If there’s such a thing as a gateway drug in the beauty world, it’s a keratin treatment – the magical elixir that promises to make even the coarsest, frizziest hair smooth and silky.
“But it won’t take the curl out?” I asked the stylist nervously. I was 29 and had never been without my curls. I couldn’t imagine letting them go.
“Not at all,” she said. “It’ll just take away the frizz. Maybe loosen it a little bit. But you’ll still have the curl.”
It might have been my imagination, but it sounded like she added, “Not sure why you’d want it,” under her breath before donning an industrial-style facemask, dousing my head in chemicals and ironing my hair flat with a styling tool so hot it could fry an egg.
When I rinsed the treatment out four days later, my scalp was burnt and my head still smelled vaguely of formaldehyde, but it was worth the trouble: my hair formed row after row of perfect ringlets without an ounce of frizz or a single flyaway. My boyfriend, who once commented that my curls had the texture of hay and the appearance of uncooked Ramen noodles, spent an hour petting my head while we watched TV.
“How did she do this?” he asked, holding a chunk of my hair in one hand and one of his dreadlocks in the other. “It feels like doll hair.”
But the good times didn’t last. When I returned for a second treatment two months later, the stylist – by accident or design – slipped me something stronger.
When I finally washed my hair, it hung in sad, limp clumps against my face. I waited for it to spring back to life as it always did when it dried, but to no avail. My curls were gone.
“Don’t worry, it’s not staying this way,” I announced when I arrived at work that morning. “I’m going to shampoo it until it goes back to normal.”
“But it looks great!” a co-worker insisted. “It really does.”
I never considered that someone might disagree. To me, it seemed so obvious: my hair – once so bouncy and full of life – now looked tired and somber.
“I think you should keep it,” my manager agreed. “It looks beautiful. Really.”
It only took a few hours and a dozen more compliments to see their point: The hair looked good. Different, sure. But good.
Who would have known that one overzealous keratin treatment was all it took to grant me my childhood wish: I had straight hair.
I’m only half-kidding when I say that I divide my life into two parts: before the keratin treatments and after. I was the same person, of course, but I looked different – and that was enough for people to treat me differently too.
At work, I was suddenly in high demand. It’s possible that I finally convinced management that I had something meaningful to contribute, but I think it was far more likely that my polished new look lent me instant credibility. Either way, I got promoted.
Outside work, I had a lot of offers for free drinks. Men – adult men, men who wore suits and own condos – asked me out on elaborate dates to fashion shows and plays and weekends in the Hamptons. I didn’t have much in common with any of them and none of them could appreciate the simple pleasure of stroking my hair for hours on end, but I enjoyed the change of scenery all the same.
In the most simple terms, I was pretty. Not “unique” or “interesting,” as I had always been. Or “pretty in your own way” or “sort of ethnic” or – my personal favorite – “unexpectedly pretty.” Just pretty.
Pretty, full stop. And it was addicting.
Once I got a taste of that conventional beauty, I couldn’t stop chasing it. I did it all: eyebrow threading; weekly manicures; blow outs. I bought new makeup and new clothes and a whole cabinet full of heated styling tools. For a minute, I considered veneers.
I drew the line there, of course – but sadly it was weeks after I let a dermatologist talk me into removing four small moles from my chin and cheeks. They never bothered me before. But then again, I never had such a clear view of my own face.
Off they went without a second thought.
I don’t regret the transformation. I’m honest enough to admit that I prefer the way I look now.
Call me superficial, but I like looking put-together. I like looking professional. I like being able to wear loud prints and bright makeup without my unruly hair turning it garish. I like not having an extra couple of inches added to my already tall frame. I like that people actually see my face now.
Once in a while, I toy with the idea of returning to my natural look – but I dismiss the thought almost as soon as it comes.
Because I know a little secret now: For as much work as it may take to be pretty, life is so much easier when you are.
And once you realize that, it’s so very hard to give it up.