“My mother thinks Mick Jagger is a foreign car.” So says my notebook from 10th grade. My real adolescence took place in the 1970s, but like many others I prefer to say I grew up in the ‘60s. Because I was born in 1957, it’s sort of a lie.
But the ‘60s were still washing up on the shores of the ‘70s.
I longed to claim the ‘60s’ insurgent intelligence and its radical reconstruction of cultural norms (not to mention the Summer of Love) but instead had to settle for the ‘70s’ Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the rise of the Moral Majority and Love’s Baby Soft cologne.
The ‘60s had edge; the ‘70s had embroidery. The ‘60s had Bobby Seale; the ‘70s had Bobby Sherman. The ‘60s carved its place in history; the ‘70s used a ditto machine.
Perhaps the world was less fraught – the war in Vietnam took fewer American lives, Watergate removed Richard Nixon from office and women were refusing to accept that the only place for them in political movements was on their backs.
But for kids like us – and for our families – the big world seemed far away. Mick Jagger might as well have been a foreign car.
I recorded everything in my composition notebooks: Herbal Essence shampoo’s vow to whisk me away to a “garden of earthly delights,” poems by Sylvia Plath, and lyrics by John Denver, Carole King, Janis Joplin and Lou Reed (I was attracted to the wild side but not ready walk on it).
The 1970s were as striated as a tequila sunrise.
My friend Ines, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and I were reminiscing about what a long way we’d come, baby, when she asked, “Do you remember sleeping on orange juice cans to straighten our hair?”
I thought how it sounded like a weird ritual from an ancient and savage tribe: “To beautify themselves, nubile maidens were instructed to rest their heads on beverage containers.”
We only did it for special occasions.
Before my yearbook picture, for example, I went to bed with cans on my head. My hair looked terrific. But I also have the drained expression of a detainee on “Lockup: Extended Stay” because I hadn’t slept in 28 hours.
Boys did nothing to prepare themselves except brush their teeth and splash themselves with their dad’s Old Spice, English Leather or Jade East. (Every man’s fragrance had to have a double-barreled name for extra masculinity.)
Brilliant, talented and accomplished Ines followed up her question about the cans by asking me this: “How about the head wrap? Remember when we used our own heads as one giant roller? Many bobby pins were involved.”
And there it was, the motto for our era: “The 1970s, when we used our own heads as one giant roller.”
Personal struggles were slightly political: Tampons became widely available but, as my friend Marti reminded me, girls were warned away from them by our moms. Many of these women, raised in an even more repressive era, were worried that their daughters would lose their virginity to a Pursette.
I remember reading instruction manuals explaining how to use tampons. The prose said something like “Raise your left knee to the height of your right shoulder and, while remaining relaxed, keep your feet apart and pull your right elbow back …” It was like doing the hokey-pokey, except it was for your period.
We wore hideously patterned Huk-A-Poo shirts. These synthetic garments had patterns so loud they could be heard over the roar of a 1972 Camaro and they were just as subtle.
Coveting them but realizing I could never afford them, I hit the thrift shops in rebellion.
As a result, in 1972 I was the best-dressed woman of 1948.
I once wore a postwar red silk dress so tight I couldn’t sit for fear of splitting the seams. I leaned against the walls of the classroom all day like some louche figure out of a Hopper painting to the hilarity of my classmates.
In speaking with Ines, I realized what mattered wasn’t that we’d come a long way, but that we could circle back and retrieve what mattered.
That, and the fact that even without cans, we still have great hair.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.