Backstory: Curl combat - going under the irons

If the Oscars were any gauge, curl is out - only 4 of 25 women at the podium had any.

I used to wake up to my hair looking like an overgrown Chia pet with gravity-defying curls jutting out past my ears. I've spent hours hoisting a hair dryer, blasting frizz around a large round brush. My electrical-coil look would be gone ... unless a natural disaster struck - rain. Boing, boing, boing! It sprang right back up.

Yes, women with curly hair face challenges that straight-haired women can never understand. They take extreme measures to straighten their hair, at times facing the kind of danger associated with working on fallen electrical lines. There was the ironing board to flatten curls. There were chemicals of uncertain provenance. The complicated science of caring for - or annihilating - curls has spawned high-priced salons that cater to women with curly hair.

This is no small social problem - 65 percent of women do have curly hair, say stylists who specialize in curl.

Of course the great arbiters of beauty don't reflect nature's curly order: Take the Oscar ceremonies. Of the 25 women who came to the podium, four had the tiniest hint of wave in their hair, 21 were positively straight. I counted.

I was the last person who'd ever risk life and limb for my appearance. I avoid makeup and shopping, and being my naturally curly self fits my world view, and my bankbook. I simply tied my curly mass back.

All this changed last August when I came to Manhattan. With job interviews on my horizon, I decided to straighten my hair permanently. And I discovered the Wal-Mart of hair straightening: "Hair Village." Underneath the rumbling New York City subway line in Queens, amid trash-strewn sidewalks and colorful displays of Mexican food, the joint performs Japanese hair straightening. It's the most chic and expensive of all hair straightening techniques. And they do it for a song - $180 versus $1,000 an upscale salon can charge.

Pioneered originally for the many Japanese women with wavy hair, the process arrived in US salons nearly 10 years ago.

"In Japan it's called a hair correction system, meaning that you're correcting the hair to normal straight hair," explains Carol DeWolf a spokesperson for the Milbon Company, a top Japanese beauty product company. "That's how it started, because straight hair is considered the norm."

"It's really a homogenous country," says Ms. DeWolf, a Japanese-American who grew up in Tokyo. Girls whose hair isn't "normal" get picked on, she recalls from her own experience.

Curl "correction" involves applying mysterious white chemicals - the primary one something called thioglycolate - that break the excess "S" bonds of curly hair, leaving a single line of bonds that produce straight hair - or at least that's what the hair experts at salons and dermatology practices tell me. I don't know an "S" bond from a savings bond, but it has something to do with sulfur.

There are three phases of the Japanese process lasting a total of more than four hours: the chemical; the hot iron clamp; and the neutralizer that keeps the fragile straightened hair from breaking off.

Whoever thought a naturalist like me would mess with beauty through chemistry? Vanity is a strange thing, and I guess it does take a village - a Hair Village, in fact.

It's a crowded joint where curly-haired women from up and down the East Coast line up early to see Min Bok Kim, the guru of Japanese hair straightening who happens to be Korean, as are all the women who iron hair in her shop. To her clients, she's known as Mini, and she oversees as many as 50 transformations in a day. A top salon, by contrast, can handle two clients a day.

Steven Victor, a New York City dermatologist who specializes in hair, says the process is safe, but you have to watch the clock.

"If you go to an experienced operator, it's as safe as any kind of hair coloring, any kind of hair straightening, because it's all in the experience and the technique," Dr. Victor says. "It's how long you leave the chemical on, how much heat you apply, how long you leave the heat for, how long you wait in between. It's a whole big thing."

Indeed, it takes a "big thing" to combat the curl on some women's heads.

At Hair Village, time is Mini's domain. Having trained in Japan, she's the in-house expert. "It's been 10 minutes," one client reports; Mini commands: "Wash now!"

Recently, I made my second visit to Mini's. The results of my first straightening last summer were astounding: no more morning horrors, hair drying, or threats from the weather. I was ready for a tropical storm. But an inch of frizz had sprouted in the interim, and I wanted it like the rest of my straightened hair.

"Japanese straightening?" Mini asks as I enter. She points me to a chair where I have my hair washed. Then I have white chemicals plastered on my inch of frizz. For a moment I look like a zebra before I'm crowned with a shower cap. I'm told to wait 30 minutes.

I sit next to Hayley, a nightclub deejay from the hip East Village. She declines to give her last name, but she doesn't mind sharing her straight hair visions. "Straight hair is more mature, professional, and easier.... and when it's straight," she bubbles informatively, "I get a lot more attention from guys than when it's curly."

Laura Matthiessen, a recent college graduate from Long Island, was on the final phase of her straightening and seemed to be convincing herself that the change she'd hoped for was not just superficial: "I'm definitely more confident."

It's not just girl talk. The psychology of hair is, in fact, studied by Yale University Prof. Marianne LaFrance. "Straight hair tends to be associated with a higher social class," she says. "[It conveys] the sense that people have the money and the time to have their hair be perfectly straight."

I've certainly invested time: Just as I become a bit impatient, Mini tells me to wash, dry, and head to the next chair. A kind woman from Seoul starts flattening my hair, hank by hank, with two iron clamps set at 180 degrees. I hear my hair sizzle like chicken in a Chinese wok. Twice she tells me to hold my ears down. Twice I squirm from the heat. She moves the iron away quickly, blowing comforting cold air through her lips onto my head. I feel like I'm in good hands.

I pass the time watching Elys Collado having her massive ball of tight frizz transformed to shiny, black, straight tresses. The serious look on her face reflects the three long years it took her to get the courage to go under the irons. By the end of her four-hour transformation she smiled at me as if she were headed down a New York fashion runway.

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