the downward spiral
January 28, 2015 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Can you tell me what it was like for a junior high girl to get a perm in the eighties?

This was one of the great mysteries of my youth: what happened when girls got perms. I could lie and say I'm writing a coming-of-age novel set in 1987, but the truth is, I'm just curious about the process — how difficult it was to convince your parents to let you get one, how much it cost, how long it took, if your hair had to be cut before or after, the chemicals, the smells, the sensations, and the upkeep. I'm all ears about your hair, so tell me everything, please.
posted by roger ackroyd to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I got a perm in the summer of 1985, though I was in high school. You get the perm first. You go to a beauty salon of some sort (I went to a place on Newbury Street in Boston for some reason and I went with my friends not my parents, this might be different for a jr high girl) and it feels like you're there FOREVER. They use these stinky chemicals that make your eyes burn in a slightly ammonia way. There's a lady there who is talking to you the whole time about whatever. They wrap up your hair pretty tight... put paper on the ends of your hair and then wrap it around a plastic roller that gets held in place with an elastic (I think?) until your whole head is wrapped in them. Little bits at a time.

Then you (I think?) sit under a dryer for a while and read adult lady magazines (Women's Day, People, Spin if you're lucky). Then they undo it all, toss out all the paper and wash your hair in one of those sinks. I got a color with mine so after it was washed out then there was a whole nother level of putting glop in your hair to color it and the old dryer-magazines-wash thing. I can't remember if I got mine cut or not. I had never had a perm before and the color I got was Fire Engine Red so it was pretty dramatic looking. It slowly faded out (the color and the perm) so that my hair grew in brown on top, my hair was mostly reddish and then the dye left the edsnentirely so it was almost blonde at the ends. Decently good look but I never got a perm again. I think it cost ... $60-75 which was a ton of money to me back then.
posted by jessamyn at 12:05 PM on January 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

How difficult it was to convince your parents to let you get one?
Not very, they were all the rage and my parents thought it was fine. Many of the girls had them; it was not viewed as rebellious or anything.

How much it cost?
I can't say I remember. I didn't pay for it -- parents did.

How long it took?
Remembering an afternoon at the salon. There was waiting for it to set. I remember that it was kinda boring.

If your hair had to be cut before or after
Cut after into a mop-like shape as my hair wasn't too long.

The chemicals smelled bad and made your eyes water. The curlers pinched. And the result was not that great at all in retrospect, but I loved it anyway. My next hair adventure was a "body wave" and that went much better. I did not look like a poodle, but rather had nice wavy hair that I thought flowed very fetchingly.
posted by Lescha at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Convincing the parents: not exactly hard, when they suggested it in the first place because someone was a slob or a tomboy... not that I'd know that or anything.....
Cost: if I recall correctly, $40. (No dyeing involved, which may be why it was cheaper than jessamyn's.)
Cut: before the perm process, not after.
The chemicals & smells & sensations: best described as cooking rotten eggs while having your head stuck in a heater.
posted by easily confused at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think most of my perms were in the late eighties/early nineties when I was 9-12 years old. My mom always wanted me to have curly hair, so the perms were totally her idea.

I remember the process taking a very long time. Lots of tight plastic rollers and sitting with the chemicals on my hair for an hour. It also smelled like burning hair (pretty similar to the smell of Nair if you're familiar with that). I think it was cut after the perm set and the rollers were removed.

Fortunately for me, my hair started to curl naturally during puberty, and stayed pretty curly ever since (I'm 34 now), so I stopped getting perms around 12-13. Then the flat iron trend happened and I spent the mid-late nineties and early 2000s straightening my hair every day. Ugh.
posted by elvissa at 12:10 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mother gave me mine at home. She's from the generation (high school in the 60s) where everyone permed their hair so that it would hold a roller set, so there wasn't really a permission thing. Everyone had one, she and a neighbor did each others', she did her mother's when we visited, she asked me if I wanted it, and so we did it every couple of months.

