Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I discovered John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease the very first week I lived in the United States. I was 11 years old, armed with an old copy of YM and enamored with everything that the US had to offer.
I’d never seen so many gorgeous advertisements in my life. The page that Frizz-Ease occupied showed the same blonde girl with three different hairstyles. In the first, she had snarled, tangled hair of mermaid length and a displeased pout on her face. In the second she had shiny, tight ringlets and a happier disposition. In the last, her hair was sleek and straight, her chin angled so that everything about her seemed feline, imbued with a sexual power that I could recognize even if I could not yet identify. I ripped the page out of the magazine, taking the advertisement with me when we moved into our first house in Houston. I looked for the product in the aisles of the Walmart where my parents perused towels and pillowcases. I looked for the product at Eckerds, where we went to develop camera film. I looked for the product in the Sally’s Beauty Supply I forced my mother to take me to, finally finding the slim bottle wedged between hairspray and mousse.
The next day, after my shower, I emptied half of the bottle into my palm and drenched my hair. It retained a kind of oily glossiness for the remainder of the day, and every time I raked my fingers through it, my palms ended up sticky. I did not magically transform into the confident woman in the magazine advertisement; if nothing else, I looked like I hadn’t washed my hair in weeks. I stopped using Frizz-Ease the next day, continuing to tie my hair into a neat ponytail. In Karachi, Pakistan, where I had lived previously, I wore a school uniform, and all of the other girls had similarly unimpressive hair. The sixth-grade girls in my new city came to school wearing makeup with their hair straightened or curled every morning. Frizz-Ease did not make me any more like them.
Later that year, less than six months after we moved to the United States, I convinced my mother to let me chop off my long, thick black hair. I was aiming for the same haircut as my mother, who I thought was the most beautiful woman in the world despite the fact that she wore her hair cropped close to her head. Unfortunately, we had very different types of hair; hers was straighter, thinner, the kind of hair that no one would describe as full, poofy, or large — all words people had used to describe mine. On my mother, the cut elongated her neck, making her look graceful like a swan when she moved her head in certain ways. On me, the haircut resembled the top of a lopsided apple. I immediately regretted the decision, wishing it would grow out; I even soaked pencil shavings in water and left them under my pillowcase after a website told me this would make my hair grow faster. In the months following, I would often unfold the John Frieda advertisement and stare at the woman in the photographs.
When I’d first seen the ad, I didn’t yet have the critical thinking to know that a purchasable product could not transform my hair into the woman in the photograph. The more time I spent in the US, the more savvy I became about false advertising. I no longer believed in the magical properties of Frizz-Ease, but I did still believe that if I could have perfect, shiny hair, most of my problems would disappear.
A year and a half after living in the United States, my hair finally grew enough to skim my shoulders again, falling in a straight curtain that expanded into a trapezoid the further it moved down my neck. My mother explained that I needed a trim and took to me to a high-end salon for a haircut. I was almost 13, and this was the most adult thing my mother and I had done together. Over the course of the year, both she and I had realized just how unprepared we were to navigate a Texas middle school where girls shaved their legs, wore mascara, and cared about getting tans. She had never been particularly image-conscious and struggled with a daughter who wanted to keep altering how she looked. Most of our fights revolved around her inability to understand how much it mattered that I looked different from everyone else.
The salon was a compromise. My mother had come to the realization that she had no idea how to manage my hair, which was markedly different from her own. As the stylist parted and re-parted my wet hair, feathering its ends to add texture, my mother asked her questions, trying to learn how to help me. As the stylist answered her patiently, she squeezed a nickel-sized amount of John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease into her palm. “The silicone coats the hair,” she explained, “and this prevents the hair’s cuticle from puffing up in Houston’s humidity.”
I walked out of the salon after my first blow-dry with hair that looked remarkably close to the sleek, straight hair of the model in that photograph. That night, I stood in front of my mirror shaking my head, watching as my hair swished around me. I felt like a supermodel.
Frizz-Ease didn’t immediately change my relationship with my hair, but it did give me a necessary first step to understanding how my hair worked. Even today, without it, my hair inevitably poofs around my face, losing most of its structure. In the last 10 years, I’ve attempted to change serums, trying both cheaper and more expensive items with vastly disappointing results. John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease is still my desert-island item — I can live without eyeliner, mascara, even a comfortable bra, but this bottle comes with me wherever I go.