Since beginning of time, tress-stressed women have been trying to get a handle on their hair


August 14, 1994|By Mary Corey

Among the epic struggles in life -- the North vs. the South, capitalism vs. communism, good vs. evil -- is this lesser-known but no less tortured one: women vs. their hair.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But try reasoning with a woman who's just had a bad perm. Or one who's going gray. Better yet, spend time with a bride whose mother convinced her to visit Pierre's House of Bargain Coiffures on the big day.

For many women, hair is the enemy, a wanton thing that misbehaves when it matters most. It's as unreliable as a lifelong bachelor, as unpredictable as a child, as untrained as a new crew of Army recruits.

And give or take the shade and style, you're pretty much stuck with it.

No one has brought the foibles of hairdos into sharper focus than Hillary Rodham Clinton. For the last few years, America's image-conscious have staged a round-the-clock hair watch of the first lady.

She's been long. She's gone short. She's had chignons, bangs, curls. She's looked like Betty Crocker, Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley. In the media glare, the first lady has finally confessed: She and her locks don't always get along.

American women can relate. Look at Roseanne Arnold, Janet Reno and Loni Anderson. Even bright, strong-minded women -- some of whom were married to Burt Reynolds, no less -- sometimes get shortchanged in the hair department.

But then look at Whitney Houston, Michelle Pfeiffer and the glamour queens of Hollywood and Seventh Avenue. Granted, they have a stylist tending to every strand, but theirs is hair to die for.

What are the rest of us left with? A morning ritual of washing, drying and styling that's akin to a crapshoot. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.

"There is no doubt that your hair is probably the single greatest part of the human anatomy which controls your mood," says Philip Kingsley, the renowned hair specialist who has a line of retail products. "The reason is basically that hair is a secondary sexual characteristic. You can't flaunt your primary characteristics in public, but you can flaunt your hair. And women use their hair to flaunt their sensuality."

Throughout the ages, hair has had a symbolic meaning in society.

"In war times, the most severe punishment for consorting with the enemy, short of breaking the skin, was to cut the hair or shave the head," says Russell Adams, a sociologist at Howard University in Washington, who has studied the relationship between image and status.

He says people's feelings about their hair help explain why they form such strong bonds with their hairdressers.

"The hairdresser is seen as an intimate assistant in grooming. . . . Barbra Streisand married hers [Jon Peters] and made him a millionaire. He who fixes the queen's hair becomes part of her court. That's why people fly across the country to do our hair and why a lot of intimate stuff is said casually under the dryer," says Dr. Adams, who also chairs Howard's Afro-American studies department.

Over the past 10 years hairstylist Karen Wilson has created some of the area's trendiest cuts and colors and during that time she's cultivated a few theories about hair. No. 1: Turmoil -- usually the demise of a marriage or serious relationship -- often causes women to take drastic measures. "So many men say they like long hair. Women break up with a guy and I've had them come in and say, 'Let's just cut it all off.' They're getting rid of the past," says Ms. Wilson, owner of Bang Bang Hair Studio in Fells Point.

No. 2: Women with short hair are more confident than women with long hair. "Their hair isn't their identity. They're braver about trying different styles," she says.

Turning 40 brought out the daredevil in one of her clients, Margot King. She decided her days of being a brunette were over and became platinum white instead.

"I'd done red, light brown," says Ms. King, whose hair is cut in a waif style. "They were very tame. I decided if you're going to make a statement, you might as well really make a statement."

While friends compliment her and she feels emboldened to dress more artistically now, she does have one critic: her husband.

"He's pretty middle-of-the-road," says Ms. King, manager of Retro, a vintage clothing store in Fells Point. "And this is extreme for him."

But even she, who tries on hairstyles the way other women try on clothes, expresses a certain longing about her hair.

"It's extremely straight," she says. "I wish it were wavier. And it's fine. I wish it were thicker."

Few women, it seems, are spared from being disappointed by their hair.

Nine out of 10 say they occasionally have "bad-hair days," according to a nationwide survey of more than 500 women. Blondes have more bad-hair days than brunettes, says Hal Quinley, a partner at Yankelovich Partners, a public opinion research firm, which did the study with Neutrogena products. And Monday is the most common day for hair to go haywire.

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