Charlotte Shane last shared her Liberal Dude Erotica with The Toast.
My hair has always been terrible, by which I mean curly. As a child, post-bathing, I’d howl while my mother angrily pulled a comb through my tangles, putting up such a piteous fuss that she had our hairdresser neighbor ambush me with a Shirley Temple haircut when I was 8. (I cried about that, too. Copiously, alone in an alcove outside the salon, establishing a pattern of public weeping that would persist well into adulthood.)
There has never been a time in my life when curly hair was trendy. I think it was tolerated into the mid ’80s, when I was a baby, and I grew up vaguely aware of the incomprehensible process that was perming, but as far as I’m concerned, curls have never been cool. I didn’t even have the long and thick kind that might be impressive and romantic instead of sad and puffy. My hair’s only claim to fame, which was revealed to me by my high school best friend, is that it was soft. So soft that the first time she touched it, she called her mom over to stroke it as well.
“I always thought it was just normal,” I said in the face of their awe. “It doesn’t feel that soft to me.”
“Charlotte,” my best friend said, “how soft do you think hair gets?”
Softness didn’t save my ringlets from earning me the nickname “Pubes” in high school. The first time someone said my head hair looked like pubic hair, I—an extremely literal young person—just looked back at them blankly because no, it really didn’t. Nor does it still. My hair has its faults, but you would never look at me from above and believe you were observing a massive crotch. Nonetheless, it became something of a term of endearment in my social circle. This detail came to light once when I doing stock in the back room of the GAP. (I’d been hired for the floor, but I loved doing stock, so occasionally, incredulously, they put me down for shifts there if I bugged them about it enough.) “If they call you that,” said the hippie stockroom manager, with complete sincerity and concern, “they’re not your real friends.”
I assumed my curliness precluded me from getting extensions, just as it precluded me from looking normal and being considered hot by the opposite sex, and from being called, say, “Legs” instead of “Pubes.” But one day when I was in my 20s, a woman blow-drying me at a random Brooklyn salon told me I would be an excellent candidate for extensions (because my hair was thin and shitty.) I was skeptical, but not so skeptical that hope could not establish a stranglehold on my heart. “I didn’t think you could get curly extensions,” I said. “Oh, you can,” she replied, a white woman in rainbow-dyed dreads. It was the beginning of the end for me.
I took this information to my colorist, a sexy but infuriatingly lackadaisical straight man, who affirmed it with his characteristic unconvincingness, probably after he kept me waiting for ten minutes while he snickered with a colleague in the corner about something on a cellphone. “Yeah, they get some curl to them after they’ve been shampooed a few times,” he said. Turns out he—who I’ll call Michael from now on, because that’s his real name, and I hate him*—was something of an expert on extensions. He’d even recently mastered a new brand with a much better method of attachment to the head than the revered Great Lengths bonding system.
This radically improved method was tape.
Apparently some tape-in hair extensions are about an inch wide but the kind Michael worked with, Platinum Seamless, were more like five if not six inches wide. Originally, while writing this, I couldn’t remember the brand name but after a few moments of pontificating, I recalled that Julia Allison had given them an endorsement and Google did the rest. If you have a minute, maybe grab a ruler and measure out five inches with your thumb and middle finger. Then hold that length up to your skull, and imagine having a massive hunk of hair glued in there. Natural, right?
You might not even be capable of picturing what I’m talking about right now, and I don’t blame you. Here’s the deal: the double-sided tape is like the filling of a sandwich, the bread of which is your own real hair. So you smack this sticky plastic piece near the roots of your real hair, and the (real) hair on top covers it. No one can tell you have taped another person’s hair into your head! No one except you, because Michael applies five of these shingles around your head in brick layer style, which means you can lift up parts of your hair like it’s the flap of a doggie door, those doggie doors are staggered, and you cannot gather all or even any of your hair above the base of your skull. Goodbye buns, hair clips positioned at the middle of your head, high ponytails, regular ponytails, and any semblance of a regular human life.
It doesn’t take a Mensa member to recognize this as an awful idea. While Michael talks about how safe and gentle and scientifically sound 6-inch tape extensions are, I watch the stick-straight clumps assume position against my scalp and a siren sounds in my head. It’s the “bad decision; abort” siren and it’s pretty distinctive. But above that siren is the sound of another, much louder siren. This is a siren I didn’t even know my brain possessed. It’s the “wow, much hair” siren, and it is less of a siren and more of a drooling, slack-jawed, masturbating man mesmerized at the two and half a feet of lock appearing where there once was only one, and a boner-killing curly one foot at that. The masturbating man somehow disables the legitimate alarm, in spite of having at least one hand already occupied.
