A man's first perm: To curl up and almost die


August 21, 1991|By Michael Robertson | Michael Robertson,San Francisco Chronicle

Four months ago I got a permanent. The distinctive contour of my individual hairs changed from linear to spiral, as if I suddenly had a whole head full of recombinant DNA.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the principal effect of the process was that I started behaving like Andy Rooney.

I do not mean that, in the aftermath of the hair bending, I started looking like Andy Rooney, who looks like the sale counter at a Fruit of the Loom outlet.

What I mean is now I find myself saying: Why do they call it a permanent? It isn't permanent. If you don't keep getting them three or four times a year, it's back to Linguini Land for your hair.

Not that I am unfond of my permanent, though I was ambushed into getting it. My sister-in-law, the Beautician with a Master's Degree, had come for a family visit, bringing along a perm kit for my wife. Each family has a style of visiting, and in my wife's multi-sister family the style is to work frantically on various useful projects while one sister is in the other sister's home, as if life were one long round of migrant labor. (I do not criticize since the style of visiting in my family is to eat everything in sight and then borrow money.)

But when the time came for the perm to be administered, it was somehow assumed that I, rather than grinning on the periphery, would be the recipient.

The offer was made in the light-hearted way that characterizes mortal combat with one's in-laws, the sneering dare that turns second-helpings and decisions about which TV show to watch into a test of wills.

Why don't you have a permanent, my in-laws asked. You would look cute with a perm.

But what they meant was you don't have the guts, buster.

It does take guts to get a perm, by the way. Of course, I submitted.

First, there is the rolling of the hair onto the curlers, an act that produces what I call Fem-Pain. Fem-Pain is any physical discomfort that is part and parcel of the female existence. The pain of childbirth remains the best example.

Fem-Pain stands in direct opposition to Guy-Hurt, the best example of which is continuing to play football when some part of your body has ceased to function properly.

The twisting of the hair around the curler really, really hurts, as does the curling solution when it drips onto your bare skull. If it burns too much, you are instructed to complain, but you are also warned that there will be some discomfort, and that the solution must remain on your head for 15 minutes.

Quiz: How much pain is too much? If your skin blisters, that is too much.

For those 15 minutes during which the starch (or something) is burned out of your hair, you are naturally morose. You are sitting there with a shower cap on your head and a dainty bit of flowered fabric around your shoulders, wondering whether you will ever see your hair again in this lifetime. Your hair was lank, oily and lacked discipline, but it was your hair, and you did not get the chance to bid it a proper farewell.

Usually, the hair survives. You move a little and the curlers sway. You feel a reassuring tug at each and every hair root. And then, after additional dousing and rinsing, the curlers come off and your stylist fluffs and clips and finally you are invited to look in the mirror.

There is a shock in the first viewing of one's permanent. If you have ever wondered what your head would look like if it exploded, this is a preview. It is as if your hair has somehow moved up the hierarchy of body parts and assumed a greater importance, for now it rides your head like a rajah on an elephant. (Later on, as it ages, it starts to look like a dandelion somewhat deficient in dander.)

My wife said she liked it, and a day or two after that first permanent I found out why, when she brought home a bottle of shampoo.

Especially Designed for Thinning Hair, it said on the label.

"But I don't have thinning hair," I said.

"You have a bald spot," she replied, "and the permanent helps cover it. I thought you knew."

I didn't know. Now I do. Last week I got another permanent.

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