I'll Try Anything Once: Getting a Perm

How a 33-year-old woman was magically transported back to 1993.
Publish date:
July 27, 2011
hair, beauty, do this don't, perms

It was the summer of 1993, a magical time when Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" and Snow's "Informer" were topping the charts and leaving an entire generation with a really bad adolescent soundtrack.

I was 15 years old and about to transfer from a public high school in Marin to a Catholic high school in Petaluma. I truly had hated my time at the public high school and when I recall it, I have mostly bizarre memories, like the time a guy Noel (who once hit on me) was arrested in front of the school and began banging his head on the window of the squad car in glorious "Cops" style. My two years at the public school were a true wake-up call to a different world. I didn't like it and I decided to escape to a Catholic high school up in Sonoma County.

Starting a new school meant change and new impressions. During the last months of my sophomore year at the public school, I had actually started to hone a somewhat cooler personal style. I wore clunky shoes with dresses, shoelace chokers and any other little fashion tip I had read in Sassy. If I had continued at the public school, I'm quite sure I would have found my way into the group of bohemians (basically stoners playing hacky sack on the hill) and my subsequent life would have been very different.

But I didn't stay and, in an attempt to fit in better at the new school, I decided that I really really really needed to get a perm. This was a "life's big change" perm. Something new and exciting -- the "promise of great things to come" perm.

I remember being in the salon just after the curling rods had been removed and my hair looking very un-fabulously Rick James-like. And not even the cool Rick James braids. I'm talking about really bad Rick James hair. I'm talking hair that would embarrass Charlie Murphy.

I went into the bathroom at the salon and just started crying. I think I cried for the rest of the week.

Considering this memory, it's kind of ridiculous that I would even consider getting another perm in this lifetime. At 33, I'm having a mid-life crisis of sorts. Married at 22, entrepreneur at 24 and mother at 30, I feel about 10 years older than I should. I know I need a major life change, though I'm not quite sure what it should be yet.

What I do know, with complete certainty, is that I really really really need to get a perm.

So I made a Wednesday afternoon appointment at Wak Shack Salon in San Francisco. I picked Wak Shack because they specialize in vintage hair styling and understood what I wanted to achieve with the perm: I wanted a perm that would enable me to easily style my hair into vintage styles rather than a perm that would look cool bouncing to "Rump Shaker." I wanted body and that sort of damage that only ladies from the 1940s and 1950s knew how to embrace so well.

On my drive there, I could feel the adrenaline of fear. The adrenaline that was shouting "DO NOT DO THIS! NEVER FORGET RICK JAMES. NEVER FORGET!" But I continued on, took a seat and told my stylist just what I wanted. As she was prepping the perming supplies I experienced that moment one always has in a salon chair right before they're about to do something drastic: "Wow, I kind of love my hair right now." Too late.

And then we began. In the seat, I asked a million questions.

"Are those the biggest curlers you have?"

"You're not going to do my bangs, right?"

"It's okay that I have gray hair, right?"

"Seriously, I can't color my roots today??"

"I'm going to have a perm and really obvious gray roots?"

"Those really are the biggest curlers, right?"

"Is this a mistake?"

"Why am I doing this?"

"When was the last time someone came in for a perm?"

"I'm not going to look like Eriq La Salle in 'Coming to America,' will I?"

When she applied the perm solution, I was magically transported back to 1993. Perming solution has such a unique smell, so unique I couldn't think of how to describe it. Sort of a combination of sulfur and corn nuts? With that smell, I felt 15 years old again.

After applying the solution, she set the timer for an initial 10 minutes. After that time passed, she checked on a curl. It needed more time. Five more minutes passed. Still more time was needed. Yet another five minutes. She wasn't sure if it was taking and consulted another stylist about the time. They decided it was time to neutralize my hair. I was certain it had been too long and disaster awaited.

Neutralizer. Rinse. Rinse again. Curlers removed. Rinse. It was time to see the results.

I walked back to the chair without looking at my reflection in a single mirror.

Ok, so it was more Weird Al than Eriq La Salle. I was willing to give the perm the benefit of the doubt. It needed to dry, after all. The stylists applied some curling cream, twisted the curls into ringlets and set me under a cool-air ionic dryer.

I had to look past my grey roots (I could color them two weeks after the perm). I was kind of in shock but I didn't want to run to the bathroom and cry. That's a good sign! Considering that I knew I wouldn't just wear my permed hair down without doing some sort of vintage styling, I wasn't scared at all of the new curls. I actually sort of liked them.

The reaction from my stylist: "It actually looks cute!"

I have to admit that during the entire styling session I was a bit embarrassed that I was getting a perm. After I was done, I didn't want to really look at any customers in their eyes for fear of them judging the results and thinking "That's what you get when you ask for a perm."

After I left the salon, however, it was a different story. I had the sort of confidence only someone with curls has (of course, this is the sort of confidence someone with straight hair thinks curly-hair people have). I knew no one would suspect it was a perm since NO ONE GETS PERMS ANYMORE.

I think that needs to change. I'm kind of in love with my perm. Sure, it looks like hell when it's been slept on and when it's drying. But with a little styling and love, it's the hair I wanted.