In the first minutes of a writer’s conference in NYC last September, I met an editor who changed my relationship with my own head. Editors have rearranged my head space before, but this one had a profound effect on the exterior.
She was one of those youthful, confident, and benevolent middle-aged women who could be anywhere from thirty-five to seventy. She was easy-going, approachable, and, like a good New Yorker, full of with-it-ness. She also had a head of glorious salt-and-pepper spiral curls.
We’d just come inside from under a lightly spitting city sky. A few of us women writers were standing around in a tight bunch, old, young, white, and of color. One thing we had in common (other than writer’s desperation and basic humanity) was that we were all curl-girls. I pointed it out. We bonded on frizz and recommended products to each other, which is what curl-girls do.
“I don’t use any of that stuff,” the editor announced.
Amazed, we remarked on the beauty of her smooth ringlets. If she didn’t use any of our favorite gels and oils, we needed to know her secret.
With a sly smile she raised her chin and said, “I haven’t washed my hair in two years.”
Yup. We heard right. This savvy NYC editor had failed to perform basic hygiene for two solid years. Jaws dropped; conversation stopped.
I said, “So you leave your apartment each day smelling like a goat?” I have the ability to put people at ease. It’s a gift.
She tilted her softly looping mop-top my way and said, “Smell.”
I stuck my nose in and sniffed. “Wow. It doesn’t smell like anything.”
In the weeks that followed, I kept thinking about that woman’s curls, her confidence, her liberation from the army of dusty bottles of product under my bathroom sink. Imagine, no more expensive product piling up in my cupboards unused because none quite does what it promises. No more rinsing Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Chloride, Methylcholorisothianzolinone, Phthalates and other unpronounceable toxic chemicals over my body and into the water supply. No more adding plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles to landfills and oceans. No more pandering to misogynistic consumerism by enriching Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Skye Gould, Shiseido, Coty, Unilever, and Johnson and Johnson CEO’s and supporters of animal cruelty, like the how-is-this-still-legal Draize Rabbit-Eye test. I’d be a curl-girl living in harmony with my planet, my values, and my hair.
The No Poo Chronicles
Day 1. My hair, skin, and scalp are just too dry if I suds myself more frequently than every other day, so when I finally felt ready to commit, Day 1 was really Day 3 for my hair. When I took a shower, I just rinsed my scalp really well. As I toweled off, proud that I was already a better earthling, something felt amiss. I keep catching an unsettling whiff–I need to wash my hair.
Day 2. This morning I woke up with an itchy scalp and a stinky pillowcase. I read you need to brush your hair to distribute the oils throughout the hair shaft, but I haven’t brushed my hair since I was a big-haired teen. I don’t think I’ve owned a brush for thirty years. I grabbed Alby’s wimpy slicker brush. I committed 100 strokes even though my arms ached by 30, but my scalp felt better. I worry I’m crazy for trying, but not crazy enough to see this project through. I’m already such a counter-culture oddball sometimes, a writer, a vegetarian, an animal rights defender, a dog rescuer, a Prius driver, a recycler, and other expensive forms of consciousness-raising pain-in-the-assery. Even in dog training circles, my sport is Tricks. Why can’t I just belong to the Big Crowd? A mere four days unwashed, and I’m already losing heart. Maybe, if I’m truly committed to this cause, I just need the right equipment. When in doubt, go shopping! I got online and ordered the most humane and eco-friendly boar’s bristle brush I could find. I’m excited.
Day 3. Today Alby complimented my hair. The curls have gotten less frizzy, more loopy, it’s true, but at this point, I’m startled by any compliment, because my scalp feels so itchy, and when I’m out in public, I’m self-conscious about the odor. Thank goodness I work from home. My roots look greasy, and I can smell my animal self. Not a bad smell, not a strong smell, just . . . me, the smell my mother washed off me and taught me to wash off myself if I wanted to stay a member of civilization. I asked Alby to smell my head. He smiled at me tenderly and gave me a sniff. “You smell like Lisa,” he said. His eyes actually twinkled. “I like it.” I can’t wait for my brush.
Day 4. My brush is here! I broke it free from its recycled package and brushed and brushed like a madwoman. I love it. We went to the gym, and I had a happy, sweaty spin class, except for worrying that other cyclists could smell me. I took a sweet, long, shower, rinsing and rinsing my hair and trying not to notice I was wasting water with my latest commitment to environmentalism. Afterwards, I gently combed my hair, and now I’m scrunching as it dries. It seems to take an extra long time to dry nowadays. I’m trying to ignore how strange it is to smell like I need a shower after showering.
