OK, I admit it. I used to hate my curls. I was born with a mass of corkscrews, but from the time I was eight, I did everything in my power to get rid of them. Curls were uncontrollable, messy, undependable. I stared yearningly at all the girls with rivers of straight hair down their backs, girls who could go to bed with perfect hair and wake up without worrying about clumps or snarls or pockets of frizz. Girls who didn’t have to slink in the seat when they went for haircuts because the hairdressers were always insisting the only cut they should have was some awful cropped concoction called an artichoke or a poodle. I yearned for straight hair that would swing instead of catch on the buttons of my sweater, hair that was consistent and not so full of surprises. And desperate, I struggled to bend my curls’ will to mine. I taped my curls down; I wrapped them in in rows of rubber bands. I ironed them until I was certain I looked like I had at least moderately straight hair, but still, walking home from school, I heard, “Hey, frizzy! Did you stick your hand in a light socket and have it go to your head?”As I grew older, I discovered the hot-comb. The second I stepped from my shower, I blowfried my hair into submission, taking up to forty minutes to get it at least moderately lank looking. During the day, when the stubborn waves perked up again, I tamed my hair into braids. No one ever really saw my hair in its natural state, not even my boyfriends, and I reassured myself that to all extents and purposes, my hair, if not the stick straight hair of my dreams, was at least somewhat smooth. And I told myself that soon, soon, there might be scientific discovery, a pill that would make curly hair permanently straight, and then I finally would be just who I wanted to be. A naturally straight-haired girl.
And then I got sick, and my life—and my hair—changed.
Three days after I gave birth, I got a rare disease that stopped my blood from clotting --Postpartum Factor VIII Inhibitor. I had five emergency operations, a hundred blood transfusions and I wasn’t expected to live. But I did, and after a year of drug treatment, as I finally began to get better, my hair got worse.
One day, I was playing with Max, my baby, leaning over to tickle him. He grabbed my hair, and to my horror, a huge hank slid off my scalp and onto his face. We both burst into tears.
My hair began falling out in clumps, rolling from my shoulders in the shower, falling into my plate at dinner. I stopped blowfrying it, stopped brushing or smoothing it, terrified anything I might do would make it fall out more. My dreaded curls might pop back up, but I told myself it would only be temporary, that my goal right now was to simply save the hair I had. But my curls didn’t come back. Instead, my hair changed, becoming thin, wispy, and so rough it felt like sandpaper. Larger and larger ridges of scalp showed through it. Horrified, I wore hats. I found excuses to stay in the house.“I find you beautiful,” my husband Jeff assured me one day. And that day, he coaxed me to Central Park. The sky was bright blue, and I had a scarf wrapped about my balding scalp, and I tried to concentrate on the things that made me happy. So I didn’t have hair. My husband was kissing me. My baby was in my lap. I had sold a new novel. And then, just as I was feeling better, a gorgeous woman with a smooth, long sheet of hair walked by, glanced at me and then quickly looked away. She doesn’t have a baby, I told myself. She doesn’t have a husband who thinks she’s beautiful, straight hair or not. With hair like that, she’s probably always been healthy and has no idea how lucky she is to be alive.
But I knew.
I told myself I had to stop obsessing about my hair or I would go mad. If I couldn’t control what was going on with my hair, I could control other parts of my life. I learned to cook. I finished my novel, and spent time with my family, and one day, I happened to look in the mirror when I saw something startling. A curl sprouting from my scalp! Shiny, glossy, full of life. And I was so happy to see it that I wouldn’t dare disturb it. Gradually, more curls grew, but even with healthier hair, I didn’t want to risk damage. I avoided my hair fryer. I wouldn’t touch my brush or comb, not even fingers went into my hair. I had enough hair so I could trim it into a wild cap about my head, and to my shock, it looked nothing like the horrible artichoke or poodle cuts of my youth. It looked….cool. Gradually, to my surprise, I began to love, too, that I could step out of the shower and be ready to go without any long fuss. I liked it that I didn’t have to worry about the weather. I used to hate it that my curls were so unpredictable, but now, suddenly, their randomness was exhilarating. It somehow made me feel that anything was possible, and the more my curls grew and changed, the better I liked them. That evening, when Jeff snapped a photo of me, I didn’t hold my hand up in front of my face the way I usually did, and when the photos came back, it was a revelation.
My hair was a mass of ringlets to my chin. I looked as if I were lit from within with happiness and I touched the photographs with wonder. “I love my curls,” I said, amazed.
It’s been years since I was sick. I’m healthy and so is my hair, which now curls and spirals almost to midback. I never went back to straightening it, brushing it, combing it, blowfrying it, or doing anything but stepping out of the shower, plopping, and I’m ready to go. If anything, to my great amusement, I wish my hair were curlier, but I’m now much too respectful of my curls to stress them into being something they aren’t.
Just yesterday, when I was on the subway, I felt someone staring at my hair, and I looked up, for a moment feeling the same old wariness. A woman was smiling at me. “How do you get your hair to do that?” she said, wistfully, making curls in the air.
I smiled. “I just let my hair be,” I saidYou could say I’ve discovered that my curls are a metaphor for my life. Changing, surprising, and always showing me how to go with their flow.