Walking up Columbus Avenue on my way to yoga class, I like to scope out flocks of girls with fake-straight locks, sussing out who paid upward of 300 bucks for that combo of powerful chemicals and careful flat-ironing known as “thermal reconditioning.” Somehow, this trend seems more insidious than sporting the handbag or ass-lifting jeans of the moment-after all, these women are altering their very physical being. And from the back, at least, they all look the same. How can such conformity have snuck into this city of striking individuality?
Confession: I’m a former fake-straight girl myself. After years spent struggling with my dark, unruly tangles (think Julianna Margulies crossed with Minnie Driver, plus a dash of Roseanna Roseannadana), I finally succumbed to the timeless allure of what the other half has. I’d had it with the blowouts; I was done with the multi-product concoction I whipped up each morning. I wanted something more organized-looking, more serene, more clean-lined.
I read about the T.R. procedure in a magazine (other names: “ionic reconditioning” or “Japanese straightening”). It sounded like a dream. Upon the urging of a fake-straight-haired girl I’d met at my health club, I decided to go for it.
And for a while, it was fabulous. I had a cascade of tangle-free, blow-in-the-wind straight hair. Hair that didn’t require a blow dryer. Hair that could be snapped into a tiny clip at the nape of my neck or tugged into tin barrettes for a cute, if infantile, look.
After six months, I had the roots retouched, and then again after another six. By the third time, I was nearly broke-and so was a huge section at the back of my head. It seemed my speed-addled stylist had made a mistake with the chemicals, which resulted in the loss of a sizable chunk of hair. I spent the next year or so in an awkward interim phase, covering my head with a silky floral scarf or black Kangol hat before attaining my current mane of deliciously crazy dark curls.
As part of my recovery, I’ve made spotting other people’s phony hair into something of a hobby. You should try it!
But first, a few tips:
Much as with nose jobs or breast implants, fake-straight hair often doesn’t match the girl. As a dark-haired, pale-skinned girl of Ashkenazi descent, I know which physical traits my people tend to share-and I’d be willing to bet that a petite girl with a sizable honker and a Tiffany bean necklace was usually born with a curl right in the middle of her forehead. It’s not always the woman in question who betrays her roots (as it were)-sometimes it’s the curly-haired mama trotting along next to her altered Mini-Me who gives it away.
Thermally reconditioned girls handle their new sleek hair differently-with reverence, awe and a certain sensuality. They’ll swing it around dramatically, twist it up, then let it fall back down. They’ll bundle and unbundle it into perfectly limp ponytails, marveling at how a small rubber band can rein in what used to require a butterfly clip the size of a softball. When you’ve lived your whole life trying not to touch your hair-hands in curls do the devil’s work; they ruin the integrity-being able to finger your hair willy-nilly is mesmerizing and disturbingly satisfying. (I remember sitting at work, running the pads of my fingers up and down, back and forth over the especially silky patches at my temple. Must’ve looked strange.)
Watch for impossibly straight hair: After thermal reconditioning, your hair can look like uncooked spaghetti attached to a human head. (By the way, I defy you to find a woman with naturally blond or red hair who has undergone the über-straightening. Lizzie Grubman doesn’t count-she’s a genetic brunette, of course.) A mere blowout, no matter how pricey or thorough, doesn’t result in such pin-straight locks. A blowout still leaves body, and should it get wet, it’ll instantly curl up.
The cut is also a clue. Blown away by their finally shiny sheaths, most T.R. girls stick with a fairly blunt cut, an extended bob that drapes glassily over the shoulders. You can almost line up a ruler under the hem of their hair.
Yet sometimes, you’ll see a strange undulating wave just beneath the first layer of smooth locks. Ahh, regrowth. The stubborn curls are coming back to life, bubbling up from underneath.
Fake-straight girls are easy to spot at the gym. Next time you’re on the StairMaster, take a careful, studied look at the roots of your neighbor. While her poker-straight ponytail is swinging jauntily, is her hair starting to wrinkle and bunch up at the nape of the neck? As her cheeks flush and sweat starts to stain her T-shirt, does she have a burgeoning halo of curls fluffing up her hairline? Does she sport a thick, absorbent headband to sop up the sweat that threatens to show the grow-out? She’s trying to contain the damage and cut down on the amount of time she’s going to have to spend later with her Super-Titanium Turbo-Pro-Jet-Engine-Hot Megawatt hair dryer. There’s a friendly twentysomething woman in my yoga class who starts each session with a long, thick brown ponytail of straight hair. By the end, drenched in sweat from our Hour of Power, she’s got damp curlicues shooting out from every angle. Her last T.R. was way over six months ago, she admitted to me, and she’s now growing it out.
I know several other women who, despite their initial glee at the dramatic change that T.R. brought, have since abandoned the process. Some have reached a tipping point of breakage and damage, are downtrodden by endlessly forking ends. Others can’t afford it anymore or don’t want to subject pregnancies to the powerful chemicals. Still others are just tired of the unending series of grow-outs and touch-ups.
And I suspect-I hope-they’re at the forefront of a receding trend. After all, at the Oscars recently, supermodel Gisele Bündchen sported perfect lissome waves and Oprah had a new curly ‘do. They must know what I now understand: that curls are an entirely singular trait, as unique in texture, shape and erratic behavior as a fingerprint. As a New Yorker.