Why, It's Enough To Make Your Hair Curl

Alice Steinbach

March 18, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

I AM SO TIRED I BARELY HAVE THE energy to write this. For the last three nights I've been up, unable to sleep, just worried sick about two friends who were undergoing corrective cosmetic procedures over the weekend. I should be seeing them both any minute now when they show up for work, and I don't mind telling you that I'm nervous as all heck.

I mean, the potential for disaster is great. What if they look so different I don't recognize them? Excuse me, Miss. But you can't sit there, that desk is already taken by someone. Someone, I might add, who doesn't look like you.

Or, worse yet, what if I do recognize them and they look awfulNo, no, you really look great. But different. I mean, it will just take some getting used to.

Of course, they could always look wonderful. But since I've had this procedure done myself -- several times, in fact -- I know how unlikely such an outcome is apt to be.

But, hey! Going into this deal, my friends knew the odds were against them. They've both had perms before.

Perm. As in permanent wave -- the thing you do to your thin, straight hair after seeing Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman."

In fact, Julia Roberts' name came up last Friday when my friends talked to me for hours about their hopes and dreams, their ambitions and goals in life. Perm-wise, that is.

"I'm going for the 'big hair' look," said my straight-haired Friend No. 1, who hasn't had a perm for several years but still meets people at parties who ask what happened to her old hair -- the hair that was curly.

Friend No. 2 had a different look in mind: "I'm going for the 'exactly the way I look without a perm' look," she said. "My goal is to have a perm that doesn't look like a perm."

(Note to the Perm Virgin: A body perm is the scientific name for a perm that gives body -- as opposed to curls -- to your hair. The hypothesis is that hair with body is hair that will stand away from your head and look big instead of laying there, limp and lifeless like seaweed framing your face.)

But despite their different goals (one wants body, the other wants big, remember?) both women expressed a deep-seated fear regarding what they were about to do.

Friend No. 1: "I'm so nervous. Maybe I should have done this just before I go on vacation to Portugal for two weeks. Just in case something terrible happens."

Me: "What are you afraid of?"

"That I'll look stupid and people will think I'm a fool."

Friend No. 2 surprised me by assuming a casual attitude toward the whole thing: "Usually I don't go out for three days after a perm," she said, "but I have plans to go out Sunday." Sensing she was hiding something, I used the oldest reporter's trick in the book. I remained silent. It worked. Suddenly the dam broke and all the latent perm anxiety stored up in her unconscious flooded out, like a stream-of-consciousness passage in a James Joyce novel:

I would rather go to the dentist than have a permanent . . . If I call in sick on Monday, you'll know it's bad. If I call in sick Tuesday, send flowers. If you don't hear from me by Wednesday it means -- get to my house immediately to pull my head out of the oven. And be sure in the obituary it says I had glossy, dark hair alive with red highlights that drove men wild until the tragic visit to the hairdresser. And that I looked like Victoria Principal.

It was at this point that a Perm Support Group began to form around my desk, each woman revealing a perm combat horror story. It started to take on a kind of "Can You Top This" tone: I had a perm so bad I had to get my hair entirely cut off my head . . . I had a perm where they left the solution on so long it burned my hair into frizz . . . I had a perm that turned my hair green . . . I had a perm once . . .

Well, you get the idea.

As for me, I've paid my dues, permanently speaking. If I had to pick my favorite personal horror story, it probably would be the episode that occurred when I was about 10 years old and an uncle had his girlfriend give me a home permanent.

Does the phrase "Bride of Frankenstein" conjure up a mental picture for you?

But, look. That's not going to happen to my two friends. Perms have come a long way since then. And besides, if things should go bad -- and don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they will go bad -- there's always haircuts. Or hats.

And if that doesn't work: Venice anyone?

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