Essays > Pour etre belle, il faut souffrir. To be beautiful, you must suffer.

Pour etre belle, il faut souffrir. To be beautiful, you must suffer.

I just got back from getting my hair done at Hollywood Beauty Center, where Esteeve, a bubbly Persian emigre who once closed up the store for Sacha “Borat” Cohen and did his hair for $250, made me watch “White Chicks” on a DVD player while he dyed away my gray and gave me youthful highlights.   Last time I told him I didn’t think his other favorite movie, “The Professional,” was a chick flick and he should rethink his offerings.  At least this time the movie had “chick” in the title.  It’s the price I pay, along with the icky smell and the four hours of torment, for letting Esteeve make me “double – no triple – beautiful!” as he always says. 

I do it to brace myself for the banks of fresh-faced students awaiting me in ENG 111 at UM – Flint.  Every year I am a little older than they are, of course, and by now, I’m so much older I’m practically a crone. I vainly think doing something to my hair will help. So I stoically cart myself into whatever hovel of female sado-masochism I distrust least, and reluctantly submit.

It’s a wonder I go at all.  In the perilous business of getting “beautiful,” I got off to a very bad start. Today, sitting in Esteeve’s rowdy salon, the memory of my calamitous first encounter with official beauty flooded back. 

I was nine, and I kept getting hints I shouldn’t spend so much time climbing trees and getting scrapes on my knees.  I felt a melancholy ambivalence.  I was proud of being a tomboy, and my mother seemed to like me like that. She was deeply skeptical, if not outright disdainful, of what she considered to be shallow blandishments and alterations like shaved legs, lipstick, padded bras, pointy-toed shoes and dresses that crimped and cut off a woman’s breath.  Style? Nonsense, she would have said.

So the impetus for my beauty rite of passage probably came from Dad.  An Indiana farm kid turned preacher, my father believed men should be men and women should dress like the Lennon Sisters.  It’s not unlikely he noticed his little daughter was a bit haphazard in the “girlie girl” department.

I had naturally straight hair, and usually my mom hacked off a swathe of it for bangs across my forehead, making me look like a small Polish Marxist. I didn’t object or dislike my hair, but I was told if I went to the Canton School of Beauty, I could have curly hair, and, according to my dad at least, that would be a great thing.  I could get “a permanent” and go to fourth grade with a whole new look.

So, one late summer morning, my mom and I took a city bus downtown. We went to the  Canton School of Beauty, I’m pretty sure, because it was cheap.  But to me it promised great sophistication. My dreams of pulchritude bloomed as I climbed into a big black chair, attentive as a junior anthropologist.   A pink-clad student beautician put a paper collar around my neck and tied on a waxy black smock. My mother hovered within a foot or two, frowning and inept at small talk in a roomful of chattering women. I complied as I was told to lean back for the shampoo. I watched in the mirror as the beauty school student twisted my hair onto metal rods.  I wrinkled my nose at the startlingly pungent and eye-watering goop applied to my scalp. It burned. Little drips of the stuff kept sliding down my forehead onto my face.  She gave me a small white cloth to catch it; I gripped it like a tiny blankie.   

I didn’t know beauty took so long. Clammy sweat oozed from my arms and neck under the black cape. My mother left for a burger and a cup of coffee at Woolworth’s, and I felt as lonely as if she’d abandoned me to a lobotomy.

Then the student beautician unhooked and stripped off the metal rods and grabbed the scissors to cut my smelly dripping hair.  Just as my mother walked back in, and just as I called out to her in relief, I felt a sharp pain.  Shocking rivulets of blood streamed down my neck.  The student beautician had chopped a hunk out of my earlobe. 

I shrunk down like a hunted bunny while my mother shouted for the supervisor, who rushed over, dismissed the babbling, horrified student and took over.  She cleaned me up, dabbed stinging alcohol on my wound, and slapped on a cotton ball and a band-aid.   With that, my permanent, which was only going to cost about $2.50 anyway, was free.

I still had the cotton ball and band-aid on my ear as we walked out.  My permanent looked like a giant auxiliary brain, brunet of course, attached to the top of my head. My incensed mother apologized, stomping to the bus stop in her sensible shoes, and I clung to her miserably and tried to hide.

We didn’t laugh about it until decades later.  My earlobe healed, but it took all of fourth grade for my ridiculous permanent to grow out.  I didn’t go near a beauty shop again for 15 years.  But that’s another story.