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Phyllis Berger

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Give Me Straight Hair... Or Give Me Death

Posted: 10/05/11 07:17 PM ET

My husband is a very nice guy who has said some very odd things over the years, like when he looked at my very curly hair one day as we were about to go out to dinner and said, "you look great, but can't you do something about that mop?" Now keep in mind the part where I said he's a very nice guy. He is. So stop reading this if you think it's a husband-bashing piece. It's not. He will forever be a great guy and he will forever say odd things that leave him wondering why I get so crazy. But we're fine, so stop worrying about us. It's my hair I'm talking about.

Many years ago, writer Gail Parent published a novel, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York. I still remember this, because on her first page she told of a guy in New York City who sold the most delicious chocolate shakes that had only seventy-seven calories per shake. This part of her story was true. I was there. On some days, I was one of the legions of girls who'd have two shakes a day; hey, three was only 251 calories. The only thing is that, eventually, people got suspicious and when it was checked out, it turns out there were two hundred and eighty calories in those shakes. Do you know how many calories that means I consumed for a snack! I'm still too upset about that to do the math.

We were duped. We women wanted to be thin and we believed we found a magic potion in the form of a chocolate shake that would have no bad consequences. And so it goes with my hair.

If you don't have curly hair then you can't know what it feels like to get all dressed up to go out, feeling like a million bucks from head to toe... no, hold on. If you have very curly hair you might feel like a million bucks but it will only be from neck to toe. It's more likely that when it comes to your head, your hair will look like a game of Twister with your curls approximating several bodies going weirdly in many directions at once with no way to control the outcome. Bottom line is that, if you have really curly hair, some time during each day, if not all day, you're going to look like you have a mop on top of your head. Until recently, there was nothing we could do about this. But now there is. The question is, at what price?

Like those shakes, it seems I found another magic potion this time in the form of a treatment known as the Brazilian or keratin process that turns my mop into straight, silky hair. This keratin straightening process is like crack cocaine; once I tasted the pleasure of always looking kempt even on humid days, of being able to do the nonchalant hair toss that those models do, of having my husband run his fingers through my hair and not get stuck in a clump of knots, I was hooked. Truthfully, now that I think about it, the last time he ran his fingers through my hair was to wipe off some excess suntan lotion from his hands; he convinced me it was good for my hair.

The only thing is, studies seem to be showing that this potion could be leading to my early demise. Article after article has appeared in the last few months warning us about this new miracle cure for the chronically hair impaired. In April of this year, the Huffington Post posted this: "OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has found formaldehyde in the air when stylists use hair smoothing products." It goes on to explain that formaldehyde is "a cancer hazard that is linked to nose and lung cancer." In November of 2010, the New York Times printed an article featuring a picture of a salon stylist and her customer wearing respirators to prevent inhaling the potentially formaldehyde-laced fumes created by heating the keratin product with a flat iron which is a key component of the process. Are we supposed to believe that the chocolate shake guy and the inventor of this keratin product with cancer-causing formaldehyde didn't know they were duping us? I wouldn't be surprised if it were the same guy.

No matter that I have to buy special shampoos and conditioners that add to the insane price I pay every few months to re-do the process, I'm not even allowed in a swimming pool or the ocean. In fact, I even refused to go on a beach vacation when it was convenient for my family because I recently had a treatment and who wants to sit on an idyllic beach and not be able to cool off the ocean? We had to wait another several weeks to go, getting perilously close to the hurricane season, so that I could time it out where, when we came home, I was ready for my next fix. The upside was that the rates at the hotel had plummeted by the time we got there.

I'm haunted that this keratin thing is the cigarette scandal of the 21st century. Yet I'm powerless to stop, because the process of letting my curls grow back is near impossible. On at least three occasions, I've told myself that's it, I'm done with this, it's too dangerous, too expensive, I'm setting a bad example for my daughter, and I should just accept myself the way nature intended, which I'm beginning to think is with the extra twenty pounds on me. But then comes month four. The treatment is wearing off and I have hair that bends in one direction on the left, another on the right, the top frizzes, and generally looks a heck of a lot worse than that mop of curly hair I had before.

I feel certain that the companies that created this product had some idea that it contained substances that were probably carcinogenic. Or if they weren't certain, then why wasn't there more testing done before we got hooked? We women have been historically sold a bill of goods for products and drugs that are supposed to enhance our lives only to find out later that they're worse than the symptoms we wanted to alleviate. Often it's in the name of trying to live up to some ideal of attractiveness. From binding our feet to plumping up our lips so that we look as if we were socked in the mouth by Mike Tyson, we've done crazy things to accommodate a vision of perfection. When I was in high school, I slept on rollers the size of soda cans to get my hair smooth and silky. If I had known that formaldehyde could do the trick I would have stolen some from the jars of dead frogs in science class and slept a heck of a lot better. In junior high, wanting to be attractive to boys when all the other girls were developing breasts and I had not, I wore a padded bra. This, in itself, is not a heinous thing to do, but I had no idea where my breasts really should be if they were ever to make themselves known, and hence the humiliation of my 7th grade English teacher asking me privately one day, "is there any reason why you're wearing your bra up around your neck?" These examples might not seem to have the lethal potential of the Brazilian hair straightening process, but trust me when I tell you how lethal it was to my developing psyche.

I know I can't depend on companies that profit from my insecurity to look out for my well-being. I take some responsibility for letting my vanity take precedence over my common sense, and this has led to my amazement as to how I can continue to risk my health just to look well coiffed. If I have to defend myself, I'd say it's because I've grown up with my icons looking perfect with their fabulous straight hair -- short or long, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Princess Diana -- all completely put together all of the time.

Figuring out how to embrace a somewhat disheveled outside in favor of a more loving, healthier inside seems to be the task of this just-past-middle-age stage in my life. I'm surrounded by extraordinary women who are at this same crossroads. I say, let's do whatever it is we can to make ourselves feel more energetic, to look as absolutely fabulous as we possibly can, and, yes, even to look at young as we can. But I hope I can be brave enough to say no to a process that potentially poisons my body as my DNA is screaming "don't screw with mother nature!" Is the legacy I want to leave for my children that they will say, "What I remember most about mom is how straight her hair was in the last years of her life?" I'm pretty sure I'd like to be thought of as a woman whose idea of risk taking involved adventures more profound than being a science experiment for a hair product company.

I have to face the truth. If it were so easy to stand up to the judgments of the outside world, I'd be making decisions that are a lot more rational than treating my hair with a substance that is used for preserving dead people. And, really, friends... just how far are we willing to go? The other day I saw a piece on television about a young woman who had her butt completely reconstructed to look like the Royal Princess' sister Pippa Middleton's rear end. I never thought about Pippa's backside being a ticket to a happier life.

I like the idea that the last picture people would have of me is with my mass of curly hair sweating it out in an exercise class with people thirty years younger than I am, without a thought to how tidy I looked. I know that's a beauty treatment that won't backfire on me and maybe even get me to look better than me with straight hair. As of today, I don't have an appointment with the hairdresser for another treatment. If I decide it just isn't worth the risk anymore, maybe I'll take my curly mop (when it finally does grow back) and have some fun getting it wet in the ocean without having to care that the timing is wrong for my hair habit. Gaining a little common sense about how I treat my body and the courage to recognize when I've gone too far and am actually risking my health in the name of beauty -- shouldn't that be the upside of being over 50?

It's really, really hard to go cold turkey with this. I'm wrestling with it as I look at myself in the mirror and watch my shiny, blonde hair start to frizz. By the way, the blonde stays. My research tells me I'm safe there.