Michael finishes placing the foreign hair into my familiar head. My skull has doubled in weight. He cuts some off, but together we conspire to leave at least 8 inches of alien growth hanging below my lame, real hair. He curls it some with a curling iron. I leave the salon $600 poorer and go to meet a client who booked us at an extremely nice spa.
My hair has exploded. It is a sexily curled mane with the heft of a rolled rug. It overwhelms every other aspect of my appearance. I look like a Victoria’s Secret model without a face. My client, a man I’ve met recently on at least three other occasions, apparently does not notice. I whisper to the massage therapist that under no circumstances can she touch my hair, and a scalp massage will be literally impossible. We somehow push it off to the side, since it can’t be clipped up. I lie there for the full 70 minutes thinking only of the luxurious piles of another human’s hair hanging off the edge of the table. When the client and I go up to the room and he amorously attempts to dig his fingers into my hair, he encounters the plastic head fence and says nothing. We roll around for a while and then I leave.
The next day, the horror sets in.
There was one problem with my extensions, which you may have already deduced: they were bad. They were entirely, obstinately, resolutely straight. They hung off my grown hair the way children make their bodies heavy when they’re resisting an adult moving them. Utter dead weight. Their pretense at having come from my own follicles was mocking at best. In color, texture, and shape they were nothing like my own. They were always vaguely sticky, staticky, almost fuzzy. In a word, they were wiggy. After showering, I awkwardly straightened what real hair I could access and then gave up.
But here’s the twist: my boyfriend loved me in my cheap extensions. Regardless of how artificial they looked, they still gave a decent first impression, and the straight male mind seems to cling to whatever imprint it originally receives. So I looked way hotter, all the time, and I often wore pigtails because I never knew what the hell else to do with it. Pigtails, we all know, are like a dog whistle for penises.
I couldn’t work without seeing a professional hair stylist first to get things in order, and the stress over how fundamentally bad I knew my hair looked (no matter what an unobservant man might think) was constant. Even professionals weren’t a reliable bet. One woman who’d never encountered tab extensions before took almost 90 minutes to give me a mediocre blowout. But eventually, I happened upon an angel in Vegas who gave me practical advice on how to use a massive-barreled curling iron to better blend the real and the fake. I met her just before a multi-day date with my sploshing client, which happened to take place near a beach. In other words, my frankenhair would be beset with much water, pudding, olive oil, and the like. After every wetting, it took me about an hour and the use of three different styling tools to wrangle my hair back into a not-totally-distractingly-terrible mess. My client was nonchalantly indulgent about my stretches of occupied time. Perhaps the women in his life always spent that long on their hair. But for me, in a few weeks I spent more time on my hair than I’d spent in the few decades of life I had under my belt.
Platinum Seamless would like you to believe that their hideous hair shingles will last up to three months with the proper care and love. I had mine evicted after six weeks—or, in other words, I paid at least $100 a week for the privilege of looking like man-pleasing junk and developing stomach ulcers from styling stress. And I had to go to a special salon to get them taken out, since salons get really twitchy about lawsuit- or arson-prone clients when it comes to handling extensions they didn’t install, and there was no way I’d ever let Michael touch my head again.
Of course I didn’t simply go back to life as an old-fashioned someone who grows her own. I’d tasted the toxic honey of long hair and I was not yet ready to quit eating. So I went to one of the most expensive salons in Manhattan and swapped my taped pieces for Great Lengths, the gold standard in hair extensionry.
Michael #2 was an extensioner to the stars. He and everyone else in the salon told me so. During the consultation, he called over a non-famous woman who’d been having something or other done—it seemed like the type of place where rich housewives went weekly just to kill time—and showed me her attachments. From first glance, this woman’s hair was blond, fine, flat, and unremarkable. It was cut an inch or so below her chin, so…not long. If you looked closer, you would see she had augmented this totally unremarkable look with extensions. “I’m known for making it look natural,” Michael #2 explained. I don’t know if that means he removed some of her hair and then added the fake stuff back in, or what. I should have bolted, but the man in my head was masturbating again. “Shut up! Get the hair!” he shouted, red-faced and sweating, sitting on the permanently broken “bad decision” alarm with his bare ass.
