Intertwined in the story of every woman’s life, I am convinced, is her relationship with her hair. I have yet to meet anyone who was entirely happy with hers: It’s always too thick/thin, curly/straight, light/dark, long/short. Hair anxiety covers the generations, the sexes and the races. (Spike Lee has an outrageously funny song about “good and bad hair” in “Jungle Fever,” I recall.) My global observation: Looking into a mirror in a restroom as they wash their hands, women everywhere can’t stop themselves from pulling theirs forward or brushing it back.
In assessing someone, it’s hard to say if hair comes before age, body size and apparel, but it might. Before I could deliver my 92-year-old mother to one of her final doctor appointments, she insisted I comb her hair for her. She was nearly blind by then, and her makeup application was so terrible that I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so sad. But her hair looked good, and so she was satisfied.
The hair care aisles at Wal-Mart and Target are staggering, and they include just the “over-the-counter” products. The stylists at the salon I frequent were all atwitter recently over a new product they called “hair crack” — the latest panacea for all hair ills that cost about as much as several ounces of the real thing.
Alison Lurie, in an article on the Rapunzel myth in The New York Review of Books, says:
Long, thick hair has always been thought beautiful and erotically alluring: artists and writers have celebrated it as the sign of a lush, intensified womanliness. In nineteenth-century America it was a source of pride if you could actually sit on your hair, and to lose it was a disaster: when Jo in Little Women sells her thick chestnut mane it is treated by her family as a kind of minor tragedy. Similarly, in “Rapunzel” and its variants the witch often begins her revenge by violently chopping off the heroine’s long hair.
I wept when I read about Jo cutting her hair, and I remember marveling at all the care Laura and Mary took of their long hair in the Little House on the Prairie books. I held my breath when Laura dared to cut bangs, or a “lunatic fringe” as Pa called it. Laura, not surprisingly, was shortly thereafter on her own, first as a schoolteacher and then as a wife.
But though long, thick hair was often referred to as “woman’s glory,” [Lurie writes] it was also her burden. Washing it, drying it, combing out the tangles, brushing it (fifty to a hundred strokes a day were recommended in ladies’ magazines), plaiting it, pinning it up, and taking it down took a lot of effort. The gifted children’s writer E. Nesbit dramatized this problem in a 1908 fairy tale called “Melisande: or, Long and Short Division,” where the princess’s golden hair grows so fast that she is almost immobilized. The date is significant, since in the early twentieth century many women could and did decide to wear their hair short. This choice, which now seems more or less inconsequential, was seen at the time as a serious, even dangerous sign of sexual freedom and independence—and often criticized as unattractive and unfeminine. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a famous exploration of these issues. (Via.)
One of my first personal acts of adult emancipation was allowing myself to wash my very oily hair every day if I wanted to, a practice Mother scorned. “You’re not washing your hair again, are you?” she yell through the bathroom door. (She only washed hers once a week, when she got it “done.”) It was MY hair, after all.
Was taking control of our own hair a part of growing up, of separating from our parents and their lives and expectations?
In high school, it was all about long hippy hair, the Joni Mitchell-Cher thing. My baby-fine nondescript brown tresses would only get as far as my shoulders and then they would just sort of break and split into nothingness, so I never achieved Seventies hair nirvana. As my long-haired friends moved into college, marriage and motherhood, their hair became shorter and shorter, partly as a nod to fashion and partly out of a need to uncomplicate their lives. Shorter hair seemed to signal that they were serious.
Was cutting our hair part of leaving innocence behind and embracing experience?
After years of unsuccessfully trying to pull of a Farrah Fawcett shag, I joined just about every white person in America and celebrated the civil rights movement by getting a curly perm. I tried for the Julie Christie look in “Heaven Can Wait,” and antique sepia-toned family photos from that era indicate I just about got it right. Growing the perm out, however, proved painful, so I ultimately switched (along with almost everyone else) to a Dorothy Hamel bob. I knew that I was clearly OLD when I decided I didn’t have the time or the hair to manage a “Rachel.” But I am currently sporting a “stacked” bob that gets a lot of its current cachet from Victoria Beckham — who I heard just got extensions because she was tired of everyone trying to look like her. (Poor thing.)
By emulating someone’s hairstyle, are we trying to claim some of her power as well?
This all sounds so trivial, but most women I know spend an inordinate amount of time fussing and fretting over their hair. Every woman has a story about refusing to leave the house because of a bad cut or a terrible perm or a disastrous attempt at color. It’s almost a rite of passage.
What is so powerful about being in control of one’s own hair, of knowing we got it right?
I’m asking these questions because I’m on the cusp of abandoning the whole stupid struggle and getting a VERY short cut that requires very little maintenance. And I’m even considering (GASP) giving up on coloring it as well. I’m just tired of the hassle. But why does it feel like, if I do, I’ll be giving up, giving in, in a word, failing? After all, it’s just hair.
But it’s also more than that, apparently.