You can tell the exact year I discovered Frizz-Ease by looking at my school portraits. One year there was a mop of curls atop my head; the next there was a shellacked helmet. I'm smiling, bigger than I ever have before, thanks to John Frieda’s famous product. Looking back at that proud moment now, I'm ashamed. Somehow, through the magic of commercials, Tiger Beat, and the cruelty of teenage girls, I had become convinced that my hair was something that needed to be “tamed.” I didn't have curly hair, I had frizz.
Frizz-Ease was launched in 1989, only a few years before I hit puberty, and according to some estimates, one bottle is sold every 30 seconds around the world. The product, a silicone-based potion, promises to turn anyone's tresses into glossy, stick-straight strands or perfectly-formed ramen noodles. The reality, of course, is more complicated.
I came of age during the height of the Rachel, an impossibly sleek and angled hairdo that was the essential bat-mitzvah look among my peers. Every time I went to the hair salon with my mother, I would dutifully flip through magazines searching desperately for an alternative, something on the Meg Ryan-Minnie Driver spectrum. But the truth is, I didn’t have the volume of either. Legend has it that I used to have tight spirals like them, but one day, around the age of five, I refused to brush my hair. A bowl was put on my head and my locks were chopped off, never to grow back the same way. According to my mother, that was when my baby curls loosened into waves. She still speaks of that day with regret.
Thrust into a limbo of not-quite-curly, not-quite-straight hair, haircuts were incredibly emotional for me. The magazines only had two options: Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Jennifer Aniston. Maybe it was the fumes in the strip-mall salon, but I always went for the part down the center, straight, angled option. They styled it for me at the salon, and I knew it would only look good for three days, maybe four if I skipped swim practice. I always told myself that this would be the time I would figure out how to use one of those giant, round brushes or master the flat iron with the same precision the gum-snapping, bottle-blonde woman at the salon could.
I tried brushing my hair 1,000 times a night to make it sleek, like other girls in my class claimed to do, but that didn’t work. I experimented with my grandmother’s Dippity-Do gel and Aqua Net hairspray, but they just made my hair hard, like someone had taken a pencil and a compass and drawn fractals from my scalp. There wasn’t a girl on television (or in my Delia’s catalog) that looked like I did, but there were countless movies where curly-haired heroines were transformed into charming beauties by enchanted blow-dryers. In high school, I overheard some girls talking about hair oil, so I poured extra-virgin olive oil on my sister’s head, wrapped it in cellophane, and left it overnight. (Better to experiment on my sister first, I reasoned.) She woke up covered in acne, I was grounded, and it took a week for her hair to lose the wet-dog look (and smell).
That’s what was so special about John Frieda’s creation: It came in a petite, unassuming clear bottle, felt soft to the touch and didn’t stink of desperation (or olives). It wasn't a gel, it was a “serum,” and it didn't contain ingredients, it was a patented “formula.” My hair didn’t need a stylist, it needed a diagnosis. The advertisements’ medicinal language made me feel like I had finally found the cure—and it was less than $10. It's this magical thinking that has allowed John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease empire to add shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, styling foam, and “10 Day Tamer Pre-Shower” treatments to its eponymous line.
I will be the first to admit that I've tried them all. The average woman spends $50,000 on hair care in her lifetime. Frizz-Ease was my gateway drug: I spent thousands on creams, sprays, foams, irons, and cuts that promise curl control. None of them really worked, but I had been successfully convinced that my hair was defective. I needed a product to be presentable, to be desirable, to be taken seriously—it was just a matter of finding the right one. All the other women in my family suffered from this same illness; Thanksgiving was a verifiable hair-care convention, with cousins, aunts, and matriarchs all bringing new concoctions for everyone to try on our big, bouncy, Jewish hair.
Scientific studies and unscientific polls all show that this isn’t some imaginary insecurity either: Women are judged based on how their hair looks. Straight hair is considered more professional than curly hair, long hair communicates youthfulness and reproductive health, and black women are openly discriminated against by employers who say their hair looks “messy.”
It wasn’t until college that I stopped struggling with my mane and just let it do its thing. By that time, there were salons that specialized in curly hair, and celebrities besides Ms. Frizzle who wore their locks au naturale. Even John Frieda started creating products that worked with curls of all kinds instead of stifling them.
But taking care of my curly hair, even when I finally figured out how to do it, was exhausting. I had to wash, set, and dry it every morning. I had to alternate products every few months to avoid build-up, dandruff disasters and itchy scalp. I had to buy sulfate-free, argan-oil shampoo. I had to find a hairdresser who understood cutting one inch of wet hair meant cutting two inches of dry hair (and who, blessedly, also served Pabst Blue Ribbon to take the edge off). Eventually, I gave up. I wear it straight now, even though I know that makes me a traitor. My curly hair was defiant, political, wild—an expression of my true self. My straight locks are a reminder that I’ve succumbed to societal norms, that Frizz-Ease, and all it represented, finally won.
There is no easy, $10 antidote to erasing the hair you were born with. There is, however, a $95, two-hour keratin treatment at a poorly ventilated salon on the Upper East Side that will turn the most unruly of tresses into plain, horse-tail hair. That’s where I surrender, for four to six months at a time.