She'd roll my hair up on rods (I preferred a large rod, or a version of a permanent wave that was called something else...I cannot think of it, but it was looser), with papers (to keep the ends from crinkling). You had to roll the hair super tight, and they pulled once they were fastened. It made your head sting.

I'd lean over the sink and she'd pour the solution (always Ogilve) over each rod. It smelled like ammonia and rotten eggs and granny perfume, and where it dripped over my face it would leave faintly lighter trails on my skin for a few minutes. She'd put me under the hood dryer and cook the shit out of it for however long it processed, then she'd unhook the rollers while I leaned over the sink again, spray it all down with the sprayer hose as she eased the rollers out. Then I'd go get in the shower and wash off.

I got my hair cut at the salon on my own schedule. My mom would usually have me get a cut shortly before perm day because I have very thick hair and every little bit helped.

When I was a senior in high school, I got one of the fancy new spiral perms from my hairdresser. Lord, it was glorious. I probably paid $50.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:12 PM on January 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

Okay, here's how it goes down:

1. In most cases Moms were A-Ok with getting a perm because moms in our era were taught that to be beautiful and popular was the most awesome thing in the world. I had electrolysis at 13, there was NO beauty treatment my mother wouldn't have sprung for if I had shown an interest.

2. Perms were pretty pricey, even in the day, about the equivalent of $80 at a place in the mall. I got my hair done at Goldwaters, an Arizona department store.

3. It wasn't really about the haircut. Perms were more for long haired girls, and only the top/bangs would be cut. You can't wet a perm for 72 hours after, so the cut was done before-hand, since hair is cut damp.

4. There are different sized rods. The smaller the rod, the tighter the curl. Your hair texture and amount of it dictated the size and number of rods. The rolling could take an hour in and of itself.

5. The hair is rolled damp, using tissues at the ends. The hair is segmented out, and rolled uniformly all over your head.

6. Once rolled, the perm solution is put in. You go back to the sink and they squirt the solution into your hair. It's cold, it stinks to high heaven (very sulphery) and after it starts to process, it can burn on your scalp. Your mantra is, "Beauty knows no pain."

7. Then you wait. Everyone's hair is different. It can take anywhere from 40 to 75 minutes to process. It stinks, your head is burning and it's leaking down your back. Unpleasant.

8. When the curl is just right, you go back to the sink and a neutralizer is put on your hair. Again it's cold, and you have to sit with this stuff in your hair for about 5 minutes, in the sink. There is a fog of chemicals floating around, your eyes burn, your nose runs, your neck hurts and you're soaked (you're wearing a robe, not your street clothes!

9. Then the rinse. They rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse. The water cools off, but your head feels better. This is when the rods an the tissues end up in the sink.

10. To dry, you may sit under a hair dryer, this will get the curls to settle in an get nice and crunch.

11. Before leaving you'll be told not to wet your hair for 72 hours, which will suck because it SO STINKS! They'll sell you some perm products. Perms frizz, so you'll need spray oils, or gels or other stuff, along with your Jhermack shampoo. Which you can't wait to use.

A perm is permanent, so when it grows out, you wait about 2 or 3 month between perms. If you ever get another.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:16 PM on January 28, 2015 [14 favorites]

*starts forward, hesitates, decides "ah, screw it, I'll come clean" and pulls up chair and sits down*

My parents were on board with my getting a perm because I had super-fine, super-straight hair and styling it was a bitch and a half. (Also, this was the only shred of girliness I ever displayed - I wasn't into fashion or makeup, so I think my mom liked doing this because "oh my gosh yay she is doing a grooming thing and we can bond").

I remember it taking a couple hours all told. What people say about the smell and the pinchy curlers I found true as well.

Adding the following:

They usually curled your hair in the curlers first, then they would take a very long strip of cotton wool - think like cotton-ball material, only it was a long snake type of thing - and would tuck that around the whole perimeter of your hairline, forming a barrier between your hair and the rest of your head, before squirting the chemical on. My hairdresser also handed me an extra chunk in case anything dripped so I could dab it away. THEN they put a cap on your head and you sat there a while; the cap would only concentrate the smell and deflect it towards your face, and something always dripped and it felt like it was burning my scalp a bit towards the end. Then they would rinse the first chemical off, but leave the curlers and the cotton in, squirt another chemical on and put you back under the cap for another 20 minutes or so. Then they'd FINALLY take the whole thing out and rinse you down.

