This spring, a friend asked me to accompany her to Africa to document the labors of a nonprofit working in microfinance. She told me we’d be traveling to a number of remote villages to complete our assignment.
My vain response forced a long, hard look in the mirror, and not just so I could prep for another day of battle with wiry, frizzy hair. I’d sat through decades of sermons and Bible studies telling me that I was fearfully and wonderfully made, urging me to love myself because God loved me. All this self-acceptance talk may as well have been spoken to me in Portuguese. A demanding little idol called the Straight Hair god had rendered the message unintelligible.
As a young girl, I learned about the Straight Hair god from shampoo commercials and TV, and my “Ellis Island” hair wasn’t it. My natural `do makes me look a lot like the people pictured in those grainy pictures of Eastern European immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in steerage class at the turn of the century, probably because I am related to a handful of them.
I tried appeasing the Straight Hair god with a daily offering: blow-drying it into an immovable hair helmet that resembled a pile of scouring pads. Heaven forbid the humidity crept above 65 percent.
Except for a brief stint going natural in the mid-70s, and the big hair era of the 1980s, my type 3C curly hair and I have appeased this god with a daily offering of blow-drying for 40 years. I did the math: 10 minutes with the blow dryer every morning works out to over 100 24-hour days spent with a blow dryer and a round brush in my hand. I have given more than three months of my limited time on earth to blow-drying my hair.
Author Anne Lamott has written about her long war with her wiry hair: “[I’d devoted] most of my prayer life to the desperate hope that there not be any weather. Also, that no one trick me into getting into a convertible and then suddenly insist on taking the top down …. The only alternative is that you wear a hat, but then when you take it off you have terrible hat-hair, where it looks like a cartoon mouse has been driving a steamroller around your head all day. And you obviously can’t wear a scarf or you end up looking like your aunt Bev.”
Though many women exercise the “Wanting the Kind You Don’t Have” rule when it comes to hair, many curly girls live with a certain level of insecurity because the prevailing standard of beauty in our culture is flat-ironed. There are a few high-powered women with curly hair who are trying to battle the notion that their untamed tresses diminish their workplace credibility or makes them less desirable. As curly-haired Megan McArdle, senior editor for The Atlantic, recently noted in “Can A Professional Woman Go Curly?“, “For better or worse, smooth straight hair has become synonymous with ‘professional’ in America. Show up with curly hair, and you might as well show up with waist-length beads and an incense burner.”
Some of us secretly believe that a part of our physical appearance came with a faulty manufacturer’s warrantee. That unchallenged belief is a perfect breeding ground for the kind of idolatry that drove my morning grooming routine for four decades. Lamott notes that it took the words of a dying friend about wasting time on the unimportant to see her hair woes in a healthier light.
The Holy Spirit used my fretting about caring for my curls in an African village to confront me about my hairdolatry. Once he had my attention, I found an invitation from bouffant bondage in New Testament passages like 1 Peter 3:3-5 or 1 Tim. 2:9-15. These passages are often used as running chainsaws in the debate over gender roles in the church or, in fundamentalist circles, to create legalistic standards for women’s dress. I carry a few scars from the wounds of those ill-wielded chainsaws, and I’m sorry to confess that those scars got in the way of hearing the words that could free me from serving the Straight Hair god with my daily blow-drying offerings. Simply, both Paul and Peter urge believing women not to become enslaved by serving their external appearance because this enslavement would limit their ability to serve others.
There was a big difference between the healthy components of my grooming routine each day (moisturizer, mascara, blush, simple-but-current clothing choices), and the fear of not being acceptable or attractive to others. That unhealthy fear had turned me into a blow-drying slave.
My journey to freedom began with repentance, as well as a trip to a new hairdresser this summer, who spent an hour showing me how to take care of my curly hair without using the blow dryer. It took several weeks and a series of really bad hair days before I got the hang of it. I’m guessing my unplugged detox this summer is a little like coming off a 40-year nicotine addiction.
I’d lived the lie that my wild hair was a mistake on God’s part or some sort of failure on my own. When I look in the mirror these days, my untamed hair preaches a sermon at me every time I look at it, telling me I am fearfully, wonderfully made after all.
Note: This piece first ran here. And I’m happy to report that my blow dryer has been gathering dust since 2011.