For Better or Frizzier

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Bethany Suckrow -CurlySue4

I have a long and complicated relationship with my hair. At 28, I’ve mostly learned how to cope with it in a finely-honed technique of leave-in conditioners, serums, blow-dryers, straighteners, curling irons, hairsprays and fairy dust (also known as dry shampoo.)

But for the first half of my life, my hair was a wild tangle of curls that I didn’t know what to do with. I believe the complicated relationship with my mane started at the tender age of three, when my mom dressed me up as a clown for Halloween. She didn’t use the curly rainbow wig that came with the costume because my hair achieved that effect all on its own.

You think I’m being sarcastic, but I assure you, I’m not:

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Aww, how cute, right?

Wrong.

I was often called Shirley Temple or Curly Sue with much affection by the adults in my life, which only underscored my feelings of not being taken seriously because of my hair. The older I got, the more I complained that my hair didn’t look like the other girls. My mother tried to reassure me that most women had to pay to make their hair look like mine, whereas I was blessed to have hair that grew that way on its own. It was the 90’s; by that point my mom had been perming her stick-straight hair for at least a decade.

“Think of all the money that you’ll never have to spend on perms!” she’d say.

“Do they have perms for curly-haired people to make their hair straight? When I’m a grown up, I’ll spend all my money on THAT!” I’d yell back.

The thing that only curly-haired women understand is this: the Shirley Temple look doesn’t last forever. My ringlets grew longer and frizzier with age and I made the mistake of trying to brush them straight. This method sort of work between ages six and nine, when my hair was nearly down to my waist. It gave me a tawny cascade of waves, and then mom would tease my bangs with a comb and hairspray them into a nicely shellacked sculpture. In the mid-90’s this made me look mostly normal, as long as there was no humidity whatsoever. If there was humidity (and in southwest Michigan, there always was) all that hairspray seemed to evaporate, and my hair would shrink lengthwise and expand in width, until I resembled a small, ferocious lion.

Not to mention that things often got stuck in it: bobby-pins, bows, hair ties… And bubblegum. The bubblegum incident was when my mother finally threw in the towel. She took me to see Patti, my grandmother’s hairstylist at the beauty shop in town. Patti took one look at the situation and gently explained that all the ice cubes and peanut butter in the world would not save my waist-length hair. All of the ladies in the beauty shop watched in horror as Patti snipped away and my curls fell to the floor. A few of them passed around handkerchiefs.

My post-gum haircut was a chin-length disaster that vaguely resembled wild, barren shrubbery in the dead of winter. It became comedic material for the cruel middle schoolers that sat behind me on the bus. “Bush” was their nickname for me, which was humiliating enough before I understood the crude innuendo. My best coping mechanism was to pretend I didn’t have hair; I learned to keep it in a tightly-slicked bun at the back of my head through my early teens. Similarly, I learned to cope with the cruel kids on the bus by pretending I didn’t exist. I was quiet and shy, with a melancholic disposition that in retrospect might have been depression.

It was a winter retreat with my youth group that changed everything. One of the older girls had a straightening iron, so a group of them sat me down on the floor of our cabin and straightened my hair, strand by strand. It took hours, and at first I was nervous that they would burn my hair or that they would get bored and give up. But slowly, their gentle fingers and funny chatter relaxed me. We were all astonished by the final result—glossy, soft, straight hair. I felt like a different girl. I was no longer a clown or a punch-line or a frizzy-haired lion. I was a normal-ish looking teenaged girl with straight hair and friends.

After that weekend, my mom bought me my own straightener. My dad thought it was a phase I would grow out of, but like plucking my eyebrows or shaving my legs or wearing makeup, it was a routine I grew into and became an act of self-care.

Would it have been better if my friends had accepted my hair (and me, by extension) the way it naturally was? Sure.

But I also see these rituals of beauty that young women share as a strength-in-numbers sort of bond. A way of saying “here, these are your tools for survival.” I needed it then. I was a sensitive, anxious teen with a lot going on at home. They coaxed me out of my cocoon and helped me live in the world.

Weird as it may seem, my relationship with my hair has been a formative part of learning to love myself. I look at photos through the decades—short, long, curly, straight, soft, frizzy, up, down—and see a girl trying to figure out who she is.

There are some days when I unwrap my hair from my towel and the tangle of wet curls reminds me all over again of who I really am: unruly. A little difficult. Fussy and neurotic and wild and untamed and beautiful. A thing I don’t totally have figured out.

I gently massage the leave-in conditioner into each strand—a small act of kindness. For better or frizzier, I love you.

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Bethany Suckrow
I’m a writer and blogger at at bethanysuckrow.com, where I shares both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. I am currently working on my first book, a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. My musician-husband, Matt, and I live in transition as we move our life from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville.
Bethany Suckrow
Bethany Suckrow

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