With me the curls would stay in for about three or four months, but I'm probably on the short end of a perm's lifespan because my hair was naturally baby fine and super-straight at that age. I'd always come out of the salon looking like Orphan Annie, then things would relax a bit and there'd be a one-month stint where it would be okay and then it'd relax too much and I'd have to do it all again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, adding:

It's generally really awkward if you are in the middle of the "sit there with your hair in curlers" stage and the cute German exchange student you've sort of kind of had your eye on happens to walk into the same salon and sees you and comes over to say hello. (Thank you, Ingo T., for not telling anyone else at school about me!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:18 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

my mom started pushing my perms when i was about 6 or 7. everything said here matches my experience- the sectioning and tugging and wrapping and spraying (omg the smell) and waiting and rinsing and rinsing and rinsing. and then you just had to walk around smelling gross for days or else you'd ruin the perm. i also have very sensitive skin so i had a string of cotton (like one long cotton ball) spread with vasoline and pressed all around my hair line to try to keep the solution off as much as my skin as possible.

in arkansas i remember them costing 20-30 dollars, which was a fortune for us in the mid 80s, but sometimes a family friend permed my hair. i got it done a few times a year. when i was 10 or so, after boobs and shaving but before my period started, all of my perms started falling instantly, like, within hours. apparently there can be some sort of hormonal change that keeps them from taking. my hair hasn't held a curl without obscene amounts of hairspray/mousse/etc since then.
posted by nadawi at 12:24 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

It took about an hour, it smelled like sulfur, and during the process you looked like an old lady with your hair in rollers. My perm was $60, same as a pair of Guess jeans. I liked to think it made me look like Kitty Pryde, but in reality I looked like a frizzy dorkamalork.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:24 PM on January 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

I got a perm when I was in jr. high in the late 80s. At first my mom did some Ogilve home perm kits, but those didn't tend to take very well. I don't remember how, but I eventually convinced my folks to let me get a Real Perm. Probably because my mom was sick of stinking up the kitchen with the Ogilve.

I went to Fantastic Sams, a cheapo chain kind of place, which was a big mistake. They perm your hair before they cut it, so you start out with stinky chemicals and rollers in your hair and a good bit of waiting. Then they take it all out and cut it. Unfortunately they cut it wet and put lots of layers in it. I could see my hair curling up as it dried and as they cut the layers, making it get poofier and poofier. The end result was very bad. Like, afro/poodle bad. I was so upset and went home and shampooed my hair immediately trying to get the curl out. It didn't work.

I went to school and everyone whispered around me (oh, and the smell kind of remains for a while, it doesn't all wash out right away.) I sat at one desk and saw a note that had been passed from one student to another talking about how bad my hair was. There was a lot of fighting back tears. I went to a very small Catholic school, so there was no escape.

I ended up wearing headbands for weeks to try to tamp down the poof. Eventually it did relax a bit and grow out enough that I had the 80s style curly hair I had originally intended (complete with those giant poofy bangs [not a picture of me, just an example] that I curled with a curling iron and teased and Aqua-Netted like I was an extra in a Guns N Roses video. At least I never did the extreme side wings.) I probably should have asked for a spiral curl but there are limits to what you get when you go to a chain salon and you're a shy junior high girl not very good at speaking up for herself.
posted by misskaz at 12:24 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

oh, my perms were also always closer to 3 hours than 1 hour, but there was a lot of waiting.
posted by nadawi at 12:26 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mother was a licensed cosmetologist. Sometime in the late 70s, she convinced me to get a perm with not-so-long hair; some kids did indeed call me little orphan Annie (I had reddish hair).

Then she convinced my somewhat suggestible two-years-younger brother to get a perm also. His hair was approximately the same color. Oh geez that poor dude.

