Mirror, Mirror: I Stopped Using Shampoo

A little over a month ago, I stopped using shampoo. And, speaking as someone who has clearly never been in serious bodily danger, it felt like I was being very brave. Just a couple days, I told myself reassuringly. And then, when you look like a horrifying ball of dripping grease, you can do the rational thing and return to the sweet comfort of purifying chemicals and delectable fragrances. Because that is totally how I think of shampoo, when pondering its many virtues alone in the shower.

Honestly, I’m not sure what motivated me to attempt this reckless experiment. An article about the mountaineers who have scaled Everest’s ferocious flanks? That documentary on Netflix about the dude who illegally, triumphantly walked the high wire between the former World Trade Center buildings? Maybe just a quiet, deep-rooted sense of “now or never.”

But seriously, it was weird, considering my history with my hair. Which I am going to tell you. And as I tell you, please know that I am intensely aware of the fact that my last piece for this column was a critique of the phrase “first world problems.” This whole piece might fit into that phrase very neatly. But I am writing it anyway, because you have to hear the truth. Because I have to tell it.

I did not ever want to be someone who cared about her hair. I picture myself as a kind of fiery, absentminded librarian-to-the-dragon-king type. You know, a Cimorene from Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Cimorene didn’t care about her hair, she was too busy running away from home to have awesome adventures, while her silly sisters fussed in front of the mirror, prettying themselves for visiting princes. The thing is, Cimorene had naturally fantastic hair. Those fantasy heroine’s, no matter how adorably tom-boyish, always do.

It also turns out that I might be, disappointingly, nicer than I am fiery. But that’s another thing.

My hair and I have a long and tangled history. Literally. When I was a little kid, I sometimes cried as my mom combed the vicious knots out of it. It took forever. I grew it down to my waist as a teenager, and later walked into a barber shop and asked for a buzz cut. My hair and I tend not to get along—you could say we have a kind of persistent, bitter rivalry going.

Part of the reason is that it can never make up its mind. It doesn’t fit any of the familiar categories. It’s not straight and not curly. It’s sort of wavy, but sometimes with distinct curls and also with very straight sections. It gets creative with cowlicks. It was very thick for a long time until one day it thinned dramatically (it turned out that I was very anemic at the time, but even after my iron levels were back to normal, my hair stayed fine and soft). It is even an indeterminate color—a shade of brown that sometimes looks dark and sometimes light. It’s obnoxious. It’s unpredictable. I never know what to do with it, and it makes me nervous. After all these years of living with my hair, I still feel suspicious, wary, unsure of what will happen next. I am still a novice. Which is why, I think, I get sort of superstitious sometimes. I get dependent on hair products when one of them seems to for just one blessed day coax my hair into looking nice. I start to believe that this exact kind of shampoo followed by that precise amount and type of conditioner is the only thing between me and the devastating certainty that I have the worst hair a woman has ever had.

I have been known to pour just enough of my special shampoo into a little bottle, like some sort of magical elixir of good fortune and youth, and take it along with me on a trip, in case the hotel shampoo is too unfamiliar-smelling and unhelpfully composed. It felt like a risk, gingerly applying the guest shampoo in my mother-in-law’s guest bathroom. My mind was whirring, trying frantically to calculate the humidity and conducting cost/benefit analysis concerning the different settings on the blow dryer. Or no dryer at all?

And then my mother-in-law’s shampoo seemed to work wonders—or maybe it was the humidity? And I rushed out and bought a bottle for myself, for home, and I used it for a year, as a precaution, even though it was no longer clear that it was doing what it did that one, glorious day. Just in case another brand would make things that much worse.

The day after I stopped using shampoo, I thought that I was the butt of some cosmic joke. The cosmos, having a slower day, fewer exploding stars and stuff, must be sitting around laughing to itself about my hair. Because it looked really good. Sort of wild and springy, the way I like it best, because it looks most like fantasy heroine hair when it does that. This couldn’t be right.

Days went by. My hair was hydrated, full, and, if I do say so myself, quite adorable. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I went through several reactionary stages. Disbelief, joy, apprehension, and then a pure, burning indignation. Psychologists, take notes. How could this be? I thought. How could I have spent so much money on shampoo over the years? How could I have believed myself to be so dependent on it? How could we all be led to believe that we desperately need these products to make us clean and presentable and fit to participate in civilized society, when, in fact, they might be nothing more than a coconut-scented illusion?!

A primal scream erupted from my lips as I knelt there, naked, on the floor of the shower, water streaming down my face, my arms raised in sinewy defiance (in this image, my arms have to be sinewy-it’s important).

No. No. I didn’t get down on my knees in the shower. But I stood there, brow probably furrowed, scowling as I rinsed out my hair with some regular old water until it didn’t feel very greasy anymore. I felt as though I’d been deceived. I felt lame for not trying something like this until now.

And now, a little over a month since I last used shampoo, I am still sort of surprised that this is a secret. My hair hasn’t actually become fantastic, dragon-taming, royal-library-cataloguing hair. It honestly doesn’t look incredibly different from before. It’s just a little healthier and fuller, and a little better moisturized. It feels nicer to touch, in my opinion, and it doesn’t smell perfumed. It doesn’t really smell like anything.

I can’t go so far as to say that my hair and I have become friends. We’re on decent terms, and that’s fine for now. But my new no-shampoo lifestyle has definitely raised some questions for me about the products that I grew up thinking were absolutely, critically necessary, and the ways that we all become almost superstitious about our beauty and personal-care routines. I don’t know if everyone else’s hair would respond as favorably as mine to forgoing shampoo—maybe not. But it definitely seems worth giving it a shot, based on my experience. It definitely seems like there’s a chance we’ve all been taken for some kind of cruel, sudsy, coconut-smelling ride.

And just like a rebel princess who faces down dragons without blinking, I am willing to be the one to step into the wilderness of the unknown, wild-haired, brave-hearted, without even a single 3 oz. travel-sized bottle of comfort shampoo tucked into my gown.

Fairest shmairest! Let’s get real about beauty and body image. Mirror, Mirror is a column running every other week on The Frisky. It is written by Brooklyn-based columnist, freelance writer, and bagel enthusiast, Kate Fridkis who also writes the blog Eat the Damn Cake. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatthedamncake.

[Shampoo photo from Shutterstock]