Katy Guest: Perm? What perm? It's all natural, honest


Before you ask, no I haven't. Nor have I ever. Nor do I plan to. Unfortunately for me, I was born with curly hair (just like Richard III, but without the teeth and the mad dictatorial streak). My mum has a barnet so full and springy that it could "pull a lorry from here to Manchester", according to her straight-talking Yorkshire hairdresser. My dad, in his hippie days, bore a startling resemblance to the young Art Garfunkel. And if you think I look fluffy, you should see my little brother.

If all this sounds like a lady protesting too much, rather like those blonde girls who say "but of course it is natural, no honestly, how dare you, my mother was Swedish", that is because I am weary of defending my curls. I do not have, never have had and certainly never will have a perm. My hair frizzes out from my head naturally, even more so when it is about to rain, as if I am some kind of human barometer. But all this has never stopped people leaping to the same conclusion.

It is a small relief to know that I am part of a noble history. The perm was a century old last week. For 100 years, people have rudely demanded, "Ooh, have you had your hair permed?" And, just like all the worst hair crimes in the perm hall of shame, it was all the fault of a man.

It was in 1906 that a woman first stepped out of a salon with her scalp burning and her eyes stinging with tears. The hairdresser Karl Nessler developed his chemical hair-curling technique with a little help from his wife, who lost two heads of hair to the process. For years, the Nessler homestead had echoed with shrieks as Karl coated Katharina's hair in sodium hydroxide, wrapped it around gigantic brass rods, pinned it to a pulley system rigged up to the family chandelier and subjected it to an electrical current. Nobody knows what poor Mrs Nessler had done to deserve it. Or why she did not run from the house screaming "intolerable cruelty" and taking her chandeliers with her.

When my friends and I were young and impressionable nearly a century later, it hadn't got much better. Many were the stories at school about head-boiling chemicals - shortly followed by the burning shame. Damage limitation techniques were ingenious: dunking the hair in water and leaving it straggly; smothering it in rock-hard gel; wearing a hat. The strange effect of growing it out, when the hair would hang limply before springing out at the ears like a demented spaniel's, was even worse. Most people I know have burned all the photographs. And this is just the men.

Looking at the fashion icons of that perm-tastic decade, the 1980s, it is hard to imagine why little girls would beg their mothers for a permanent wave. Was it Kylie Minogue in Neighbours that they wanted to emulate, with her dandelion clock halo and cheeky grin? Was it Brian May with his bouncing Shirley Temple ringlets? Was it Kevin Keegan?

In the enlightened 21st century, they say, things are different. The salon chain Toni & Guy, which is celebrating the Perm Centenary, talks about "new technology that allows you to put movement into the hair that will gradually fade away". It cites "boho chic", Sienna Miller and Madonna. It makes grand claims about curly hair being hot on the catwalk about once in a blue moon. Well, even a stopped clock tells the time twice a day.

Those of us who grew up with hair that can predict the weather just do not buy it. Which is why sales of hair straighteners are soaring. Now, we sit at our mirrors weeping with pain as the electrical paddles burn stripes across our scalps. And all so we can toss our smooth and glossy locks and say: "What do you mean hair straightening? I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

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