Finding the Right Look In the Mirror

A FEW summers ago, I tacked up an inexpensive mirror on the wall of our Jersey seashore apartment.

If you look into it from a certain angle, you can see the ocean meet the sky, and find yourself wondering where one leaves off and the other begins.

From around the ages of 12 to 15, our daughters seemed oblivious to the magnificent view that mirror offered of dazzling golden sunrises, the dusty green ocean, and flaming pink sunsets. Instead, they spent endless hours in front of the mirror styling and spraying their hair.

When her time came to take her place in front of the mirror, Shayna, our second daughter, stood there teasing and spraying her hair stiff and high until it reached far beyond the mirror's view.

That first year, she used a can of hair spray (sans flurocarbons) every week. Then each morning, she scrubbed her hair in the shower and gathered it into a polished pony tail until preparations began anew in the evening with teasing combs, dryer, and hair spray (extra hold).

Sometimes the mirror reflected tragicomedies of hairstyles gone bad. Missy, our oldest child, loved to cut, style, and curl hair. One time when her friend Erin came to the shore, Missy spent hours weaving an elegant braid into her luxurious blonde mane. She finished it off with a shimmering jeweled barrette. When Missy tried in vain to brush out her friend's coiffure, she jolted me with her frantic screams, ``Mom, Erin's barrette's stuck.''

Upon examining the exotic hairdo and attempting for an hour to extricate the barrette, I gave up. In desperation, I called our hairdresser in Pennsylvania.

``Apply salad oil,'' she said. ``If that doesn't work, massage peanut butter through her hair with a pick. You'll untangle it in no time.''

We oiled and peanut-buttered Erin's golden locks until she began to cry, partly in pain from us tugging at her hair, and partly in shock because she resembled the bride of Frankenstein with hair frizzed out in all directions.

Finally, dazed and exhausted, Erin begged me to chop off the offending chunk of her cherished hair. With a quick flick of the scissors, the barrette and clumps of hair fell to the floor. As Erin shampooed away the hair spray and the peanut butter, we heard her wailing in the shower, probably imagining her hideous layered cut.

Now it was Lauren's turn. On dreamy summer nights, our 12-year-old stood in front of the mirror, brushing her flowing chestnut hair until gold highlights shone through. But no matter what she did and how long it took, her words were always the same: ``My hair looks ugly.''

I am reminded of the first time I really looked in the mirror in my room as Elvis crooned ``Love Me Tender'' on the radio. Sitting at my mirrored dressing table, my face greased with a camphor-smelling cream, I brushed my hair a hundred times, trying to rid it of those unruly curls that seemed to have a mind of their own.

I set it with orange juice cans and even tried ironing it, but nothing unraveled the stubborn ringlets. That straight, sleek, glamorous look I coveted would elude me forever.

I also remember the nights my friend Irene and I set each other's hair in front of the mirror. As we did, we cried about cute boys we liked who didn't notice us and the nerdy boys we didn't want to notice us but did.

We looked at ourselves in the mirror a lot those days, not out of vanity but out of a sense of insecurity. To us, the state of our hair served as a barometer of our self-confidence. As we gained a sense of who we were beyond our appearance, we spent less time in front of the mirror.

Now, our daughter Missy's too busy teaching and long-distance bike riding to scrutinize her hair in the mirror. On occasion, she'll sport a bouncy bob or a wild upswept style set off by dangling earrings, but she never worries about having peanut butter in her kitchen.

Currently, Shayna, our second daughter, sports a straight silky style. Forget the perms and hair spray. She looks at photos from her high-hair days and wonders if that really is her in those old prom pictures, towering above her dates with stiff teased hair.

Lauren, our youngest, has a few more years left before she stops brushing, patting, and primping her hair in front of the mirror. This ritual marks the beginning of the trials, the errors, the compromises, and finally, the acceptance of the woman she's becoming.

Now when I look in the mirror, I take only a few minutes to run my hands through my wild curly hair. I'm comfortable with it, even though it's not in style right now. I wish I had been then.

But I know that we all have to take our places in front of the mirror before we learn how unnecessary it is; before we make time for important things like wondering where the ocean leaves off and the sky begins.

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