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The Threat of a Perm by haircoward

This is a true story that predates the event that I generally consider to be my hair-interest "origin story". The more I think about it, this story might have just as much to do with my then-burgeoning hair "interest" than the afternoon my first ponytail was spontaneously/forcibly cut off. It certainly affected how I feel about hair salons (the sights, sounds, smells), hair instruments/tools, and my desire to wear more femme hairstyles which remain with me even to this day.


I was just about to start middle school, and it was the early part of the summer. At this point in my adolescence, my mother still had full control over how I wore my hair, though, that didn’t really seem to matter much to me. Hair was, however, something I always had a bit of a fascination with, though back then I couldn’t explain how or why. All I knew was that I had an "interest". An interest that kind of embarrassed me. An interest, I felt, boys shouldn’t have. I remember always being very envious of girls with really long hair… but, I couldn’t explain why. I remember becoming very upset if a woman cut her hair short… but, again, wouldn’t be able to put into words why I’d feel that way… or even care at all.

It was a confusing time. Added to that, my hair was kept quite long (for a boy). My hair grew out from a sort of mullet into a long shaggy mop of hair that ended around my shoulders on the sides and a few inches below in the back. There was no actual "style" to it… it wasn’t a blunt cut, it wasn’t (technically) a "long hairstyle"… it just kind of always looked like I was in desperate need of a haircut.

I wasn’t teased about it… I wasn’t even the only long haired boy in my class. Seemed like a lot of boys were experimenting with mullets and rat tails back then. My mop, though perhaps the longest hair of any of the boys in my class, went largely unnoticed. There were also girls in my class who wore their hair quite short, in bobs and "boy cuts", which nobody really brought up or teased them about either. Sure, if one of the girls came in after a weekend with a new drastically shorter cut, people would notice and comment, but it didn’t really seem like a big deal.

At least, that’s how I took it… though, admittedly, I was very much in denial about my hair "interests"… and, would would be so embarrassed that I’d force myself to "tune out" anytime the subject of hair would come up in conversation.

Anyway, my hair was kept long… and my mother was the one who would "tend" to it. She would give me minor trims every once in awhile, and would shampoo it every weekend. I would, of course, shampoo it myself in the shower every day… but, on Sunday evenings, she would do it. Sunday evenings before school were sort of designated "beauty night". Hair would be done, nails would be trimmed, stuff like that. I remember being oddly excited when my hair became long and thick enough to where my mother suggested that my Sunday shampoos would also include a dollop of conditioner.

Those shampoos made me feel special… even if they were anything but comfortable, having to wrench my head back over the kitchen sink. After the shampoo/condition, I’d get my weekly blow dry. It was this weird "family time", a sort of closeness that we normally didn’t share. Once dry, she’d brush me out. She’d never do anything "girly" with it… not even a basic ponytail. It was just brushed. Then, I’d enviously sit and watch her braid or put rollers in my sister’s hair. I subconsciously wished my hair was long enough for it to be styled like that, even though I didn’t quite know it yet.

I buried those desires… deep. I couldn’t explain them or how they made me feel. All I thought I knew was that those feelings weren’t right.

These weekly beauty "rituals" were part of my life for several months at this point. I looked forward to them. I liked having my hair made "pretty", even if it wasn’t in any sort of style. I remember curling my ends between my fingers, hoping that they’d stay curly after I let go. I remember how it felt when my hair would be "wrung out" after being conditioned… squeezing all of the water out. It was the closest thing to having it put in a ponytail that I’d ever felt to that point.

Early this particular summer, my grandmother came for a visit… and this is where everything kind of changed. She never mentioned anything to me about my hair, but I have a feeling she probably gave my mother the business over it, because once her visit was over… everything (pertaining to my hair) was different.

The first Sunday came, and I didn’t get my weekly "hair time". My sister still did though. I was confused… and kind of embarrassed. Embarrassed that I was being left out, even more embarrassed that I wanted it so badly.

A couple more weeks went by… and I was still being left out. Instead of being shampooed, conditioned, dried, and brushed… I was simply sent upstairs to wash and comb it myself. I thought I’d done something wrong, or that maybe my mother thought it was weird that I seemed to enjoy it so much. I felt ashamed, but couldn’t figure out why.

I remember standing by the sink while my mother did my sisters hair, and wrestled with whether or not I should say anything. When I finally did hint that I wanted our "ritual" to come back, I was told quite matter of factly, that my hair was going to be cut. Her face turned hard, her tone was almost robotic. I felt like I’d just been punched in the gut. My hair hadn’t been cut… as in "cut-cut"… in years.

