sleeping in curlersI’m a finicky sleeper. The least bit of noise or discomfort keeps me awake-  feeling too hot, someone snoring, or a pillow that doesn’t have quite the right loft.

But a memory that came to me the other day—that in seventh grade I sometimes went to bed with rollers in my hair—challenges the story I usually tell about myself, namely, that my trouble sleeping began in adolescence.

I, the queen of bedtime fussiness, was once able to sleep wearing the equivalent of a female crown of thorns? I’m not talking about foam curlers. I’m talking about brush rollers with plastic bristles that dug into my scalp. Was this the same me?

“Beauty knows no pain,” my husband says when he hears of people undergoing liposuction or repeated plastic surgeries, and this is the only explanation I have for what I did. I thought curls would make me more attractive. And what’s a little discomfort when youth and resilience are on your side?

The amazing thing is that I really was able to sleep. Sure, I remember tensing up every time I shifted my position, assailed by a hundred jabbing pricks in the head. But I learned quickly not to move, to behave as though my head were in a vise. And eventually I drifted off.

A Change in Perspective

This memory gives me a new perspective on sleep practices I’ve heard about in other cultures, practices I once dismissed as impossible for a person as sleep-challenged as me.

Take, for instance, the Japanese takamakura—the “tall pillow” a geisha slept on to preserve her fancy hairdo. The takamakura, Arthur Golden has written in Memoirs of a Geisha, is “not so much a pillow as a cradle for the base of the neck. Most are padded with a bag of wheat chaff, but still they’re not much better than putting your neck on a stone.”

Hardly a setup for a comfy night’s sleep. Yet if bad hair days were not an option for the geisha, neither were puffiness and dark circles under the eyes. Despite the discomfort of sleeping on a takamakura, she must have slept.

Harder Than Wheat Chaff

And how to account for the popularity of the wooden headrests used as pillows for centuries throughout Africa? In the past, the main use of headrests in East Africa was to support and protect the typically elaborate headdresses and hairstyles, according to the website of The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K.

Big hair was a sign of status, particularly in pastoral cultures, and something was needed to preserve this asset through the night. Harsh though it may sound to us, the wooden headrest fit the bill.

Score another point for vanity. And this time we’re talking about men.

Hardest of the Hard

But nothing makes me more grateful for my polyester-filled Posturepedic pillow than the sight of the ceramic pillows that were fashionable in China during the Ming dynasty. Made of stoneware or porcelain, these pillows were essential bedroom accessories for women of the upper class.

One of their functions was to protect users’ elaborate coifs. But the 16th century writer GaoLian claimed that porcelain pillows had health benefits as well, both physical and spiritual. “Porcelain,” he wrote, “has power to brighten the eyes and benefit the pupils,” and to elevate the quality of dreams.

Our capacity to endure pain for the sake of beauty may be practically limitless—and our ability to sleep greater than we imagine—but hard pillows have mostly gone the way of the straw mattress. No doubt we all sleep better as a result.

As for brush rollers, I don’t see them much except in hair salons these days. Praise God for permanent waves.

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