Vanity, thy name is … self-absorption

I lived in Boston for four years, between college and grad school. Near the end of that time, my roommate asked if I didn’t think, in the coming  years, that I would tire of my Saturday morning ritual of brunch and reading the New York Times cover to cover. I had probably been waxing irritatingly rhapsodic about the pleasures of the crossword, pancakes and coffee at Johnny D’s.

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot remember how  my twenty-something self answered. But after enjoying brunch this past Sunday AM with my 11 y.o., and then reading all of the NYT on our front porch with the dog curled beside me,  my answer is No. This sequence of earthly pleasures does not bore me.

Perhaps it’s not tiring because of its irregularity. Perhaps it’s not tiring because although the generalities are the same, the particulars (where brunch is eaten, what brunchy-foods are consumed; the current events, scandals, and books reviewed in the NYT) are not the same. Perhaps it’s not tiring because my personality prefers sameness to novelty. Perhaps it’s not tiring because I like to perceive myself as a foodie with literary tendencies: a sort of vanity.

No matter the reason I choose, it’s of my own making: it’s whatever story I choose to tell myself. And for decades I have told myself that my kinky, curly hair is ugly (this post touches on my neurosis during the Farrah Fawcett era), an encumbrance to be minimized.

Boing boing curls!

Then aforementioned 11 y.o. emerged onto the planet with curlycurlyRED hair. Had it on day one, has it now. As it grew, its fuzzy frizziness developed into what a friend describes as boing-boing curls. H’mmm. I wondered if my hair — cut short for convenience and to minimize use of Very Expensive Curl Suppressing Product post-shower —  would do the same. My hair stylist (a veritable hair genius, Doty at Inside Out Salon) thought it would, and after eighteen months of haircuts that were more trims than cuts, it has, in fact developed those boing-boing curls.

It’s also attained enough length to try a “keratin treatment.” I splurged and asked Doty to do it. What the heck. It would wear off in five to six weeks and Doty assured me it would loosen my curls.

Curls begone …

A keratin treatment has several steps; the most relevant is the final one, where the hair is flat ironed. When Doty finished, I didn’t recognize myself. While it was fun having straight hair for a day, I was unsettled to discover that when I looked in the mirror, I saw a boring, brainless American consumer. I’ve conflated my wild hair with creativity and discernment.

Even more interesting to the writerly side of myself was the reaction of my friends when I washed my hair and the stick-straightness vanished, replaced by the looser curls Doty predicted. “Oh!” many (not all) of them said. “The curl came right back.”

To my eye, the curl had not come right back. The curl was very different. The curl was loose, almost lank. The curl had to be enhanced with a curling iron. The curl wasn’t kinky, but smooth. The curl was lovelier, doggone it! But this vanity wasn’t affirmed  by my friends. They saw curl. (See end of post for side-by-side photos of curl.)

Fascinating!, and both humbling and liberating. All that effort, and the day after, not many folks can tell the difference. H’mmm. No one *cares* what I look like. I am reminded of John Gregg’s welcoming comments at Vermont Studio Center in 2011: most of the people in the world are working for pennies a day. They DO NOT CARE that you are here at the studio center, agonizing over the composition of your painting or your essay. You are free to do what you will; perhaps it may further human peace or understanding, perhaps it will never leave the four walls of your studio. But if you have the privilege of time to engage in creative playwork (to change your hair texture), do so without self-censorship, and without expectation that anyone else out there gives a rat’s ass (will notice your smoother, softer curl). Do it because you love it, because it slakes your thirst, because it keeps you sane.

And do it because it calls us to examine our assumptions about what appearance indicates. Tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, baseball caps, heavy makeup, age, skin color, gender — I hazard to guess we all have our own ideas about what a person with any one of those characteristics is “like.” And I hazard to guess that our ideas only skim the surface of the totality of their humanity, emphasis on surface.

Of course initial impressions are important (see this article about “the Naked Face” by Malcolm Gladwell for interesting info about how quickly we can register others’ intentions) but engaging with each other is more important.

pre-keratin curls

Let’s practice suspending judgement. Let’s practice talking past our hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, and clothing choices. Let’s practice seeking the glimmer beneath our surfaces. The most interesting stories lie beneath.

post-keratin curls … but does it really matter?

3 responses to “Vanity, thy name is … self-absorption

  1. I noticed big time!!! I was afraid to say anything because I didn’t know how you felt about them. I love your softer wispy curls and your original boing boing curls. A lovely glimmer shines through either kind. There’s always a laugh out loud moment when I read your posts. And good food for thought. As always, thanks for sharing.

  2. First, I want to just say that you look beautiful with any version of your hair.

    I was recently telling a coworker that I am scared to start running as a form of exercise, because I had several different people mock me loudly when I tried running in high school and college. She looked at me like I had grown a second head, and said, “Don’t you think that all the other people at the gym are too busy working out to give a darn about your workout???” Well. Yes. They probably are.

    Everyone is living their own story, and it is humbling (and liberating!) to realize that we are just background noise to most of the rest of the world.

    • “Background noise to most of the rest of the world” — nicely put. I had a friend who, when she realized she was of a “certain age” and men were no longer noticing her, was very bummed. Of course, not everyone has had the experience of men noticing them all the time — she was (and is) “gorgeous” by western standards. As I enter the start of the “crone” stage I am LOVING the invisibility of it. Wish fulfillment, as I have always chosen “invisibility” over “flying” in that “if you could have one or the other” game.

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