A friend showed me a little jar with a lid that had a hole in the top. She asked me if I knew what it was. I did. It was a hair receiver for holding hair, the kind you pull out of your hair brush and throw in the trash. The hair was then stuffed into a pouch made of thin mesh and sown shut to create a “rat.” Rats were used to help add volume to a woman’s hair. Makeup for women was at a minimum, so plain faced gals could improve upon their looks by large, elaborate hair-dos. This practice was so common that Godey’s Lady’s Book noted that if a woman was drowning to “raise her by the dress not the hair, which often remains in the grasp.”
Thick luxurious hair has always been a woman’s crowning glory; it also has become the curse of some people’s existence. I was born with soft thin hair. It really is that simple, no amount of rats, puffed, pinned and stuffed would ever give me the rich luxurious hair of those blithe young individuals plastered all over every billboard, magazine and commercial. This doesn’t seem to stop me from the hope that one of these days I too will have long bouncing and behaving hair.
My first trip down hairball lane was at the end of my junior year in high school. In a magazine I spotted a young girl with a head full of large soft curls. All I needed was a perm, I just knew it. After much cajoling I got my mother to agree to set me up with an appointment at the beauty parlor for my very first perm. The day finally came and we walked into the shop, past a contraption that plugged into the wall, had a large hood and curling rods hanging from electrical wire, fear began to set in.
To my relief, my torture would just include plastic rods and smelly chemicals. “This is what I want,” I showed the page ripped from the magazine to the young girl with my life in her hands. She sat me down and started her chemical therapy, my road to hair volume. What seemed like days later she had taken all of the rods out dried and styled my hair and I looked like my grandmother. When it was wet it was worse, small curly blobs all over my head, transporting me to old age.
I finally found that if I washed and set it every night and slept on large pink rollers, that I could come out with a slim resemblance to the lovely girl in the picture. The curling iron couldn’t enter my life soon enough. I had it all cut off right before having my senior picture taken for the high school yearbook; it was very short and wavy. I thought the photographer was going to have a heart attack, I was editor of the yearbook and he had just seen me the day before, with hair. The picture of that pretty little thing with bouncing, curly waves quickly became a distant memory. Perms wouldn’t enter my life again for a couple of years, and would then be worn, long, curly and full, until it grew out and the top flattened – again.
The fight to keep my fine tresses from plastering themselves to my head revealing my o so white scalp is still to this day being waged. Within hours I will once again be sitting with multi colored plastic rods and smelly chemicals on my head, the picture of the curly headed girl still floating around in my memory as sanity tries to slap it down, maybe rats weren’t such a bad idea after all.