I didn’t start putting styling products in my hair until the summer after my freshman year of college. The next summer I came out of the closet. Make of that what you will.
Despite my hair’s gel-free condition in high school, a classmate we’ll call Elizabeth (not her real name) did turn to me one day in 9th-grade geometry and loudly say, “Do you put a lot of stuff in your hair or just never wash it to get it that greasy?”
That’s far from the sickest burn I’ve ever received. But it was the way she said it—with a self-delighted, almost out-of-breath excitement, with the adrenaline clearly pumping, as though she was super-stoked about the chance to hurt my feelings—that made me blush to the roots of my apparently disgusting hair.
Shortly after high school, Elizabeth married a guy who was in the grade ahead of us and just as mean as she was. Which I thought was kind of sweet. I imagine the two of them lounging in their villains’ lair together, saying stuff like, “Dearest, shall we spend the evening ripping the wings off butterflies for sport?” How nice to find someone who shares not only your interests but also your lack of values.
The first head goop I used was a clear, slimy substance that was supposed to freeze my hair in a state of artful messiness. This was during that momentous summer before my sophomore year of college. Up until then, my hair had swooped across my forehead from a side part. With my oversize noggin, I looked something like a teenage Garrison Keillor.
But somewhere around my 19th birthday, I finally forsook the barber of my childhood—a gloomy, taciturn figure named Dave, who could make Eeyore look like Kathie Lee Gifford—and got myself a shorter, more youthful ‘do that was, as I mentioned, frozen in a state of artful messiness by my newly acquired pomade.
This was an era of restless searching, however, so I soon wandered into Art + Science, a salon in Evanston, Illinois, where I attended Northwestern. I was assigned a stylist whose ambitious approach colluded with my weak will to result in several ill-advised looks, including a bowl cut and a shaggy near-mullet that could have been an homage to Carol Brady.
This stylist was strongly opposed to pomade. On her orders, I switched to a thick, white gunk—softer than Spackle but harder than mayonnaise—designed to give hair texture and shape while retaining movement. The white gunk doesn’t prevent you from combing your fingers through your hair, whereas pomade tends to create sticky, brittle spikes that entangle your fingers in an artfully messy briar patch.
I have used some version of the white stuff ever since my Art + Science days. From salon to salon, there are variations across hair-care lines with regard to recipe, consistency, and labeling—sometimes it’s a “clay,” sometimes a “paste,” and still other times it’s “hair guacamole.” But it’s basically the same gunk. The kind currently in my bathroom is an Aveda product.
Okay, fine, I made up “hair guacamole.”
Incidentally, I just looked up mean ol’ Elizabeth on social media. I gather that she’s still married to that guy who was in the grade ahead of us, and you’re not gonna believe this, but in the recent photos that Elizabeth has posted, he has very carefully styled hair.
It’s the no-touch, brittle sort stuck in immovable, gravity-defying configurations. Appears to have been shaped with pomade.