My mother never allowed herself many luxuries. We lived in a fairly large home in an upper middle-class neighborhood; my father, who was an attorney, made good money, but despite these facts my mother never felt secure. Money to her was security and there would never be enough. Being the daughter of a farmer in rural Alabama, my mother grew up in a ramshackle home with partially dirt floors, homemade clothing and cotton-picking chores when she was not in school. No matter how far my mother moved from those red-clay roots, the fear of poverty and the notion that she could fall prey to the nipping dogs of hunger and want never left her mind. I did not know these facts about her until I was much older; to me, as a young girl, I simply saw my mother as grossly frugal and was often embarrassed by my brown-bag lunches, hand-me-down dresses and our beat up cars.
Despite my mother’s inability to indulge in any form of excess, she did do one thing for herself each week. She treated herself to a visit to a nearby beauty shop where she would have her hair washed and set in a firm, lacquered coif that had to be carefully maintained for seven days. If there was no one else to watch us, my sister and I were often forced to accompany mom to her beauty appointment and sit with her and all the other women as they went through their weekly ritual of beauty.
Today, when I think of beauty salons, I picture chic, ultra-slim waifs wearing black, snipping and clipping heads in a room full of carefully placed lights and mirrors. A trip to the salon, for most women today, is a treat, something to look forward to as they give their hair to the hands of another and focus their attention on vacuous fashion magazines. My mother’s beauty parlor was nothing like today’s salon. My mother’s parlor was bare bones, stripped down, a no-frills room filled with monstrous hair driers, fluorescent lights and streaky mirrors.
It sat in the middle of a strip of shops in a village near our house; the Crestline Beauty Parlor was home to surly hairdressers (the terms stylist and colorist had yet to be coined) and a plethora of older ladies who, like my mom, considered their weekly visits to be a necessity for hair maintenance, not an extravagance or treat for relaxation. The window to the parlor was made of large plate glass, but it had been covered in a dark green plastic film in an effort to privatize the interior space, to keep what went on inside its walls a mystery to passersby. I often noticed the cobwebs on the plastic flowers that sat inside the window’s ledge and the assortment of dead flies, foolish bodies that had been enticed into the cool depths of the room never to escape. By our weekly excursion with my mother, my sister and I learned all too early about the secrets of the beauty parlor and the price women paid to manage their bodies.
My mother’s Saturday appointment always ended in the same results. A wash, a set, an eon under a seated dryer and then a final tease out. Her hair, which was still naturally dark, was transformed in a stiff, tight helmet with an unnaturally high peak at the crown. I think all of the women who went to Crestline Beauty Parlor wore this coiffure; it simply varied in color as some women dyed their hair or softened their gray with a blue tint wash. For an hour every week my mother sat and allowed this “luxury” and my sister and I sat an agonized over the smells that permeated the room (ammonia, cleaning fluids, and a haze of cigarette smoke) and the sounds of clunky driers and old lady chatter.
My mother’s hair. Such a mystery to me and the beauty shop seemed a strange ritual forced upon women… a weekly endurance test to create a hairdo that would withstand a week of daily life – no washing, no mussing – its firm form sprayed to withstand the elements. With her hair freshly set, my mother would do whatever was necessary to maintain its balance. She wore plastic hair caps in the rain (a sad, sad act she forced my sister and I to mimic…I doubt my mother ever realized the torture we experienced wearing those plastic caps to school) and had an assortment of tools to keep her helmet taught and static.
In her bathroom, she kept a brush with extra-firm bristles and a rapier-like handle, a sharp plastic pick to lift and separate errant hairs on her crown. There was also a 6-pronged metal pick used to achieve similar results. At night, before bed, my mother would protect her weekly investment by wearing a fine mesh net over her hair, tied tightly around her head and secured with a handful of bobby pins. A helmet on a helmet. All of these objects fascinated me, but none more so than the soft pink hair tape she used to secure hand-styled ringlets at her temples. She would use a gel paste, like Dippity-Do, and form soft ringlets to frame the firm pile of hair that protected her skull. The tape intrigued me, as did the ringlets, which seemed so crazily out of place with the rest of the style….like a playful, soft whisper from an angry nun. Those ringlets suggested style and sexuality, but the tape that held them down each night shouted: don’t touch!
My mother’s rituals. My mother’s quest to create some form of beauty in her life – a life that focused upon four children and an overbearing husband – is a constant source of amazement to me. I wonder what she thought about as she sat beneath the hair dryer, what was on her mind as she prepared herself for bed, securing her weekly investment with a hairnet and tape, what her scalp must have felt like by day 6 without a wash….
I wonder, too, about my father and what he thought of my mother’s bedtime armor. But this was the 70s and questions such as these were inappropriate, and I guess I believed that this was how all women lived, how all women addressed personal grooming; it was simple: one of the goals of each day was to protect the hairdo at all costs: no exercise, no sweat, no exposure to wind or rain, and to sleep stock still with an assortment of contraptions in place to aid in the battle against nature.
I guess what psychologists say is true: we internalize a great deal when we are young rather we realize it or not. Those weekly visits to the beauty parlor and my mother’s unmoving hair were my first real introductions into the secret world of women. The beauty parlor was a place to escape the world – even if only for an hour or two – and work toward some semblance of a personal style. Even if it was the same every week, it was a space reserved only for the female, a place of ritual and gender seclusion. It’s funny that now, as a woman myself who is conscious of fashion and beauty, I really do not enjoy going to the hair salon. I do not find comfort in its walls or relax within the overstuffed chair. I do not like staring at myself in a mirror and spending hours with foil bits attached to my head or glossy color staining my brow. It feels like work, not like luxury.
And even though the places I visit are called salons and I sometimes have a colorist, a stylist and a nail technician “work” on me, I cannot relax. Perhaps I am my mother’s daughter after all….but I prefer to wear my hair shoulder length and natural, sometimes fighting its natural curl by blowing it out straight and sometimes going to bed with it loose and wet. There is a freedom to waking up with wild locks and a damp pillow.