At a doctor's office sometime after that, a nurse actually thought we were twins. We were each equally insulted (although I can't imagine how we had any pride left to insult).
posted by amtho at 12:30 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Forgot to mention: after mine (the one & only perm I ever submitted to!), the only person in the entire family that thought it looked good was my Grandpop; not even my parents who'd talked me into it liked the results.

The kicker? Grandpop was legally blind.
posted by easily confused at 12:42 PM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I had a perm even earlier in the 80s. 80 or 81 maybe. The process is the same as everybody else said. It smelled terrible.

I just want to fourth or fifth it wasn't hard to get permission. My mother was strict and old-fashioned (I didn't have pierced ears until college) and I had no problem getting permission for a perm. It was considered a good old-fashioned lady-like activity.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2015

Funny story...I had perms all through high school (oh the horror of my school pictures!!!). When I finally grew the last one out completely my grandma - Queen of the Backhanded Compliment - said, "Your hair looks so nice without all those fucking bumps!" Thanks, Nonnie!
posted by cecic at 12:54 PM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

T. O. R. T. U. R. E.

I never wanted the perms, but I was my mother's dress-up doll for a lot of my childhood, so what I wanted didn't matter.

1. The hair gets washed.

A hair washing at the beauty salon is a form of torture in and of itself. There is the "Let me know if it's too hot or cold" dance to start. ["COLD! COLD!" you shriek. She adjusts the temperature. "NOW IT'S REALLY HOT OW OW!"] Then the stylist -- and mine was named Punkin', by the way, as in Texas-speak for "Pumpkin" -- would proceed to scrub distractedly and painfully at your scalp. Distractedly, because Punkin' would be carrying on an animated conversation with the other ladies while her hands muscle-memoried their way through the shampooing. Painfully, because, come on, it's a beauty salon. She has very long and very well-manicured nails, and she is using them.

All of this is on top of the fact that your head is hanging backwards in this sink, and your neck and the base of your head are resting on the molded hard plastic of the sink, which has a U-shaped cutout where your head goes whose design I'm pretty sure is copied from 18th century French guillotines.

2. The hair gets cut to the appropriate length.

Punkin' combs and snips and combs and snips and you see wisps of your hair falling away to the floor until they pile up around the base of the barber chair in an alarming heap that represents the sense of loss and dread you will feel tomorrow.

3. The hair gets rolled and the rollers get clipped into place.

The rollers weren't rollers so much as they were hard plastic rods, and the size of the rod determined the ultimate size of the curl. If I remember correctly, the smaller rods resulted in tighter curls. They were color coded, with pink being one size, purple being another, etc.

So Punkin' proceeds to roll your hair around these rods -- TIGHTLY. They're rolled as close to the scalp as possible, then held in place with metal clips. These rods are so close to your scalp, though, that navigating the clip underneath the rod in order to hold it in place is basically feels like she's trying to slide a knife blade into an impossibly tight space.

By the end of this process, your scalp feels like it has been stretched as tight as a drum, the skin around your eyes hurts, and you basically look like Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black.

4. Oh god, it burns.

Hair's not stupid. Hair knows that its natural at-rest position is "hang," not "levitate." Hair knows you're not a poodle. So to convince hair to hold this unnatural and impossible collection of curls for any period of time, you have to poison it into resignation and submission. For reasons of SCIENCE, the perm chemical has to be warm to be effective, so Punkin' removes it from its hot water bath and proceeds to slowly -- and carefully, because Punkin' is a pro -- drizzle it over each and every aching pile of rodded hair. This stuff? It stinks -- smells like a combination of formaldehyde and ammonia. It burns -- your scalp, and your eyes. It's hot. And applying it with the level of attention it deserves takes a while. Imagine someone taking a long and protracted pee on your head, and you will come close to knowing what it feels like. (But you will never truly know. No, you will not. You will never truly know.)

5. The waiting.

You now sit under one of those dome-shaped hair dryers for what would basically be an eternity for an 11-year-old even if all this other stuff wasn't involved.