I stammered, trying to find the right way to express that I didn’t want to have it cut. Internally, I battled with the mixed emotions of wanting to have long hair… wanting to grow it as long as I could, and the near-crippling embarrassment I had for having those feelings to begin with. I couldn’t come up with any good reason why I shouldn’t have my hair cut… at least not one that wouldn’t be completely mortifying to say out loud.

Later that same night, I managed to pull together the courage to tell her I didn’t want to have my haircut. I felt so embarrassed even bringing up the subject… and she could tell. She hit me with a response I was not prepared for. She told me it looked "too girly". It was another punch to the gut… but, in a different sort of way. I felt insulted while at the same time, I was kind of intrigued to learn that it looked "girly".

I petulantly refused to have it cut. Even thinking back to this exchange now, I’m kind of cringing at what an embarrassing scene it must have been. A teenage boy, nearly in tears, protesting having to cut his "girly" hair off. Yelling at his mother, who was in the middle of putting curlers in his sister’s long hair.

Though, only a couple of years later, my mother would cut my entire ponytail off against my will, at THIS point she wasn’t going to force a cut on me. While in high school, she’d experienced a whopper of a forced haircut herself, going from below waist length to pixie short… a story she’d tell us fairly often and in great detail. Definitely an event in her own life that "changed" her. Affected her relationship with hair and haircuts. I think, in that moment, she saw a little bit of herself in me. She realized she was doing to me exactly what her mother (my grandmother) had done to her all those years before.

Just when it looked like she was going to soften… she didn’t.

She instead, kind of called my bluff. If I wanted so badly to keep my long hair, that she would let me… with a pretty big caveat. She doubled down on the insult… telling me if I wanted to keep my "girly" hair, then I’d have to get it properly styled. I wasn’t yet sure what she was hinting at, but I suddenly envisioned myself getting an all-one-length cut. I pictured having the "mop" tamed and shaped, and from there, being able to grow it out as long as I wanted.

It wasn’t long before I was shocked back to reality, when she clarified what she meant. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I really wanted to keep my hair long… it was going to be permed. My sister, whose hair was about halfway rolled at this point, laughed at the notion… I wasn’t sure quite how to react. I was fascinated by the idea… however, at the same time repulsed. I felt sick and gross.

My mother somewhat mockingly offered to set my hair in curlers right then and there so I could see how it was going to look after the perm. Completely humiliated, I froze… and, despite being surprisingly curious to see myself curly, ultimately refused.

She told me the choice was mine. Having it cut… or getting a perm. She was fine with either decision… even though, I’m sure she realized she wasn’t really giving me much (if any) choice here.

A couple of days passed without any hair talk. Mid-week, however, my mother had an appointment with her hairdresser. That afternoon when she returned, I was told that I had an appointment at her salon the following week. I’d be seeing her stylist… and that was the day I’d have to make my decision. I wasn’t prepared for a deadline… and had kind of banked on the subject kind of "going away". I knew I wasn’t going to bring it up again. I’d even already planned to make myself scarce that next Sunday evening just to avoid having to revisit the discussion.

She told me that her stylist was made aware of my "situation". I’m not sure how she framed it to her stylist… all I did know was that she understood the fork in the hair-road I was currently standing at. She knew my choices were cutting it all off… or having it permed. Yet another strange gut-punch. At this point, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be cut short… but, part of me was extremely intrigued over the possibility of getting a perm.

I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I didn’t think it would look good… I didn’t think it would be fun or easy to take care of… I knew I’d be mocked mercilessly for having it done… but, I still wanted it.

The remainder of that week, my hair-decision was pretty much all I could think about. The more it was on my mind, the more embarrassed I seemed to become. I felt like this shouldn’t be something I was laboring over. It shouldn’t even be a second-thought. It’s just hair… right?

The night before my appointment I barely got any sleep. Regardless of my choice, by the end of the following day, I was going to have a very different look. I was vacillating between petrified and… very excited. I both dreaded it… and anxiously looked forward to it. It was such a scary sensation… one I couldn’t even begin to explain.

The next day, my eyes were on the clock constantly. It was like I was waiting to be executed. I kept waiting for my mother to come into my room and tell me the whole thing was off. That didn’t happen. Instead, just after noon, I got a knock on my bedroom door… and was told that it was time to go.

I felt almost physically ill for the entire car ride. I was reminded that my mom’s stylist knew what my options were… and that it was up to me to make the decision. I would either have to ask for a short haircut… or a perm. She wasn’t going to get involved. She was most definitely going to sit in the waiting area and watch though.

