The Higher The Hair, The Closer to Heaven: A Story Of My Grandmother's Iconic Bouffant

Thanks to a lot of Aquanet, my grandmother's hairdo lives large in my memory.

A Southern family's Easter morning picture from the 1960s
My grandmother, far right, with her classic 1960s bouffant. Photo:

Josh Miller

My grandmother’s bouffant is legendary in my living memory. I can’t give you a concrete amount of how much hairspray was required for each fixing, but let’s just say that she used so much Aquanet that Sunday morning breakfast required a hazmat suit.

I remember the first time I saw my grandmother with her hair down. I say “down,” but it was anything but. I was 5 years old, and had walked back to her bedroom to ask her a question. She was bent over, combing it out, and stood up to answer me—and her hair stood up with her! To this day, this is what I swear I saw…

A woman with tall hair (the bride of Frankenstein) holding hands with Frankenstein from the 1935 film, Bride of Frankenstein
I'm going to have to answer to my grandmother for this photo choice one day.

Getty Images

I remember being absolutely shocked. I’d never seen her unkempt; her hair was always perfectly fluffed, pinned, and sprayed into utter submission, due in part to her generous hand with the Aquanet. But that morning, it was almost electric— a wild, gravity-defying creature. I honestly think I ran out of the room.

There’s really no telling who was the first person to say, “the higher the hair, the closer to God,” and there’s no shortage of Southerners who have embodied that maxim at one point in their lives. From groovy beehives in the 1960s to pageant queens in the 1980s to every teenage girl in a 1990s mall photo boutique, volume—like bangs—seems to be an inevitable stopping point in the life cycle of a woman’s hair. And for some, like the South’s crown princess Dolly Parton, it’s a permanent state.

Portrait Of Dolly Parton
Big hair is no phase for Queen Dolly. Paul Natkin/Getty Images

In my lifetime, my grandmother gave up her bouffant just twice; once voluntarily, for a jaunty, short-lived, shoulder-length perm, then finally for a more manageable ‘do that didn’t require a half can of Aquanet and a quarter-pound of bobby pins. Not to get all sad on you, but sometimes I feel that some of my grandmother’s vitality, like the biblical Samson, was lost with her locks. 

Three Southern women with big hair
My grandmother in 1987, flanked by my mom on the left and my aunt on the right.

Josh Miller

Despite her evolving hairdos over the years, when I close my eyes and remember my grandmother, I immediately picture that tightly bound beehive topping her head like a silver crown, her sweet eyes squinted in a smile just beneath. What I’d give for one more hug from her, to feel her head against my chest, to hear the slight crunch of her hair, to catch the sweet, sharp scent of Aquanet as I hold her tight. One of these days, May-May. One of these days.

A stately Southern woman in the stands at a baseball game
This blurry snapshot of my grandmother always makes me smile.

Josh Miller

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