Punkin' sets the timer for 35 minutes. You sit there with your hair pinned to your scalp, trying to hold your head up under roughly seven pounds of perm rods, the hair dryer dome descending as low as your nose and blowing hot air into your ears. The stink of the chemical is still with you, by jove (and will be for days, by the way), and the hot air only serves to intensify it and circulate it until it is trapped there with you, under that dome, and you have no choice but to breathe it in for those 35 minutes, eyes watering and nose stinging.

When the hair dryer's timer dings and the dryer shuts itself off... Well, let me put it this way. I'm in my 40s now and I have a good deal of lived experience under my belt. Right at this moment, I can think of no greater sense of relief, and no more satisfying exhale, than the one that comes with the ding of that hair dryer timer.

Punkin' will finish up whatever she's doing and eventually make her way over to release you from your opposite-of-sensory-deprivation chamber. Except, to your horror, after she lifts the dome and checks your curls, they need more time to set.

You feel like crying now, but you don't, because in your defeat you know that it wouldn't do any good, and besides no one would even notice because your eyes are all stinging and teary from the chemicals.

Sit there for another 10 or 15 minutes, at Punkin's discretion, and reflect on your life up unto this moment.

6. Freedom from the rods.

You're led back to Punkin's chair now, and she proceeds to unfasten the many, many clips that are holding those many, many rods so fast and close to your skull. Again, the knife blade sensation, because they don't feel any better coming out than they did going in. You're already pretty broken down at this point, so you don't bother to avert your eyes from the mirror. You've got these stupid little tufts all over your head. Punkin' takes a metal hair pick and tries to relax them. They transform from tufts into ridiculous, Ronald McDonald-like whorls.

"Don't worry," Punkin' assures you, "they'll relax in a few days."

7. The aftermath

The ultimate insult here is that you cannot wash your hair for those few days, because doing so would unset the perm, and no matter how much you want to unset the perm, you also don't want to be kilt by your mother. So you carry the stink of perm chemicals around with you in your foofy hair. When you come to a rest, the stink will sink down from your head and will envelop you. When you go into motion, the air movement will stir up that stink and it will surround you like a cartoonish, noxious cloud. You will hate the way your hair looks, and you will hate the fact that for as long as this perm lasts -- and it will last for six weeks -- you cannot use a hairbrush, but you must very carefully "pick" out your curls. You must tend very carefully to those curls that you did not want in the first place because they're there, dammit, and they ain't going away.

At some point your heart will sink when you realize that the perm closely coincides on the calendar with school picture day. Your school picture that year will show a sad little blonde girl with the kind of blonde girl afro that wasn't really all that out of place in 1984, but your classmates will give you hell for it all the way through high school anyway.

You will leave that town and never go back.

As an adult, when people comment on your beautiful, naturally curly hair -- which they will do with some frequency -- you will wonder what it was all for.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:31 PM on January 28, 2015 [32 favorites]

Convincing the parents: Easy, as my mom had a spiral perm herself, and they were totally common in my jr. high/high school.

Cost: About $35, including a trim to shape the whole mess. Mine was cut after the perm, but I think that was just my hairdresser's preference.

It took forever, since I have really long, fine hair, and there were many curlers to be put in. The stench was incredible, very sulphurous, and even after washing, it still took a couple of days to fully go away. And, as noted above, you couldn't wash it for some ungodly long amount of time.

I had bangs at the time, and of course, as they were trimmed, they ended up straight much faster than the rest of my hair. Then came the root perm, and some time after that, another full-on perm, and eventually I let it grow out with straight roots until it was just long enough for a really short flapper bob. I wonder if the resurgence in the bob in the mid-to-late 80s was driven by girls wanting to get rid of the remains of their spiral perms?
posted by skybluepink at 1:33 PM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Man, this thread is bringing back some memories! mudpuppie's account is hilarious but ultimately quite accurate.

I had my first perm in the late 80s/early 90s. It HAD to be a spiral perm. Some day I might be old, senile, and not remember anything or anybody, but I will remember that awful smell of the perm solution, which lasted for a couple of weeks after. My hair end up gigantic and poufy, but given the time period, that was exactly what I wanted!