I forked over my 1k plus for my Great Lengths, and about three hours of my time in the chair of the mean, assistant-abusing stylist. The end result did not look great, nor did it add a lot of length, but it was far less alarmingly fake than my previous extend-job had been. If Platinum Seamless was the Hummer of hair extensions, Michael #2’s application of Great Lengths was a super expensive Hyundai. By which I mean, ok, but why bother? (Also, sorry for not knowing anything about cars.)
Great Lengths sort of improved my own hair but they also sort of didn’t, because it was still fucked up at the roots. You couldn’t comb it properly with anything, not even the wide toothed afro picks I’d been using for my own hair since I was a child. You were supposed to wear it in a ponytail while you slept but—curse my natural hair’s silkiness—it never stayed that way. It hurt to get them put it, and it stayed tender for a little while after. When clients put their hands into it, they definitely felt the tiny, numerous beads that mark attachment points where the stranger’s hair is fused to your own. (I don’t think they ever knew what it meant, and only one ever said something about it. Michael #2 told me he’d had a client for years who told her boyfriend the little knobs were the side effect of a special conditioning treatment she had regularly done to keep her hair healthy.) And it still wasn’t curly, so I kept working with my big-barreled iron from the Vegas angel to look presentable on a daily basis. I still relied on blowouts to look right for work; Great Lengths, at least, were much easier to manipulate for those who weren’t familiar with it.
Then a blow dry lady in Southern California told me my extensions were slipping. They were about an inch and a half from my scalp, which is much further than they should have been at that point in their life cycle, or so she thought. And they did seem to be less incognito than they’d previously been. Then one of them totally jumped ship during a blowout in Boston. I picked it up off the floor, mystified and slightly thrilled and slightly creeped out all at once, asking the blasé stylist, “Did this come from me?” No, Charlotte. Someone else was running around the salon near the chair you’d been sitting in, shedding entire locks of hair like healthy people do.
Before I left for my work date, I looked in the mirror and noticed one piece of hair hanging at least an inch below the rest. The attachment felt solid, so I used a pair of scissors to cut it level with the rest. Two days later, I noticed another extra long piece. This time I took hold of the end, applied gentle pressure, and it slid cleanly off. This started happening with some regularity. Sometimes I would grease the attachment point with oil, since it had usually fallen at least half way down the hair shaft and was visible and weird and not worth salvaging. Sometimes it resolutely clung to the strands and I’d have to give up and leave it where it was, albeit with a trim. But mostly, they came off. Maybe the fifth time this happened, I looked at the $20 piece of hair in my hand and realized something had to be done. Michael #2 had screwed me. Great Lengths really were supposed to last a long time, but mine were falling apart at barely a month in.
There was only one reasonable response. I needed new extensions.
The third time would be the charm, or so I resolved. Firstly, I was going to choose someone very near me, so I could stop by constantly if there was even the tiniest problem arose. This narrowed the field of candidates considerably since my neighborhood didn’t have a lot of Great Lengths technicians. (I was too afraid to go back to tape and Michael #2 had sealed that fear off with a nice sheen of snootiness when he sniffed, “I might use tab extensions for a photo shoot, if I were going to take them out later that day.”) But I finally located someone and I took her gender as an encouraging sign. My previous disasters had both been overseen by men, but never again!
I made the initial appointment and met Melina, with whom I instantly bonded—that’s an extension pun, by the way. Firstly, she had a dry sense of humor and relatively sedate personality, both of which I too can claim. Secondly, we spent all our time together talking about dumb boyfriends and great cats.
Melina concluded that Michael #2 had not secured my extensions close enough to my scalp, nor had he used large enough bundles of my own hair to join them to, and because my hair was both silky and shedding copiously, the extensions, like sweaty-handed rock wall climbers, lost their grip and slipped. He also hadn’t given me this “anti-tap” solution that was supposed to be used every time the hair got wet to protect the bonds. Her recommendation was that I get these extensions fully removed, wait 6-8 weeks to regrow some more of my own, and then do another full set. Like any addict, I was full of trepidation about the wait period, but I agreed.
The removal process was incredibly painful. I’m probably tender headed anyway, but it felt truly bad, almost as bad as watching the massive pile of discarded hair accumulate in a pile around my chair. And accumulate it did.
