H-Town Diary

After Years, Learning to Let Go of Dallas’ Sky-High Beauty Standards

I am from Dallas. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston that I learned what that means.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen February 8, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

"I like that you don’t do anything about your gray hair,” a date once told me. “It means you’re pretty low-maintenance.”

For the record, I do not have gray hair. I have gray hairs, just a few, scattered along my part and around my temples. But this, ahem, compliment was disconcerting. Should I color my hair? How could I get rid of said grays while holding on to the illusion that I’m the kind of girl who couldn’t possibly care that her date just called her out for a lack of follicular maintenance? 

In the end, the dye was already cast. I am not, and never have been, low-maintenance. No one who knows me could ever think otherwise. The reason for this is simple: I am from Dallas. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston that I learned what that means. 

As a teenager, my mother would often tell me that growing up meant leaving the house without imagining that everyone is looking at me. (By that metric, the entire DFW metropolitan area is full of aging adolescents.) Even in my thoroughly middle-class suburb, dressing to impress was not so much a mantra as an unquestioned way of life. Unquestioned by all but my mother, who, it should be noted, is from Ft. Worth.

Pretty is a set of skills and priorities, and no city works harder at looking good than Dallas. In the mind of a native, an outfit should be flawlessly on-trend and preferably new; jewelry and high heels are expected, if not required; hair should not only be voluminous but also long, shiny, highlighted (no roots, obviously) with just a hint of curl so that your tresses bounce beguilingly when you move. The philosophy is that only one’s closest friends and family should ever suspect that you don’t wake up with smoky eyes, arched brows and cheekbones defined with a subtle flush of Desert Rose. For me, it also means nail polish complementing my shoes, and the word "religious" applying primarily to my fervor for Aveda’s thickening hair potion and mascara by Christian Dior. 

All this work is actually freeing in its own convoluted way. Beauty may be something you’re born with, but anyone willing to put in the time can be done up, and that’s the next closest thing. Even Norma Jeane Mortenson needed a bottle of peroxide and the perfect red lip to become Marilyn Monroe. 

In the real world this addiction is a liability. Bosses give me the side-eye when I walk in late but with perfectly winged eyeliner. I have to time my primping carefully to avoid knocking out the power with my professional-strength hair dryer. The first fight I had with my boyfriend erupted after I made him wait two hours while I got ready. Apparently that’s frowned upon in Houston.

Even after a decade here, I’m still learning to let go of my entrenched Dallas beauty regimen. As a freshman at Rice, where dressing fancy meant wearing jeans to class instead of pajama bottoms, I amused my roommate, a Houstonian, by waking up early twice a week to wash and then painstakingly blow out my long, thick hair, after which I slowly straightened each strand into submission with a round brush as I stood half-naked in the shared bathroom for almost an hour. 

“One day, can you just let your hair air-dry?” she asked me towards the end of the spring semester. “I want to see what it looks like.”

Having no doubt assumed the magnitude of the effort meant that I was hiding something truly hideous, like a perm, she must have been disappointed by the big reveal. My hair was flatter and slightly wavy but looked basically the same.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York post-college that I realized how deep my issues went. Commuting to work on winter mornings, I would scan subway cars, mentally ranking each woman’s coat, boots and purses, inwardly berating myself when my own garments failed to make the top three. Even a casual stroll to the corner bodega required a fully made-up face (albeit one carefully concocted to appear as if I were wearing no make-up whatsoever), as well as the perfect, studiously casual, I’m-just-headed-to-the-bodega outfit. 

It was exhausting. 

It was New York that first broke me, forcing me into flats because I couldn’t afford cabs and couldn’t deal with the blisters from walking across town in heels. Living in the city offered a daily reminder that when co-existing with models, celebrities, and crazy people, there is no way that the average aspiring writer is going to leave a strong visual impression. 

But it was Houston that really taught me to relax. It’s not that the women here don’t go out looking good; they do. Houstonians just aren’t as intense about it. If the air in Dallas is full of a strangling pressure to look perfect, here it’s replaced by a cloud of humidity (which is going to ruin your blowout anyways, so why bother?). Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally reached the mental age of majority, but what’s so bad about rumpled, slightly wavy hair anyway? 

Still, the grays are distressing. On a bad day I’ll spend an ungodly amount of time leaning into the bathroom mirror, hunting them down one by one and plucking them temporarily out of existence. Most of the time I just pretend they are platinum highlights though. I think my inner Dallas girl approves. 

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