The Pain of Living With Curly Hair: Give Me Mousse or Give Me Death

by Caroline H. Dworin

Let me share a secret: no one has ever really seen my hair. Not brushed, that is, not left on its own to dry. An acquaintance would describe me as curly-haired. A decent-looking human female, pale-skinned, gray-eyed, of average height and weight, and with very curly dark brown hair in ringlets, just below the ear. People remember hair, and use it as identification; a curly-haired girl often finds herself described as such. However, while I cannot speak for every head of corkscrew-curly hair, I can speak for one: this is not really what I look like.

These curls may be "natural" in that they are not the result of a perm, but they could certainly not exist in the wild, not without many, many cubic inches of epoxy-strength mousse applied faithfully every single day—much, much more than the label recommends, a shameful amount—a daily routine I despise so completely that I'd never let another person watch. One can of mousse a week. For the rest of my life.

Try complaining about this drudgery to regular, hairbrush-owning folks, those who say, casually, that they always wished they had curly hair. It doesn't sound so hard, after all, a little styling in the morning? Try explaining that, no: you need mousse like a diabetic needs insulin.

Not out of vanity, out of fear. "Aw!" says the kindly friend, who would love you no matter what, and imagines what it is you're hiding is some rugged, natural beauty. "Why not just leave it as it is for one day? Leave it natural. I'd like to see." Well, friend, I will say this: would you ask a one-eyed man to skip the prosthesis?

What the hair looks like without its daily discipline is a very private matter. And no boyfriend, roommate, or physician will ever see. They would fall out of love with me, drop off the lease, or cancel my insurance. The fear of its discovery keeps me living at its mercy.

Were I to express, without irony, how very funny-looking a creature I really am underneath it all, the Average American Woman of healthy self-esteem might conclude that the problem here is emotional. But the Average American Woman does not have what I have growing from her head.

Let's brush it, and see what happens: it's no longer really even hair.

It's more like lint, like a dark brown storm cloud hovering around a face, a haze lacking edges and integrity—a dust bowl. Imagine tumbleweed blowing east on Forty-Second Street. Imagine cabbies turning their heads. Pigeons hit windows in terror, and tourists clutch their children to their side.

In the worst of times, I've paid for mousse with nickels. I've shaken just enough coins onto the counter for a can of cat food, a coffee, and a bottle of something to put in my hair. It comes as a sickening expense to one who aspires to tomboy-ism, shunning the girls who spend hours on their looks (as if a manicure is really anything more important than a regular nail-biting routine). Yet, were there $5 left in my wallet to get me through the day, I would spend them on mousse. I would rather ache from the pain of hunger than bear the consequence of walking the streets of the city with the hair that the Good Lord intended.

In times of peril, I've dug through the medicine cabinets of strangers, dug around desperately under the sink. Considered anything, anywhere. Skin lotion? Honey? No . . . pudding? Cool Whip? Elmer's?

I imagine that girl who wakes up and "throws" on her clothes. She runs her fingers through her short, smooth hair, flicks her head, and is "out the door." Just like that. I lurk in the bathroom, trying and failing to reroute the course of my chromosomes through glue.

It is petty to whine about such things, I know. I understand people lack water in some places of the world, not simply ruly looks. Though I'll still say quietly to those the closest to me: I wish to be buried with mousse in my hair.

Caroline H. Dworin is a writer in New York City.