Beauty at Any Cost?

The child in the picture is not me, but I’ve gone through experiences exactly like this due to attempts by my mother and a misguided beautician when I was pretty young, maybe four or five or even earlier. So when I saw this photograph on a wall outside my soninlaw’s office couldn’t resist taking a digital shot of it, which helps explain the poor quality. It must have been originally taken sometime in the late 1940s or very early 1950s.

I don’t know about you, but it brought back vivid memories of various failed attempts to give me beautiful hair my mother could be proud of at church, and surprised me as well because I couldn’t believe there had been other little girls who had to go through this agony as well. I thought I was the only one! I’m pretty sure the laws concerning cruelty to children were enacted around that time due to scenes like this.

I had (and continue to have) baby fine hair with absolutely no body. And when I was four or five, this is what the adults in my life subjected me to in the name of beauty. This little girl doesn’t appear to be too unhappy, but in my case my neck muscles were so weak that my head would plop over so Mama had to sit behind me and hold my head up. The stench was awful, and I distinctly remember what burning hair smells like!

When the ordeal was all over, and that’s what it was for me–an ordeal, the beauty operator would dry my hair and brush it and my previously silky blonde hair would then be a mass of singhed, tightly crimped curls it was almost impossible to brush or comb through. After a few weeks, the “curls” would soften a little but the ends still looked dried out and burnt. The new hair growing in would still be baby fine and straight. I was a fine example of American child beauty, let me tell you.

For some, this may bring back memories as it does for me. For others who were born with “naturally” curly or beautiful hair, it will be a revelation, and I hope you appreciate your hair now that you know what others of us had to endure to be a great American beauty at church on Sundays.

9 thoughts on “Beauty at Any Cost?

  1. I had coarse hair that stuck straight out and was untameable. They put me through the same stuff. Remember Toni home permanents? I always came out looking horrible. And what a blow to my self esteem. Now that some of my hair has turned white it seems to be nicely curly, but it’s really a collection of cowlicks. My self esteem is no longer at risk.

  2. Gosh how awful. I have thin brown hair that I only learned to like a few years before it began turning grey. Only Toni’s here. Tight french braids too. Those machines were very 1950ish here. I’m so very sorry your mother did that. Yes, today that would be considered child abuse.

  3. I had (note the past tense) naturally curly hair and was extremely jealous of my younger sister who got the Toni perms on a regular basis.

  4. Oh no!

    I have very very straight hair but my mother loved it, thank goodness. So my “hair torture” was simply having to sit still for 20 minutes while she brushed it through. The worst was when she brushed it wet, with lemon juice, and then made me sit outside in the sun to let it lighten.

    But that was only horrible because I had to sit still! For ages! Minutes and minutes and minutes, honestly!

    The funny thing is that now my son sometimes offers to brush my hair for me (complaining that I don’t take care of it and it’s all tangled) and I love it. 🙂

  5. Apparently this posting has brought back a flood of memories for your readers.

    My mother thought all little girls should have curly hair. Mind you, there is not one strand of curly hair DNA on either side of my family.

    Mom always said, “Why do the boys get nice hair and eye lashes and the girls don’t?” This comment was followed by a huge sigh and a look that said “I’ll fix that injustice!” I never understood this because my father was bald on top with a fringe of dark hair circling the bottom of his head.

    To placate young girls in the 1950s, hoping to make them squirm less during the annual home perm, Ms. Tonette Perms included Betsy McCall cut-out dolls in the box. I would play mindlessly with my paper dolls while my mother tugged at my hair, wrapping lengths of it tightly in little plastic curlers and pouring a noxious emulsion over each one. I remember the neutralizer had a fairly pleasant aroma.

    Somewhere, hidden in a box in the attic, there are photos of me with my home perm. Gawd, they are awful! The first communion picture shows me with tight, lifeless curls. The third grade class photo is a horror (bad hair coupled with a mouth full of new permanent teeth and a few baby teeth). The Bride of Frankenstein had a nicer hairdo.

    I’ve reflected about perms over the years. My conclusion is that, for the vast majority of people, we are born with the hair that looks best with our other features.

  6. Thanks to all of you for your comments. I really really love them all! So much so that they inspire me to revisit the subject of hair in a future blog, because hair (and what to do with it) has pretty much always been the bane of my existence! It’s a subject as close to womens’ hearts and heads (pun intended!) I suspect, or at least those of my generation, as anything I can think of! Thanks so much to all of you for contributing!

  7. I was fortunate to be blessed with a good head of thick auburn curls. Combing or brushing it was not always easy as it tangled easily especially when I slept.

    The colour lightened in summertime, alas I could not see it as others did. It was only when I grew older I realised the full glory of it. Now My hair is still thick, short and almost grey. The red colouring has gone completly. I need to have it cut every five weeks to avoid headaches!

  8. But it still looks great, Grannymar, in the photographs I’ve seen. Always so neat and well kempt. Mine looks tousled 10 minutes after I’ve brushed and combed it. And don’t get me started on the cowlick. Nice to hear from you.

  9. I have fine hair that has gotten more curl in it the last few years. Not enough curl to make it nice and bouncy … just enough curl that it doesn’t like to be told what to do. The hair dresser can gel it up and it looks just fine but when I try it looks like I just got out of bed. I suppose that is the style some seek now days but when I tried it and asked my husband if he liked my hair his careful answer was, “It’s in style”.

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