When I had my first set of extensions removed, I was pretty appalled by the natural growth left behind. I knew my hair was thin and shitty but had it always been that thin and that shitty? I chalked it up to extension gaslighting and assured myself it was a perception issue. My hair only seemed extraordinarily thin and fine because of the yards of mane that had briefly taken up residence there, right?
However, the skeletal real hair Melina revealed after her removal definitely confirmed what I’d been determined to deny: wearing extensions is a scorched earth policy of aggression against your own hair. Some stylists say things like “oh yeah, you can grow your hair longer while the extensions are in” as if somewhere, on some undiscovered planet, people are wearing extensions for three months and then taking them out to reveal even longer and more lustrous locks. Why, wearing extensions is practically the equivalent of a miraculous protein treatment only available to models and celebrities! Your hair will never be happier or healthier than after you’ve let a bunch of glued on chunks of other hair hang off you for half a year!
I looked like a 90-year-old crone on the verge of death. I could gather my hair in my palm and swirl it into the world’s saddest bird nest for a single robin’s egg. I could have spun my hair into one single, appetizer-size lollipop’s stick worth of cotton candy at one of those stupid trendy restaurants where cotton candy is supposed to be haute cuisine. I am not exaggerating. It was horrific. And I’m certain that whatever damage the extensions did on their own was generously exacerbated by the Hunger Games participant-level of stress I felt over managing those extensions: hiding them from everyone I shared my life with, keeping them on my head, explaining their weirdness to clients, worrying about how long they would last, if they would fall apart entirely while I was on a travel date, what they would leave in their wake.
You know what happened. I waited the absolutely bare minimum—6 weeks—and rushed back into the chair.
Melina’s extensions were better. And I threw myself into babying them like never before. But at this point, I knew I was trying to outrun the inevitable. “Why don’t you stop getting extensions,” friends, and possibly my mother, asked. They saw the emotional pain I was in, and they saw the atrocity that was my bare hair in those six weeks without extensions. “Fuck you, good friends and family,” the masturbating man said from inside my brain, but it was half-hearted. He was so raw and tired. We both were.
The weirdest thing to come out of the third experience was that Melina asked me to be her model during a local hair competition, and I said yes. She and another stylist did my makeup and of course my hair, and sent me out represent the height of human hair achievement. I did my part by acting like a mannequin only recently brought to life, my face paralyzed and my body awkward. In spite of my severe limitations at modeling, Melina almost won! But she was ultimately beaten out by another woman who, unfairly, seeded the audience with a larger base of friends and family, and they were the ones voting after the judges chose the final three.
If this were my E! True Hollywood Story, this would be the denouement where, having achieved the stardom I’ve dreamed of, I promptly succumb to a heroin addiction. Ok, so I, a hair outcast, almost won a hair competition, an honor beyond my wildest dreams. But at what price?
It was time to say goodbye to extensions, which I did with the mixture of fear and relief that marks many milestone life decisions. Now it was time to begin the work of growing my own hair, an occasion I rose to with the help of supplements, vitamins, Nioxin, hair masks, and Illuiwave. It was a very expensive and unsatisfying process. But now, when I visit my new stylist and new colorist and regular blowdryer—I do have some loyalty—they all exclaim about how much longer and thicker my hair is. It’s true, but sadly, all I can see, still, is the hair I want instead of the hair I have. On the bright side, my extension mania is forever a thing of the past and I stimulated the economy in my tragic, vain learning process. Perhaps even more brightly, I discovered and embraced Rogaine. I take the Men’s kind, because I’m a feminist, and because it’s sexist bullshit that it’s labeled by gender at all. Men’s Rogaine is stronger than Women’s Rogaine due to concern that full strength Rogaine will give women moustaches. Which it will, a little bit, but big deal. Plenty of us have moustaches anyway. And I have no shame about using it. My pigtail-loving boyfriend even knows about it; adorably, he calls it my “hair medicine.”
Rogaine, I’m convinced, is ultimately the only thing that really works if you want to improve the state of your natural hair. So take it from me, an almost hair champion with a shamefully checkered hair past. The $40 Rogaine investment is an infinitely wiser one than the $4,000 investment of getting awful hair extensions three times over. And if you’re determined to extend anything, do your eyelashes. They look amazing, no one can tell, and you can sleep while they’re being put in.
*Not really his real name. But I was so tempted.