I was also instructed not to wash my hair for at least a week. Being the dirtbag kid I was, I took this as a good enough reason to not bathe for a week, or at least until my mother took me aside and suggested - no, demanded - I take a bath.

I also remember that a friend of mine had numerous perms, but they almost always disappeared within a couple of weeks in her fine, straight hair, even when done at a salon.
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:39 PM on January 28, 2015

I have some recollection that after we commenced perming (which was probably in 6th grade - it was certainly before I was allowed to wear makeup, which I think was 7th grade), my aunt or grandmother asked, with some confusion, "Don't you roll-set your hair?" (For reference, both of them looked/still look like Ann Richards, though my aunt wears hers bigger)

My mother clearly never had any expectation that I would sleep on rollers, and I don't know that I especially needed a perm (with proper handling, I'm a 3a/b), but the perm itself was certainly a thing she thought I needed.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:51 PM on January 28, 2015

I had two perms, both in 1987, in the 7th grade. There was very little convincing that had to be done, as my mother has had her hair permed since she was 2(!) years old. Yes, the smell was grody, but it was the smell of a rite of passage! All the cool girls had their hair permed. I was most definitely NOT cool, but I thought this might be the first step toward acceptance by the cool crowd.

Unfortunately, for me, the actual curls of the first perm lasted maybe 2 weeks? This was despite religiously using the diffuser attachment on the hair dryer. In any case, it was incredibly disappointing.

The second perm was a couple months after. THAT perm resulted in poodle tight curls, which was actually what I was going for. I enjoyed the total awesomeness of it for a couple weeks, until my mother marched me back to the salon a third time to have the look "tamed."

This resulted in a horrible "layered" haircut that made me look like I was approximately 55 years old. I went home from the salon in tears and did everything I could to fake an illness so I didn't have to go to school the next day. I mean, I already had old lady glasses, braces, was a good 5" taller than anyone in my class, and got teased daily. Now this? This whole perming business actually had the opposite effect...I was drifting further and further into dork land.

I grew my hair out after that. No more perms for me. And in eighth grade I stopped caring about being cool or not.
posted by medeine at 1:52 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I worked as a shampoo girl at a salon in the late 80s, and one of my jobs was taking the curlers out of perms and then rinsing the hair. For the entire time I worked there, my hands would smell like perm chemicals whenever they got wet. It was hell.
posted by bibliowench at 1:58 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got perms pretty constantly from 1982 or so up until 1996 or 1997, because I hated my straight hair with a passion. It wasn't a problem to convince my mom, as she hated her straight hair also, and we tended to go in and get them at the same time, and she hasn't stopped yet.

The above entries are pretty accurate, except that for my hair, the curl tended to stay until it grew out, which meant that for the last few weeks before the next perm I'd have straight hair at the scalp and curly for the rest of the length, which looked stupid. But that was the perfect time to wear a banana clip, because you'd get straight hair on your scalp and a beautiful cascade of curls down the back of your head.

I was still a dork, but I was a dork with CURLY HAIR, which was the point.

My hair started growing in with a wave last year HALLELUJAH.
posted by telophase at 2:16 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had so many perms in the 80s. So. Many.

Nthing all of the above, plus my head would itch pretty much the entire time at the salon (plus the burning!) and for DAYS afterward.

Then the 90s came and I had never, ever been so happy to have stick-straight hair.
posted by cooker girl at 2:18 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had a perm (or maybe two) in that time period. I remember very little but I believe it cost about $80 and it was moderately difficult for me to convince my parents because that was a lot of money for them. I don't think they had other objections to it. It smelled foul, like rotten eggs, and (judging my pictures) made my hair look terrible.

