My almost-twenty year old granddaughter sports a mane of ebony black hair though she was born with blond fluff that became a thick honey blonde. (See above, middle: she’s nine, at play) I bit my tongue when she first dyed it–glowing pink. Then blue tips on blond then beachy blond and stawberry blond and finally to blue-black and blacker. It has remained the latter for perhaps four years. I don’t ask about it; I tell her she is lovely– as she is, body and soul. But sometimes I long to see her real hair color again–whatever that is. Will it tend toward her mother’s, her grandmothers’ (I’m at right from last year in a shot for my friend, who gave me that delightful shamrock plant) and great-grandmothers’ (her paternal grandmother, my mom, above left, is about 28) hair color–all wearing a spectrum of auburn to chestnut to walnut brown full-bodied hair? Maybe that will come to be. But it’s her head of hair, not mine, and she’s growing into an adult whose crowning glory means something particular– to her. The style will evolve as she does; who knows where her journey will take her?
I get it, though. One reason I never criticize her dyeing sprees–or in the past, my four daughters’ and a son’s– is that I sure wasn’t immune to hair dye. I once tried a rich black-brown in junior high (now called middle school) and somehow it transformed into a muddy green horror. It even cast its ugliness onto my skin. I didn’t return to school until a stylist corrected the mess. I tearfully begged for my natural color’s retoration. She came close, yet it all was a disappointment. My first spontaneous experiment–and pushing against our cultural norms– met with hideous results.
Back in my earliest teen years I’d suffered with bristly rollers overnight or weird foam ones that left me in ringlets until I brushed hard, patted and plumped. I thus achieved a “bubble bob” cut at earlobes or jawline, or a puffy longer bob if it had somehow grown out some. That style required lacquering in place with many spurts of hairspray. It was the cool thing to do, so middle class WASP; we all looked alike–and dressed in matching skirt and sweater outfits with complementary Capezio flats. I got tired of enduring it all by 15 and found it singularly uninspiring. I was a diehard romantic, a poet and musician, not a sheep. And I loved being outdoors. I suited myself and let things go natural, bangs growing out so they formed a short curtain over my eyes. I was forever being nagged to push them off my brows or chop them off or I’d end up going blind, according to Mom. I left them as they were, the better to glower surreptitiously, and to observe…and hide a bit. But I liked that it was all so moveable, that wind could mess it up and I didn’t care.
Next came a daring change: the Twiggy haircut. Twiggy, a British model from the ’60s, was rail thin with huge eyes darkly outlined and fake-lashed. Her hair was pared down to bare minimum and it was fantastic. Actress Mia farrow had that haircut, too, and I wanted it. loved the bold statement. My classmates by then were wearing straighter, longer or medium length but still coiffed. (The guys slowly became shaggier a la Beatles.) I quite liked the severity of that cut. I saw it as gamine wearability–but it shocked my classmates and many adults who thought it “boyish” and “extreme” at the worst. I believe some guys I dated liked it fine. But I’d slipped into noncomfromity while in the midst of turmoil. It was an act of rebellion, as well as a way to demonstrate my growing interest in creative decision making.
I underwent DIY alterations. I toyed with blond streaks in my twenties, hoping for glamour that in fact was too transient and washed out my lightly sallow skin. Then I tinted it deeper auburn until it grew out. Until late thirties it grew to become shoulder length and beyond. The point was that it hung free, even tangly and true to hippie style. Once, at 33, I was struck by the lack of captivating curls so gave myself a perm. It sprang to life like a mad thing I couldn’t control, yet when I boarded an airplane to go meet my husband on a business trip, I felt like a new woman. He met me and stared at the corona around my face and said nothing. I felt so let down. Perhaps it wasn’t my best look, though once again it was liberating to do it. I recall pulling it back for months to keep it out of my eyes and mouth. Afterall, I had five kids by then, and off and on we lived in countryside. I wasn’t keeping up with fashion despite enjoying, from a distance, its creative aspects.(I often shopped at second hand stores for those fast-growing kiddos–and sometimes myself.) I’d half-forgotten what it was like to put on a pair of high heels and a dress. My weekly uniform was a clean shirt or sweater, jeans and Frye boots in winter; in warmer weather it was shorts, tank top/Tshirt and sandals. Like many mothers who stayed at home.
