The Quintessential '80s Hair Story: The Perm Gone Wrong

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
80s hairstyles
Wendy Wisner

I was born with thin, straight black hair. From an early age, I envied all the curly-haired girls; I wanted nothing more than to have the tightest, bounciest curls.

Remember Ramona Quimby, how she was obsessed with Susan, the curly-haired girl who sat in front of her at school? She’d pull her curls just to watch them “boing!” Well, my best friend in grade school had beautiful curly blonde hair, and I was similarly obsessed with her hair. We were buddies, though, so I got to “boing” it all I wanted without getting in trouble. (Later, I would find out that she envied my straight, silky hair, and would have traded in an instant.)

In any case, it seemed to me that curly hair was where it was at, and the ’80s culture around me seemed to echo that sentiment. Every celebrity had curly hair, big hair—hair as over-the-top as possible. Looking back, I can’t believe how atrocious some of these ’80s hairstyles were, but at the time, I desperately coveted Madonna’s teased-out perm and Sarah Jessica Parker’s corkscrew curls. Even some of the hottest boy celebs out there seemed to be going for the permed look (remember Jon Bon Jovi’s awful perm? Pretty much all the heavy metal rockers had one).

After what seemed like years of begging, I talked my mother into getting me a perm. I was 11 at the time, the poster child for the nagging tween. I’m not sure why she gave in—I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t let my own tween get a perm. But it was the ’80s, and literally everyone was getting permed. I think my argument was that my mother had had a few perms over the years, and it wasn’t fair that I had to wait so long.

She took me to a beauty salon at the mall. I remember my hair being pulled—tightly and painfully—into rollers. I remember thinking it was amazing to get to sit under one of those beauty salon domes while my hair settled. But what I remember most is the horrid smell of the chemicals that were used. It smelled exactly like rotten eggs.

I was instructed not to wash my hair for a few days afterwards. The smell was still so potent, I had to hold my breath most of the time. But my hair looked great. I ran my fingers through it. I “boinged” it all I wanted. Finally, I had the hair I’d always wanted—perfect corkscrew ringlets.

And then, in a quick instant, I didn’t anymore. As soon as I washed my hair, the perfectly formed curls were gone. Within a few days, I started to resemble a girl who had stuck her finger into an electrical outlet. No shape, all frizz.

Now, you would think I would have been given some instructions for how to maintain my perm. Perhaps we left the hair salon with some sort of mousse or gel or whatever product they recommended. Maybe I just didn’t know how to use it. I’m pretty sure my mom didn’t have much in the way of instructions for me. Her advice was, “Oh, just put it up in a ponytail.”

Whatever the case was, I had to live with ridiculous, giant hair for the better part of six months, until it began growing out. I’m sure I fit right in with other ’80s girls. Looking back, we all kind of looked that way: big, frizzy, puffy-haired disasters.

I certainly learned a lesson though—and maybe that was my mother’s intention all along when she allowed me to get the perm. As soon as my boring old hair began to grow back in, I appreciated my simple, straight, easy-to-maintain locks in a way I never had before.

The grass ain’t always greener on the other side, you know? Or…curlier.

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