(I also vaguely remember the coveted "Coke" polo's costing about $55, not sure either of these numbers are correct, but if so, why is my brain wasting space on this useless information...)
posted by pennypiper at 3:27 PM on January 28, 2015

It was not difficult to convince my mom, since she had huge, fluffy permed hair herself. I think it cost about $40, which was fairly expensive then. I recall that the real Guess jeans at Burdines cost about that much, too, and that was what only the really rich kids wore. (I was in elementary school.) They cut the hair first. I got a few of these before I realized that my hair was not fated to ever conform to this style, and I know one of them I got at the salon inside JC Penney. They pulled your hair really tight when putting in the rollers, so it kind of hurt. They also would give you a much tighter curl to start out with in the belief that it would "relax" after a few days. Yes, it stunk and it took forever and that cotton headband would get soaked in stinky perm solution and drip the stuff all over your face. Then you couldn't wash your hair for days and they told you never ever to brush your hair and only to run a pick through it if you started getting tangles. Once all of this was done, if you were me, you'd have like a tiny version of big, puffy 80s newscaster hair for about two weeks before your straight hair reasserted its straightness.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 4:45 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a kid, my hair was naturally straight and very fine, I always had some form of a bowl cut, and we never had to do much fussing with it that I recall. When I was in 5th grade though (1985?), some kind of puberty fuckery kicked in and started making it insanely greasy despite showering every morning, so Mom thought a perm might help the situation. It worked - not sure if it was because the now-fried hair absorbed moisture or if the volume of the perm kept the grease from making my hair go so floppy, but, whatever.

I agree with most everyone's description of the mechanics of getting the perm, though I don't remember it being too awful, mostly boring. It was hard to read a book during the time that you're stuck under the heat helmet, since looking down would make the chemicals more likely to creep past the cotton barrier and get onto my forehead.

I kept getting perms from 5th grade on all through middle school & high school - my hair grows pretty fast, so, the roots would go straight before the perm ever got a chance to wear off, and it would start to look weird. It was only once I went away to college, when faced with the daunting task of finding a new hairdresser and having to use my own spending money on it that I was able to end the cycle. First I dyed it purple (fun!), then I let someone give me a buzz-cut (so not a good look for me). And when it grew out, it turned out that sometime during all those years of perms my hair had developed a little bit of natural wave, so I've never gotten another one since.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:17 PM on January 28, 2015

Am I the only one who thought the biggest benefit was getting out of swim class because your hair couldn't get wet for a few days?
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:30 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These stories are like the Judy Blume-meets-Americanah book of my dreams. You guys rock.
posted by roger ackroyd at 6:32 PM on January 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

ALL our Moms had perms. Every Mom Jack of them. My Mom had her first perm in the kitchen sink when she was six years old. So, it wasn't a rebellious thing - Moms couldn't wait until their daughters got their first perm.

In the salon in our little podunk town, the cost went from twentysomething to fortysomething, depending on how long your hair was. If you were getting a lot cuf off, they'd do that first, but usually the cut came after the perm.

The best perms were when my cousin the cosmetologist would come and spend the day at Grandma's house giving home perms around the kitchen table. They still smelled as bad as the salon ones (Go open a bottle of ammonia and just sit there with it in your face for half an hour). but she didn't pull and tug like the salon ladies. And she never charged more than ten dollars to cover supplies (Grandma had a huge box of communal perm rods in the back room).

Once the rods were all rolled up tight, the solution was squirted up and down each rod with a plastic bottle. There would be a really cool (as in temperature) sensation. As it sat there, your whole scalp would start to burn. If they left it on too long, some of your HAIR would burn off, and you'd have little bits of stubble here and there. It felt SOOO good when they took you to rinse it off. They'd stick your head under the warm water, curlers and all, and take them out while the water was running over you. The bottom of the sink would be all rods and wet paper.

All my youthful perms were disappointments, because my hair just really, really wants to point straight to the Earth's core. I lived down the street from the podunk-town-salon, and I can remember the one lady there just being in tears when she saw me with yardstick-straight hair less than a week after she'd permed it. She thought I had straightened it because I didn't like the job she'd done. I told her it wasn't her fault, that it was just my dumb Waveless Wonder hair, and she was all, "If I'd given a perm that strong to anyone else, they'd either have an Afro or all their hair burned off!" I wanted Princess Mariah Carey Counselor Troi hair SO BAD.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:37 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

This was 1983. I was eleven years old. My teacher offered to come to our apartment and perm my hair. The mother objected, because she knew from her own experience that our hair didn't take a perm well. HOWEVER. I was moving quickly toward being a punk rock kid, and the mother (and the teacher, I suspect) were desperate to stop that dead immediately.