Day 5. I brushed 100 strokes this morning. Brushing feels so good. The heaviness along my scalp lifts, and the odor dissipates. In fact, I brush my hair a lot now. I brush while doing my makeup. I brush in front of the computer and the TV. My arms are gonna be ripped. But not all is well in No Poo Town. I catch glimpses of my dark roots in the mirror. They look strangely coppery and gleam as if shellacked. In fact, along my scalp my hair feels tacky, waxy, and stiff, no matter how much I brush. What’ll happen when I go for my next highlights? Can you highlight hair without washing it? Must I commit to my natural color now? This is good. I’ve been looking for an excuse to do it. How will I grow it out? Will my odor make my hairdresser gag? The thought shames me, so just now I texted Maxine and apologized profusely for how much I’m going to disgust her when I sit in her chair. I’m thinking I’ll reevaluate the whole highlighting thing with her. Why am I frosting my hair back to its prepubescent color anyway? Aren’t I tired of blonde jokes by now? In the era of #MeToo, which has been long overdue for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, and us, why can’t I just embrace my natural hair color, which surely matches my wrinkles and wattle? Yes, I’m going to be the greasy-haired witchy crone I was meant to be. I will be a curl-girl just like that fabulous NY editor–mature, gorgeous, and odor-free.
Day 6. Maxine replied. Of course she already knows all about the No-Poo Movement. She’s not afraid of a little sebum. She’s a professional, as well as a bad-ass matriarch herself. She said to put oil on the ends of my hair. She also broke the news that yes, if I’m getting a highlight, she’ll have to wash it. I’m starting to feel fond of my hard-won grease helmet. I don’t want her to wash away all I’ve achieved, so I have a decision to make about the highlighting. Going gray seems inevitable, so right. I brushed my hair, broke out my argan oil, rubbed it in, wet my hair, and shaped it. It occurs to me that with this new all-natural regimen, one thing I’m not saving is time.
Day 7. I’m brushing like a maniac. My hair loves it. I’m astonished that I went forty years without brushing. The question is, can I go two years without washing? Yes. Whenever I shower, I rinse well, oil, and shape. I can feel the curls building muscle.
Day 8. My curls are amazing! There’s a little frizz, and the hair feels thick and stiff, waxy near the roots. The odor is mild, but it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t feel clean. Today I haven’t brushed yet because I don’t want to disturb these amazing curls. I’ll brush before bed.
Day 9. I haven’t been out in public for days, (don’t judge–I work from home). Today, though, I went to an orchid show with my friend, and while we were standing in line to enter, I could smell myself. I was afraid she’d think I was becoming the hippie hoarder almost-bag lady she worries is my destiny. While I was explaining myself and she was listening to my latest hare-brained scheme with that familiar bemused and startled look I’m so used to, the women in front of us turned around and chimed in—they were No-Poo sisters! They reassured me that my hair has to “adjust.” It could take 2 to 6 weeks. The waxy feel is normal, they said, but it’ll pass. Here’s the thing: the whole time they talked, full of reassuring experience and science, I couldn’t help but notice–one of them was completely bald.
Day 10. Still waxy, but either the faint scent of wet goat is fading or I’m getting used to it. My hair seems softer, my scalp less dense with grease. After fifty-some years of over-compensating for shampoo, the scalp needs time to settle down and learn to make less oil. It occurs to me that shampooing and conditioning are like replacing breast milk with formula. Hair product manufacturers have created a cultural shame for our natural bodies. We pay them for a product to wash the allegedly embarrassing natural oils from our hair, then pay them for a replacements for those oils in the form of conditioners, which is just like formula manufacturers convincing new mothers that their breast milk is insufficient for their babies. How many bars of soap and gallons of lotion have I smeared all over my body in my lifetime? Surely my skin absorbs the chemicals. What are they doing to me? What do they do to the planet? I remember hearing that the sunscreen we carry on our skin into the ocean is killing marine life and coral reefs. I care. I can’t help it. I’m a biophile. Environmentalism and compassion for animals are the main reason why I’ve been a vegetarian for over thirty years. That’s why I, a distant cousin of Steve McQueen, drive the goddamn slow-poke Prius even though I hate every minute of it. Who am I if I don’t minimize my artificially moisturized and perfumed footprint?
Day 11. Today I feel liberated from consumerism. It’s going on two weeks since I last shampooed. I am triumphant. My curls loop and bounce with their own natural oils. I can hardly keep my hands off them. I’m self-disciplined, conscientious, and free. But I kind of really, really want to wash my hair.
I’m losing my resolve and wondering if there’s some compromise, a product I can use that’s kinder to my body and the planet. At the pharmacy, I asked a clerk for environmentally friendly shampoo, and she led me to shelves marketed toward women of color. There were all these healthy, natural oils and shampoos hiding in plain sight. I’m rather shocked and feeling vaguely disenfranchised, which makes me laugh at stupid myself, but still. All these decades, women of color had the best products for curly hair, and there I was, bopping along under my fair, frizzy mane like the ignorant white chick I am. White women can be so easily duped, so complacent. I’m reminded of signs I saw in DC during the Women’s March: “White Women–WTF?” At the time, I felt satisfied that I was not the target of those signs. I had showed up, I was marching, I was with HER. Why do so many of us white women vote, spend, speak, and act against ourselves, our bodies, our freedoms, our daughters and sisters, our very Mother Earth? Is it because we’ve got our fingers in The Fat Man’s wallet? Then again, I know not all men are to blame. I’ve long suspected that complacent self-indulgence at the expense of others and our own damn good is just human nature. Hey, who knew shampoo ran so deep?
