My Failed New Yorker Shouts & Murmur Ideas, Part III: “The End of Shampoo”

I loved this popular satire section of the magazine, so I tried to write some funny satire myself. All my attempts fell flat. Or did they? You decide.

An introductory note: I wrote this one in the form of a high school newspaper article.

“Poopooing Shampoo, Before It Was Cool.”

By Rebecca S. Winfield, Special to the Hartshorne High School Times

“I honestly think in five years people are going to go, ‘Oh God, remember when we used to wash our hair with shampoo?’” says Michael Gordon. ─Wired magazine

Lately, it has become fashionable to give up shampoo. Fast Company’s October article, “The End Of Shampoo? The old lathering hair rinse has a bit of a branding problem,” was one of a series of articles questioning traditional shampoo. Everyone from Marie Claire to Vogue, Wired to Elle have written about the supposedly negative effects of traditional foaming cleansers, and documented the way stylish young skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic are joining what’s called the no-poo movement. But George Wexler, right here in Middleton, New Jersey, did it first.

Wexler, age sixty-seven, last shampooed in 1982. That was the year he spent what he calls “an obscene amount” on a bottle of Redken. He had a bit more hair back then, enough to believe that an expensive, protein-rich formula from “some chichi salon in Midtown” might amplify what luster was left. The price point was so outrageous and his scalp felt so dry that he not only forsook shampoo, he made it his mission to eradicate it from the U.S. “Who needs it?” Wexler told the Hartshorne Times. “It’s garbage.”

After the Redken incident, Wexler transformed his small, carpeted living room into his war room. From a grey upholstered chair, he drafted the failed Prop. 077, prohibiting the sale of shampoo in Middletown. He wrote letters urging city councilmen to protect the public from continued fleecing. He even challenged Congress to start a subcommittee devoted to the “great scourge of the American cosmetics industry.” Between letter writing campaigns and earning a reputation as a loudmouth, he called and sometimes spoke with staff at the FDA, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Monmouth County Pet Council. Although a self-described progressive, Wexler is no friend of the government, and he can’t stand “the over-regulated, helicopter parent nation we have become;” yet he can’t reconcile his voting record with his feelings about hair care. “Regulate it,” he said, “right out of existence.” After retiring from Bay Sand Middle School, he planned to self-publish a book called The Shampoo Fallacy but never found the time. “I have lots of notes,” he said. He spent his days taking his message to the streets. He posted shampoo ingredient lists on light-poles and hung fliers about the dangers of surfactants in churches and McDonald’s bathrooms. The number of rejected op-eds he’s penned could power a blog, if he blogged. “Ah,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “That’s not me.” Now he spends his days at home. He has bad knees.

So, why shampoo? “The surfactants,” he said. “It’s all marketing. What’s so bad about oils? Your body makes them, so now we’re supposed to eradicate them every day? I don’t think so.”

Although his position is outwardly ideological, it does contain a personal component. “I lost my hair in my twenties. I was very young. What can I tell you? Life would’ve been different if I could have styled it differently, if I had Redford’s windswept bangs or Bogie’s quaff. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud how my daughter turned, and I loved my wife. But─” He gestured around the living room’s assortment of orangeish furniture. Lifting his ball cap, he exposed a hairless dome darkened with liver spots. “But hey, with this face, maybe it doesn’t matter.”

If Wexler’s disdain pivots on any social or environmental concerns, it isn’t apparent. Why not rally against something more harmful to society, one wonders, like fracking or hydrogenated oil? “Listen. I grew up using bar soap in a family of five, and I turned out fine.” Shampoo just seems so benign. “To you.”

Does conditioner bother Wexler, too? “What?” He adjusted his hearing aid. “I can’t understand what you’re saying. You young people talk like you have marbles in your mouth.” He stepped closer to study my lips. “Was Henry Kissinger a father of two?” He looked to his daughter Jenna, who joins him every Thursday for lunch. “Is this a joke?” Jenna repeated the question. “Does conditioner bother me, too? Of course not. Why would it? It actually does something. It penetrates the shaft and protects the sebum.” He sat back down in his chair. “That’s not to say it isn’t over-marketed. Where I grew up, nobody had conditioner.”

Jenna rolled her eyes.

Natural oils are one thing, but where does Wexler stand on the issue of sweat? “Sweat? Get serious.”

Jenna looked up from the TV. “Dad, there are shampoos whose pH is the same as our hair’s. They do not dry you out.” He waved her off. “He doesn’t listen.”

“What is she saying?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

Wexler motioned at her with his thumb. “She doesn’t listen.”

Wexler claims to have first noticed his scalp drying in college. He didn’t pay it much attention, but later, after buying the Redken, the severity of the situation became apparent. It happened one fall morning. Wexler was shaving. His wife Betsy was cooking breakfast. Jenna was getting ready for school. That’s when he felt it: The itch. Followed by the flaking. Reading the label on the bottle, he noticed that shampoo was all chemicals and fragrances, manmade compounds that even a high school math teacher couldn’t pronounce. “The only ingredient I recognized was water,” he said. “Why should I pay them for water? We live on the shore.” As an experiment, he washed the family’s dishes with shampoo that morning. The dishes were perfectly clean. “Too clean,” Wexler remembered. He never shampooed again.

“I worked my rear end off to earn that money, and for them to charge that much for what’s no better than a bottle of Palmolive? It’s highway robbery.” Jenna left the room to get a soda.

As the shampooed dishes dried that morning in 1982, Wexler instituted a policy: No more shampoo in the house, but he couldn’t ban it from their lives. Betsy kept bottles of Paul Mitchell awapuhi at her office, washing her hair before work, then dabbing her scalp with cooking oil at night to cover her tracks. Jenna sulked and her grades suffered. After kids started making fun of her for having so-called “gross hair,” Wexler consented that his rule was draconian, and that the two could make their own decisions. “If they wanted to ruin their heads,” he said, “fine. That was their prerogative. Unlike the government, I’m not in the business of telling people what to do!”

While he personally uses a homemade proprietary blend of essential oils and plant extracts from a recipe he found on the internet, Betsy used Prell till the day she died two years ago. Jenna still uses conventional shampoos, the names of which Wexler asked she not disclose.

Jenna refused to speak at length for this article, though she went on record saying, “I’ve tried his natural ‘alternative.’ It doesn’t work on my hair.” She turned to face him. He was scowling. “What, Dad? Don’t look at me like that. It’s just what I think.”

He brushed crumbs from his lap and leaned back in his chair. “Listen. It’s called shampoo for a reason. The name contains the word ‘sham,’ as in scam, snake-oil, rip-off, and ‘poo,’ as in feces. Human waste. The name literally means ‘fake feces.’ Who would want fake feces? Nobody even wants the real thing. Am I the only one who sees this?”

The word ‘shampoo’ entered the English language from Hindi in 1762, though the practice of cleansing one’s hair dates back to time immemorial. History won’t satisfy Wexler. He wants shampoo eradicated now. “Worse,” he said. “I want blood.” But once he gets blood, how will he wash it out of his hair? He smiled. “It will be my trophy.”

Wexler read Fast Company‘s article “The End Of Shampoo?” “Kind of a fluff piece for this Michael Gordon guy’s brand,” he told this reporter, “though I agreed with the premise.” So what does Wexler think about people like Gordon who believe that the end of shampoo is near? He straightened his back. “Not near enough.”

Written by

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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