The teacher came over with her Ogilve box, and the burning agony commenced. I remember the smell so vividly, which seems common in these stories. It is astoundingly putrid.

I remember the horrid chemicals rolling into my eyes as the teacher rinsed my hair, face down, in the kitchen sink. I wept. She said "beauty is pain", which I never forgot because even at eleven...WHAT HAPPENED TO FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, PEOPLE?!?

I looked bedraggled and sad and eleven. The mother *hated* it. I dressed like Janis Joplin and made the best of it until it grew out. Then came the Mohawk, and moving to my dad's house forever.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 7:11 PM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

I got my first perm my sophomore year in high school ('78). My mom was delighted because she regularly begged me to at least try to wear makeup so I think she thought this sudden interest in getting my hair done would open the door to getting me to the Macy's makeup counter but I just wanted to look like Jimmy Page.

The perm cost about $50, I remember being astounded by how expensive it was. My mom paid and it was the first time I became aware of what a tip was. Yes to all of the above about the horrible smell, the stinging in my eyes, the ammonia cloud that wafted around my head for several days after. I remember the hair stylist being delighted about working on what she referred to as my virgin hair and the weird clacking noise that the roller rods made when she pulled them off my hair and tossed them into a container.

I got 3-4 more perms many months apart, then I cut off most of my hair and went Full Pat Benatar for the rest of the 80s.
posted by jamaro at 8:50 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I DIDN'T get a perm, but when I was in 5th grade and beyond (1989ish), I lived near a second-rate mall with a Cost Cutters that advertised perms for like $17. I wanted one so, so badly. I always had that $17 figure in my head: how much would it cost for me to get a perm? It was like thinking about a car or a stereo or something: if I could just save up $17, I would walk over to Cost Cutters and get that perm and my life would be complete.

I never did.

My mom, on the other hand, did get perms for about a five-year period. She had had Hodgkins' lymphoma in 1984, and although she only lost a very small (hidden) portion of her hair due to chemo, we had a couple of wigs around the house which we got a lot of use out of in the dress-up box.

So when she showed up freshly permed in the carpool circle in, oh, 1987, it wasn't too far-fetched to think, "Is she wearing a wig?"

I think you were required to have butterfly claw clips and banana clips if you had a perm.
posted by Madamina at 9:15 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had many perms, mostly spiral, and I loved reading these stories because so much in common! Yes to getting a perm at the jc penney salon! yes to the spiral perms! Yes to the inches of straight hair from the root before you get another :D I remember the stylist telling me that a spiral perm meant that - ok, for a normal perm, they just took a bit of hair all coming from a spot vaguely rectangular shaped on your scalp. For a spiral perm, the spot on your scalp for the curler was square, if that makes sense.

And the learning a whole new way to comb your hair. Introducing... the pick! And the wide--very wide-tooth comb. And never ever using a brush. With a spiral perm, trying never to comb your hair unless it was wet/damp. If you didn't wash it that morning, you used a spray bottle of water and then picked and shook your hair to make the curls form right. many many many times i went to school with my hair wet; if I had to wait outside in the winter, my curls would freeze.

and another thing - My mom tried home perms too, not just Ogilvie - they were the "good" brand, but who can forget Toni home perms!
posted by lemniskate at 4:27 AM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Most folks here are probably too young to remember the "Which Twin Has the Toni?" ad campaign, which started in the late 1940's and lasted for decades. Basically, one of a set of pretty identical twins would be given a Toni™ brand home permanent (one of the first on the market), and you were supposed to guess which one.

My mother was a twin. They were fraternal, but bore an incredibly striking resemblance except for the fact that my aunt had a head of thick, luxurious curls while my mother's hair was straight and fine. When they started school, Grandma started giving Mom an involuntary Toni™ every other month. So, whenever Mom isn't calling herself "the evil twin," she calls herself, "the twin with the Toni."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:27 AM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

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