My mom’s salon was in a fairly busy strip mall. It wasn’t a particularly impressive or fancy place… kind of a mix of a chain salon and hole-in-the-wall private place. Nothing special, but always very crowded. I’d only been here a couple of times before, but never for a cut of my own. I’d just be there waiting for mom to get her hair done. In hindsight, I’d think that sitting there in a salon waiting area for an hour at a time would’ve been very fun for me… but, I can only recall being terribly bored. I guess my "interest" hadn’t yet blossomed back then.

Upon arrival, the butterflies in my belly almost overtook me. I almost felt like I was on autopilot. Like my body was operating independently of my brain. I couldn’t believe I was walking, under my own power, toward this salon…. couldn’t believe that my arm was reaching for the door. It was almost as though part of me was loving this. The feelings of powerlessness. Knowing that I was about to get a radical new look… a dramatic change to my appearance… in front of an audience, even!

Inside, I was the only boy there. My mother’s stylist was finishing up with a client and told us that it’d only be a few minutes wait. I remember signing in at the front desk, and how my hand shook. It’s strange how vivid some of these memories remain, even decades later. I felt everybody’s eyes on me, though I’m sure nobody really noticed. I kind of hoped they did though.

When the stylist was done, she swept up the area around her station and told my mother that she’d be right over for me. She headed toward the back of the salon to drop off the broom… and when she came back, she was rolling the curler cart. I started to squirm… which, I’m sure was the intention.

She placed the curler cart carefully and deliberately next to her chair… and called me over. The walk to the chair was intense. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do/have done to me. At this point, I was sure people were watching. I couldn’t imagine it was a normal sight to see a boy walking toward a station where the curler cart was at the ready. With every step, it was as though my fate was being sealed. The stylist started setting up little plastic bottles and papers. I started to feel flushed… dizzy.

I finally arrived where I was invited to sit down and was caped. My mother’s stylist was a good friend of hers, and it was pretty clear she was kind of "putting on a show" to make me feel as uncomfortable as possible. She seemed to be enjoying herself. She reached into the hair at my neck and kind of scrunched it, asking what we were going to be doing that day.

In that moment, I was overcome. I found myself really wanting to go through with the perm. I almost ached for it… which was an altogether new sensation, that my young mind couldn’t possibly even begin to decode. I wanted all of the women in this place to watch me have my hair rolled. I wanted to see the stares and hear the whispers as I was placed under the dryer for my perm to set. I wanted to see the look on my mother’s face as I completely subverted her expectations. I wanted to walk out of there with a headful of long glossy curls. I didn’t know what was coming over me… I’d never felt so sure of anything in my entire life. I wanted the tightest, curliest perm she could give me. I wanted to feel the tension on my scalp as dozens of tiny rods were snapped into place. I wanted to smell the stinging, acrid perm solution soaking my hair. I wanted to be primped, picked, crunched. I wanted it so badly.

But… I just couldn’t say it.

I kind of mumbled "haircut"… and my mom’s stylist kind of feigned disappointment. Maybe she wasn’t faking it. Maybe she thought it would be fun to give me a perm. My own disappoint was definitely real.

Of this cut, I only vividly remember the first few snips. She first took all my hair at my nape and just cut it off. She then did the same on my sides, cutting great long chunks of hair above my ear. I couldn’t believe I was having all of my hair cut off.

At this point, as she started spraying the rest of my hair down, I kind of went numb. The rest of the shearing was pretty underwhelming. I couldn’t even enjoy it for what it was. As an adult, this sort of dramatic haircut would drive me wild… but, in that moment, it was just kind of something that was happening to me. It didn’t take her long to take me down to just an inch or two on top and cut very close around the sides and back. There was no real style to this cut… it was all about removing as much length as possible, it seemed. It was a boy’s "Summer shearing", and not much more. The closest style would probably be some sort of Caesar cut… only, far less meticulous.

When she was done, I had so little hair left that she didn’t even need to dry it. I remember getting up, and feeling how insanely light my head felt. I felt phantom lengths running down my neck… I went to tuck my phantom bangs behind my ear. It was a totally alien feeling… and I hated it. I was so out of it that I didn’t even think to look at the floor around the chair to see just how much of my hair was laying there. A regret I still have to this day. I’d imagine there was a ton of it.

During the car ride home, my mother and I didn’t really talk. She seemed regretful… almost ashamed over the incredibly uncomfortable situation she’d put me in. I’d never go back to this stylist… and, in fact, it was from here that I’d immediately start my next "grow out". Within a couple of years, my hair would once again reach past my shoulders… but, that’s a story I’ve already shared.

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