Carole Poppleton – Rituals of Beauty

Remembering My Mother’s Hair

My mother never allowed herself many luxuries. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood, my father made good money but my mother never felt secure. Money to her was security and there would never be enough. Being the daughter of a farmer in rural Alabama, my mother grew up in a clapboard home with partially dirt floors, flour-sack clothing and cotton-picking chores after school. No matter how far my mother moved from her red-clay roots, the fear of poverty and the nipping pangs of want never left her. I didn’t know her history until I was older; as a girl, I simply saw my mother as cheap and was perpetually embarrassed by my brown-bag lunches, used dresses and our clunker cars.

Despite my mother’s frugality, she had one weekly indulgence. Every Saturday, she visited a local beauty shop where she would have her hair washed and set in a firm, lacquered updo. If there was no one to watch us, my sister and I were forced to tag along. We’d sit, glassy-eyed and bored, and watch as she and other females went through their weekly ritual of beauty.

My mother’s beauty parlor was nothing like today’s salon. Hers was bare bones, stripped down, a no-frills room filled with monstrous hair driers, fluorescent lights and streaky mirrors. It was home to surly hairdressers and a gaggle of older ladies who, like my mom, considered their weekly visits a necessity for hair maintenance, not a treat for relaxation. The shop’s plate window was covered in a dark green plastic film to keep private what went on inside its walls. As I waited, I studied the cobwebs on the plastic flowers and counted the dead flies on the sill. By our weekly excursion, my sister and I learned all too early about the price women paid to manage their bodies.

My mother’s Saturday appointment always ended in the same results. A wash, a set, an eon under a seated dryer and then a final tease out. Her hair was transformed in a stiff, tight helmet with an unnaturally high peak at the crown. I think most women in the 1970s wore this style; it simply varied in color: brown, blonde or blue-tinted. For an hour every week my mother sat and endured, surrounded by the smells of ammonia, cleaning fluids and cigarette smoke, the drone of clunky driers and old lady chatter.

My mother’s hair. Such a mystery to me and the beauty shop seemed a strange ritual, a weekly test of tolerance to create a hairdo that could endure seven days. With her hair freshly set, my mother battled daily life. She wore plastic hair caps in the rain, had brushes with violent picks and bristles, wore a mesh net and pink tape to bed. A helmet on a helmet, she knew how to protect an investment.

My mother’s rituals. My mother’s quest to create some form of beauty in her life – a life devoted to four children and a workaholic husband – is a constant source of amazement to me. I wonder what she thought about as she sat beneath the hair dryer, as she prepared herself for bed, securing her weekly investment with a hairnet, Dippity-Do and tape. I wonder, too, about my father and his thoughts of my mother’s bedtime armor. But I was a child and questions such as these were inappropriate.

Psychologists say we internalize values when we’re young. Those visits to the beauty parlor and my mother’s unmoving hair were my first introductions into the secret realm of women. The beauty parlor was a place to escape the outside world of home and husband and chores, even if only for an hour or two. Even if it was the same every week, its space was reserved only for the female, a home to ritual and gender seclusion and heavily-sprayed sets.

It’s no wonder that I don’t enjoy hair salons now. I find no comfort in their walls. Staring at myself in a mirror or spending hours with foil bits attached to my head make me itch. It feels like work. And even though the places I visit are called spas, I cannot relax. Perhaps I am my mother’s daughter after all. A little less frugal, a little more free. I wear my hair shoulder length and natural, sometimes fighting its persistent curl and sometimes going to bed with it wet and dangerously free to take whatever form it wishes as I dream. There is a certain decadence to waking up with wild locks and a damp pillow. I wish my mother could have known such anarchy.