Day 12. Technically two weeks in, I took photos of my hair to mark the occasion. I was horrified. It looks much greasier in photos than in the mirror, but maybe because I can only see it from the front without a camera. Other No Poo-ers recommend shampooing with baking soda and conditioning with apple cider vinegar. I resolved to do this. Later, I realized I’m too lazy. I pulled my greasy hair into a ponytail and hoped no one noticed.
Day 13. My scalp made me feel sweaty and crabby all day. I keep fantasizing about lathering. I brushed my hair 200 strokes and tried not to think about the WWF report that humanity has wiped out 60% of our fellow earthlings. As we watched TV last night, my entire mane subdivided itself into four, thick, and distinct sausage curls. Amazing. Everything felt right between this na-tur-al woman and the world.
Day 14. At breakfast Alby stared at me, and not in a sexy way. I asked him what, and he said he was looking at my hair. He confessed he stopped washing his a couple days ago. He’d even started using my boar’s bristle brush. “It looks like I’m using gel,” he said, as if proud. He has never used gel. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he’s committed–no more carcinogens on his skin, no more toxic chemicals down the drain, no more plastic bottles added to the planet. I love him.
As for my hair, a couple times a day I give it 100 strokes and wet it, and it curls nicely. It’s soft and smooth and no longer tacky, just as the bald woman at the orchid show promised. In fact, sometimes my hair is downright beautiful. Still, I’m hyper aware of the greasy roots and the occasional whiff that telegraphs to innocent bystanders that I’m one of the Great Unwashed. I only have to survive until Saturday, when my head and I will receive Maxine’s professional help. She’ll help me tough it out. The fate of the planet depends on sacrifices like these.
At the gym earlier this evening, Alby’s hair looked sweaty before he even started. When he got in the shower, he said it felt as if he was wearing a swim cap. I confess, I broke down and rubbed a little bar soap on my hands, then tried to massage it through my hair, hoping to alleviate the grease. The soap disappeared like a fart in the wind.
Day 15. I woke up with a robust head of curls, ringlets all over. They’re dense, without volume, but beautiful. Still, the hair on the back of my head feels pasted down. In other news, today Alby got in the shower and washed his hair. He didn’t mean to. He just forgot not to.
Day 16. Well, today I finally took my science project to Maxine’s salon for a professional assessment. My daughter Delaney and I have been seeing her for over fifteen years. Maxine’s ten years older than I am and knows me like a sister. I trust her to know what’s best for me. After examining my hair and scalp, Maxine praised me this way, “It looks healthier.” To her, I guess, follicular health is the only sensible motive to do what I’ve done. Like a little sister, I kept my bigger-than-life-on-Earth ideas to myself. Delaney had come with me, and as I settled in the chair, I asked her point-blank if my head stank. She stuck her nose into my hair exactly as I’d once stuck my nose into the influential editor’s gorgeous curls. My daughter’s report, however, was very different.
“Yup,” she said. “It stinks.”
Maxine said, “Does it smell like a sweaty kid who’s been playing outside all day?”
“Not exactly,” Delaney said.
Maxine took a whiff. “Oh! I know that smell! I can’t think of what it is.”
Delaney said, “Petting zoo?”
Maxine was already mixing the highlight chemicals, and I didn’t have the heart to announce my new resolution to grow out my natural color. I relaxed into the familiar chair and counted my blessings, these good people, this place where I feel at home, these habits that define me for now, this planet of wonder and wickedness, and a spousal salary that let me, a teacher who spent long, strained years barely making it as a single mom, spoil myself today in a hair salon. Maybe I’m getting old, set in my ways, tired. Maybe No Poo isn’t for me, and maybe that’s all right. Maybe I’ll soon discover something or someone, a No Poo mentor, to put me back on the No-Poo path. Whatever the case, I’ll keep seeking, studying, striving to serve what I love. Surely that’s what we all do.
Maxine spent the next two hours applying hundreds of delicate highlights and trying to remember what my odor reminded her of. I spent the two hours bantering with her and secretly reassuring myself I can stop washing my hair anytime I want. I’m not addicted to shampoo. Am I? Granted, I didn’t allow the six weeks for my scalp to “adjust,” but I’ve proven to myself I can do it. At the very least, I’ve rediscovered brushing 100 strokes, and that’ll buy me time between shampoos. Learning to be a better environmentalist isn’t all or nothing. It can’t be, or it’s too hard for most people. It’s something is something. And if you can do something, you can do something more.
Maxine had to shampoo my head twice to get it clean.
The lather was everything I dreamed.
Thanks for reading to the end!