Extended

by Lindsay Robertson

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On a 2006 episode of “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon said this:

You could put a long blonde wig on a ferret and it would look like Jessica Simpson.

I’ve thought about and tweeted this line so many times over the years, because in saying it, Tina Fey/Liz Lemon aptly described something every American woman knows about our culture. When it comes to the embodiment of beauty, long blonde hair is the fastest shortcut. And while I used to snicker at the C-list celebs who leaned hard on this method, one day last June, I woke up tired of judging and just wanting to be that ferret. That beautiful, lucky ferret.

Even though it was almost summer, my seasonal depression was still mystifyingly unshakeable, and I was desperate to find the one thing that would magically change my life and make me feel better. Enter: hair extensions.

According to email evidence, on June 10, 2015, I woke up with the idea that the only thing standing between myself and the joie de vivre I’d had just the autumn before was long, flowing, fake blonde hair. After a winter and spring of novelty seeking, trying to break myself out of a rut in more typical ways (doctor visits and blood work, a bucket-list road trip, inspirational podcasts aimed at male wantrepreneurs), I’d run out of ideas and turned to changing my physical appearance as a last resort, and fixing my chin-length, fine, curly/unruly, constantly-frizzy hair seemed like the fastest way to make a big change. (It had already been blonde for many years.) I could go on and on about how unlike me this whole plan was (the fake part more than the impulsive part), and how it mystified everyone in my life who found out about it, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ll own it.

And so it was that after less than an hour of online research and a quick poll of friends over IM (it turns out your friends will ALWAYS give an enthusiastic “Yes!!!” to a Crazy Hair Plan), I found myself at an extensions-only salon in the Flatiron district called RPZL (What “Rapunzel” would be on the NASDAQ), having human hair extensions painfully “clipped in” to my scalp.

Right now, you’re either like “Okay, go on, I guess” or “Clip-ins, are you insane?” So yes, clip-ins, and yes, I was insane. For the uninitiated, I was insane because clip-in hair extensions are extremely temporary. Technically, you’re not even supposed to sleep in them. They’re basically for weddings and other special occasions, or for people who are experts in extension application. But because this establishment offered a service where they would put them back in for you for free (plus tip) any time you wanted, and because I didn’t want to incur the cost, potential hair damage and very long-term commitment of more permanent extensions, somehow I convinced myself that unlike everyone else, I could sleep in them, and also that I would either go back to the Flatiron district three times per week indefinitely, or learn to put them in myself. After all, I had confirmed the existence of (though hadn’t watched) multiple YouTube tutorials! This was a whole new identity I was embarking upon, here, and I was ready to fully commit.

I emerged from the salon after two hours and $250 (the part that I regret the most!) with long, flowing, nearly waist-length beige-blonde mermaid hair. I immediately commenced a selfie photo shoot on the sidewalk outside, texting the photo to the aforementioned friends, who were all equally bemused, mystified, and overwhelmingly interested in this new development.

The next three days were a blur of joy and selfies. What I do know for sure is that, for those three days, I somehow managed to see almost every person I know in the New York metro area. (I know this because, ever since, I’ve often run into people who say upon seeing me, “Oh, what happened to your hair extensions?”) I went to a party and a picnic, where my friends stared at me, befuddled, shaking their heads. I bought all those long-hair accessories previously irrelevant to my life. I had a friend come over and braid it. I even got the extensions lightly cut in a salon for another $70. But mostly during those three days, I did something I didn’t usually do, which was…take selfies. Hundreds of selfies, none of which I posted digitally, because I must have, even in my deluded state, sensed the ridiculousness and temporary nature of The New Me. When I look back at those selfies now, I look so happy in them. “You’re happy because you feel pretty!” one friend said of the selfies, and she was right. (The blonde-wig-on-a-ferret trick was working on me!)

Everything was novel and fun and pretty-feeling until Day 3, when it was time to take the extensions out and wash my real hair. I paced around my living room, trying to pull them out, tears running down my face from the pain (they were REALLY IN THERE), ripping plenty of my real hair out in the process. But I was still hopeful that I could put them back in myself. (The lady at the extension place had, after all, given me a diagram of a human head with little “X”s over the general areas where each clip should go!) But I realized pretty quickly that, (misleading!) YouTube tutorials aside, it is almost impossible to put hair extensions on your own head. And I also knew that I was never going to go to the Flatiron district to get them put back in. I could have gone back and asked for the more expensive permanent extensions, but I thought of the sunk cost fallacy, cut my losses and gave up. I knew it was over. In defeat, exhausted, I texted friends a photo of the extensions in their messy pile on the floor. Just the photo. No text. It was finished.

That was the end of a six-month quest to find a panacea, a search for that magical lifestyle change (paleo?), diagnosis (hypothyroidism?), TED Talk (power poses!), missing nutrient (B12? magnesium?), literal trip (Denver to Santa Fe in a convertible!), metaphorical trip (therapeutic psilocybin in Woodstock), or, of course, purchase (meditation apps, keto test-strips, CRYSTALS) that, once undertaken or bought, was bound to be the One Weird Trick that jiggled my brain’s Etch-A-Sketch and reset me into the perfect being I mistakenly believed I was at some point in the past.

I forgot, as everyone does, and as I will again, that the things that actually work are almost never easy. Actual changes require work and effort and a jolt out of your comfort zone, because your comfort zone is, of course, actually a cauldron that brews unhappiness. None of the self-help books I’ve read say this, but all successful intentional lifestyle changes seem to have one thing in common, even if it’s temporary: unpleasantness. (If they didn’t, we would be doing them already!)

It’s mid-December and I haven’t been depressed since July (knocking wood!), but not because of a magical cure-all. Turns out, I didn’t need any fad diets or trips or purchases or makeovers. I just needed to — take a deep breath and prepare yourself for how much you’re going to hate this — take an indefinite break from alcohol. (Sorry.) The End.

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.