The No-Flat Iron Hair Challenge, Summer 2013


Thoughts on beauty and self image as I try to go an entire summer without straightening my hair, a feat I haven’t tried since I was 14. Basically, I go on forever about my hair. Read at your own will.

The day I got my first CHI flat iron was the happiest day of my young adult life. The 14 year old me, mind still buzzing from the gorgeously flat hair I’d had weeks before when a friend properly straightened it for the first time, carefully lifted the ceramic iron out of its box and out of the bubble wrap. This, this was where it all would change. No more feeling ugly and out of place as my straight haired friends were able to show off the latest hair cuts. My frizzy mop simply had two hair cut types: long, or short. No more wishing I could let my hair down in the summer, only to ultimately succumb to the scrunchie around my wrist as salvation from the heat.


My father’s hair was straight, blonde, and ever-thinning as he combed over his bald spot until the day he died. My mom’s hair was dark and straight, and I remember the years she would get it permed and come home smelling of chemicals and looking, to my childhood memories at least, like a poodle. The only other family members who were gifted with the same brown, frizzy, curly situation as I were my brother (who, as a boy, could simply cut it short and hide the spirals) and my Aunt Krissy, whose curls were actually tighter than mine but a bit less thick. For years, new hair dressers would pick up my hair for the first time and marvel at how “you have the hair of THREE people at once!”


The iron was my salvation. My self-confidence booster–until, of course, later in my teen years when I found a million OTHER things “wrong” with my appearance–my ticket into a world I’d never known. The world of pin-straight, shiny locks. It was my most prized possession.


Older friends and family members would lament, “but your curls are so PRETTY! I WISH I had hair like yours!” to which I would grumble a “thank you” and mutter “you wouldn’t like it if you had to deal with it.” I cannot count the number of hair elastics broken in my hair. Bobby pins lost and found days later. And I already mentioned the haircuts. Layered bob? More like frizzy triangle. Angled front? Nope, and the shortest pieces would simply hang in my eyes when I wore a ponytail. I tried serums, creams, gels, and all would just make my hair glisten or stiffen while it still puffed and frizzed and poofed. I needed this iron. It was life changing.


In college, nobody knew I had curly hair. Due to a dry scalp I could wash, blow dry, and straighten on a Sunday and not have to repeat the process until at least Thursday. With some minor touchups, this was nearly a week of straight hair. In recent years, friends have even questioned which texture is the real one.

As straight hair fell out of favor and light, perfect barrel curls (or beachy waves, if it’s a casual day) became more popular, I still could not fit in. Now my hair could be pin-straight or the usual frizzy mess, no happy in between. I still couldn’t win. But it did inspire me to let my hair air dry more often. I found that somehow, straightening my hair through puberty and letting it grow had made my hair more wavy than curly–but sadly did nothing for the frizz or poof. I still call it “curly” although “wavy” probably would be more accurate.


I had a secret question I would ask a new suitor: “Curly or straight?” And while I didn’t believe them when they told me they liked it just the way it was naturally, I still appreciated it. Only one has ever failed this test, but I dated him for 2 years regardless. “It just makes it seem like you take better care of yourself.” Hmm. “Take better care of yourself” is code for “conform to traditional beauty standards” these days, isn’t it? Male friends pass on female dates because they’re heavy and say “I just want someone who ‘takes care of themself'” and I would roll my eyes. Further confirming that I should keep painting my face, shaving my legs, and ironing out my hair.

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When my current boyfriend caught me for the first time with my big, frizzy hair and nearly no makeup one morning, he cupped my face gently in his hands and looked me in my eyes and told me that “this is you at your most beautiful.” I had never even asked him the question. I still didn’t believe him, but somehow it made me love him even more. It was winter, and my busy schedule was keeping me from having much time. I was letting the curls out more and more. I was instructed to leave my hair natural for a play I was in, and after a month of curls I was on the edge of summer and had an idea.


I’ve made it this far, well into May, I wonder how far I could go? Could I risk an entire summer, surrounded by girls decked out in sundresses, mini skirts, and shorts, looking their most attractive and me next to them, with my frizzy hair? Could I make it with my pride intact, would I gain the self confidence I’d been striving for for years? I wonder…

So I challenged myself, and posted it to Facebook so friends would know–I needed witnesses, to make sure that no one could call me out if an Instagrammed picture of me with flat hair came about–I was taking a summer off. I was packing away my CHI under lock and key. I was going to give my curls their freedom, for a few months at least.


It was easy, at first. More time, less to worry about. As summer creeped in I could feel the weight of my hair pulling me down, begging me to end the challenge early. Short shorts and more skin and light, airy hair was in style. The beachy waves I could not have but the shiny sun-bleached hair? Maybe? But I resisted. I had to do this.

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It is now the halfway mark and I’ve yet to pull my flat iron from its hiding spot. Some days, I’ve realized, I can actually have the coveted “good hair day” despite being wavy. I discovered new products to help ease the frizz and add some shine–Nume Finishing Serum, a sample I got from Ipsy (a monthly makeup club I joined to curb my need for makeup I cannot typically afford for only $10 a month) became my new secret weapon. A bit on damp hair, then a bit later for dry. In between washes, a spray of Dove Dry Shampoo kept it from looking limp and weighed down by sweat and product. And on a heavily humid day, perhaps some mousse, but not too much, because crunchy curls are as bad as frizzy ones.


I want to say I’ve had some big revelation about my appearance and how I don’t need straight hair and lots of makeup to feel beautiful. But due to a weight gain that simply won’t go away no matter what I do (daily gym and strict diets are failing to work for me), my confidence is low. It’s not even a lot of weight, just enough to make me feel miserable–which is, thanks to society or the media or whoever you want to blame, seemingly a lot. 15 pounds and up two dress sizes but still in the single digits so friends tell me to just shut up about it. Enough to make me worry, not enough to complain about ,I suppose. So I put my hair up in a messy bun and hide my growing thighs under long skirts and wish I could wear all the crop tops I bought last summer on sale. I lament about the drawer of pants that no longer fit and fight back tears when I try to wear them and they won’t fit and won’t button if they even make it to my waist at all. And then I look in the mirror and I see the bits of frizz springing up from my hairline and it’s the last straw, and I want to cry. I’m sure there are harder things in this life, so many harder things, but for me, this is hard.


But I’m still going. I’ve challenged myself to do this. My hair is long now, it would reach to my lower back if straightened. I toy with the idea of coloring it again, or going back to blonde, or doing something interesting to enhance its beauty. And my boyfriend still runs his fingers over my hair (not THROUGH, he knows better) and tells me I am beautiful. Friends now know the true texture of my hair.


And on those rare days that I pass by a store window and see my reflection and think, “oh, it’s a good hair day afterall” I smile. And I think about that 14 year old girl who so gingerly opened her very first flat iron and I want to hug her and tell her sadly that if it’s not one thing, it’s another. But if makeup makes you feel beautiful, then wear it. If taking an hour and a half to make your hair as perfectly flat as it can be, and you feel a bit better about going outside today, then do it.


But know, that the ones who love you most will love you either way. They will tell you you are beautiful and they will mean it. And that strangers won’t see the things you see in the mirror, and they will rarely judge. It’s yourself that takes more convincing. It’s yourself that needs to see a face in the mirror that they can feel comfortable in.

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I’d tell her we’re still working on that part.