surprise, she actually said nice things about my hair when we visited her in Arizona in late March. Unfortunately, though, this sojourn was as good as it got for me, hair-wise. As spring stretched into summer, my coiffure became absolutely impossible to manage. It refused to stay put, with even the slightest breeze causing strands to fly around my face like a swarm of gnats — and my attempts to toss it out of my eyes with a flick of my head did nothing but give me a literal pain in the neck.

At Westword, one of my annual tasks is to name the local TV news personalities with the best hair — an irony roughly the size of Mount Kilimanjaro, since my own hair had never been a concern. Now, though, I was thinking about it all the time. The more I mulled over my problem, the more I realized I needed professional help.

Melanie Shelley to the rescue.

Shelley got her professional start in New York City, assisting at runway shows starring the likes of Cindy Crawford before moving on to magazine shoots featuring Antonio Banderas and plenty of other notables. Today she owns Trim Classic Barber, one of the top salons in the South — her clientele includes Faith Hill and Ashley Judd — and she's also been featured in an episode of the Style Network series Split Ends.

"Physiologically, I think we are actually programmed to be obsessed with our hair," she told me. "I don't believe it's something our culture tells us. I think from the beginning of time, there's a physiological trigger in us that makes us obsessive about our hair."

That goes for men, too. Whether because of the rise of what's become known as metrosexuality or simply a gradual breakdown in the preconceptions that made men shy away from fiddling with their follicles, Shelley has noticed that many of her male clients are now comfortable enough to use hair tools that their fathers and grandfathers would never have touched. "I have probably ten or twelve guys who own flat irons," she said. "They pull out their curls in front with it. Or they have short, spiky hair, and they want it to do different things without putting product in it."

Not that product is verboten. "Maybe there's a large group out there that still isn't using hair products," she allowed. "But in my experience with high-profile people — and I'm talking about senators and heads of companies and heads of health-care organizations — these guys really know that images are very important. They've figured it out."

Clearly, I hadn't. But now I knew that I had to set my product phobia aside or I'd never make it to year's end without throwing myself under a riding lawnmower and letting the blades do their duty. So I described my specific hair dilemma to Shelley — not just the year's growth pledge, but the type of hair I had on different parts of my head — and asked her to give me a long-distance prescription. She advised me to use "a thickening spray" on the top, to counteract the hormonal changes that made the hair there thinner than the kudzu elsewhere on my noggin, and a "relaxing balm" on the back and sides in order to "chill them out a little bit." Afterward, I should work "grooming cream" through the last two inches of hair all over my head. She described it as "almost like hand lotion for hair."

These directions seemed extraordinarily complicated to me, and a trip to the local beauty-supply store disturbed me even more. I staggered through the aisles, shell-shocked by the sight of $150 straighteners and every kind of mousse other than Bullwinkle. But this discomfort was nothing compared to the alarm I felt after applying the recommended ingredients the next morning. When I brushed the top after using the thickening spray, the hair laid out in narrow ridges, like a sad parody of cornrows, and the gel plastered the hair to the side and back in massive clumps that, after drying, made me look as if I'd fired my head in a kiln.

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