I remember the first time I flat ironed my hair the way some people remember their first drink—it was that whole I-know-this-is-wrong-but-it-feels-so-right thing. It was 2001, I was 13, and the era of Britney, Jennifer Lopez, and Tara Reid's flat, shiny, overworked and impossibly cool hair was reaching its apex.
So it’s the last day of sixth grade. I’m at a friend’s house getting ready for the first party of the summer, and watching Save The Last Dance, as one does. It’s a house party, my crush is going to be there, and I’m wearing a turquoise halter top. It all feels very adult. My friend offers to straighten my hair.
Up until this moment, I had simply dealt with my indecisive collective of waves and curls by binding them aggressively with a hair tie or occasionally mustering the courage to tame my frizz with the blow dryer/round brush method. But straightening was a different animal entirely. The straightener (a metal, Hot Tools appliance) promised to deliver not just less wavy, but stick straight hair. My friend pulls the iron from roots to ends, and I watch in awe as I am transformed into a real life teenager. I had literally never felt cooler.
Fast-forward to the present, and I would definitely refer to myself as a bonafide flat iron expert; a veteran, if you will. Don’t mistake this as bragging, because I am not proud. I did untold damage to my hair (not to mention my psyche) for over a decade. I spent most of that period convinced that, unlike all other humans, my hair just didn’t grow. And that it had nothing to do with my straightener’s 428° plates.
If I'm doing the math, and I am, that's nearly half of my life spent under a parched sheet of permanent split ends. Straightening had become a habit, that, thanks to the "Embrace Your Natural Texture!" movement of the past few years, I nearly kicked. But just when I thought I would never look back, Spring 2014 came rolling in with its cadre of sleek-haired editors, actresses, and models, and not an ounce of blowout body or bounce—the kind of flat that only an iron can produce. Elizabeth Olsen's boasting curve-less silken lengths for the Miu Miu campaign and for life in general, Kate Moss the Younger (a.k.a. Lottie) made her modeling debut with stick-straight plates of hair, and Eva Chen’s tenure at Lucky has been rife with an iron-leveled, chin-swinging coif that gives her penchant for girly skirts the air of a woman in leather pants. That, my friends, is the flat iron effect. And it's everywhere.
If you’re eager to follow suit, take a moment and heed my words. The first being ceramic. I don’t even know if metal-plated irons are sold anymore, but they should be illegal. Avoid anything that is labeled “wet-to-dry.” Let common sense be your guide, i.e.: lowest possible temperature setting. I realize it’s tempting to crank that baby up and watch the magic happen, but taking it low and slow prevents you from burning off the ends of your hair. Small sections, low heat, happy camper.
Which brings me to heat protectants—you need them. My go-to spray is Bumble & bumble Styling Lotion. It provides volume, hold, and a thin coat of heat armor, and has a non-aggressive, clean smell. And when my exhausted lengths are really feeling the heat, I reach for Kérastase Nutritive Nectar Thermique. It leaves my hair unbelievably soft, making it feel and look healthy despite the fiery flat iron hell it's living in.
Whatever heat guard you use, be judicious and disperse evenly—if you put too much product in your hair while it's wet, all your ironing efforts will be for naught. My guilt surrounding the use of heated tools makes it impossible for me to employ them in tandem and feel OK about it. As such, I always let my hair air dry before I straighten. If you need to blow dry first (places to be, etc.), spray or rub a bit more protectant into your hair just before ironing.
To finish off your newfound sleekness, oils are a worthwhile investment, as you essentially just cooked the naturally-occurring ones out of your hair. Shu Uemura Essence Absolue is my favorite hair product of all time. I’ve run the oil gamut, from earth-grown coconut to manufactured Moroccan, and Shu always wins. A little goes a long way (a bonus since it’s relatively pricey), but you can also apply enough for Cousin It onto just your ends and it will absorb completely without weighing them down.
Now prolong the final product by skipping the shower (less washing, less ironing, less damage). Psssssst! Dry Shampoo has yet to disappoint me; I always get excited about no-frills products that actually work. It’s super cheap, smells like baby powder, and has been successfully feigning hygiene for the Van Paris women for generations.
Admittedly, the resurgence of ironed maidens has tempted me to reignite my old flat iron flame. We were, after all, in the longest committed relationship of my life; it’s only natural to crave the familiarity. I love my iron, but I have to remind myself that I love me more. I'm going to continue to get to know my awkward waves—though sometimes clumsy, embarrassing, and not always cool, they’re mine. It's the healthy, responsible choice. But I certainly won't be slut-shaming you for having any trysts with the ol' straightener. Just try to iron responsibly.
—Calin Van Paris
Calin Van Paris is a writer and product junkie based in the San Francisco Bay Area.