All that changed at 36 when I got a worthwhile, full time job that I loved and had to wear dresses or at least pants suits. It was 1985. My life was turning a corner and if it was positive it felt risky. I kept my hair chin length and easy but started to color it a bit red. I wanted to be someone else, I suspect, than who I’d become when drinking too much and failing to meet a myriad duties. And being sequestered in each new place my husband’s career set us all down. I was worn thin and thinner by endless housework, stress of life demands and our contentious marriage; and I was glued to my lovely but exasperating kids for many years. I tried to keep writing– children’s stories, poetry, short stories seeming like lifeboats in the midst of unpredictable seas. But it was often impossible and I flailed about. It may not resonate with some, but living unhappily in suburban Detroit did not work for me, anymore. Developing a career was a way out of the corner and it was a good transition. But it was not enough.
Before I embarked on a major change or two, my hair color had slipped into a fiery red as it got shorter. If that wasn’t a foretelling….and, unfortunately, not all for the best. Don’t get me wrong, I like (natural or otherwise) red hair on people just fine. But not for me. It was too flashy; it was an abrasive red. I was restless and mad, at times drinking again to muffle the miseries. I was getting ready to do something drastic even though I loved working and adored my children. Where all of that led me was to a couple bad choices.
I was divorced a second time at 42. But with a move to Oregon and upon making greater changes I began to find my way back to a more authentic self. And to my natural hair. I stopped dying it, rarely cut it much. It breathed, while it was apt to snag twigs, provide a resting place for flower petals and leaves; it shone in piney air and the sunlight of my new (sober, once and for all) and soon curiously improved life. I was on my way to peace.
I always had decent volume of hair if fine in texture. People complimented me; it half-embarrassed me, surprised me as I had increasingly “let it go” as my mother would have chided. It had grown wavier like my parents’ and siblings’ hair. It was a family trait for silvery streaks to adorn temples by age thirty, yet mine remained a stubborn single color for another three decades. I got regularly teased about it by family, as if something in my DNA had gone rogue. One niece had fully white hair before forty; it was ethereal, gorgeous with her alabaster skin. My sister in Portland sported deep waves of glimmering white like our mother. My jazz musician brother near by us had a head covered in silvery hues. I felt, frankly, left out. I wanted–no, needed–to identify with the tribe that my older four siblings and I embodied, especially after our parents died. But I checked in the mirror: same auburn-brown hair that grew by mid-forties to the middle of my back, curving about shoulders and face. It was curious.
I thought by fifty it would happen; it did not until my mid-to-late sixties, shiny strands here and there. But at least I had more healthy hair than ever before. It leased me that on hikes gusting wind lifted and swirled it around so that I felt like a creature at liberty to roam at will. Which I was, I realized. Only once more–after a heart disease diagnosis at 51 after my mother’s death and not working 3 years– I cut it once more. Very short. I felt it had to be gone for awhile. That I had to start over. And I can’t tell you how many people expressed disappointment I had done so. I had no idea my hair had secret admirers. I found it disconcerting, wanting to cover my near-naked head with hats. But it grew, of course, for a decade, then two.
Now I am 71. It is gradually going whiter at last, drier, coarser and wavier, too. But I’m also losing hair. Over the last three years, it’s drifted out and down quite a bit, and I can get alarmed when I note a small nest of it on the shower floor. I saw a dermatologist who said it was inherited hair loss via maternal genes and welcome to the club: 40% of older women have thinning hair. Sometimes even younger ones. And the past two years or so? Stressful doesn’t even cover it, so I doubt I’m the only one shedding more.
When I got home after my appointment I stopped to ponder how my mother aged. I had only known her since she was 40 when I was born; her hair was worn shorter and a gleaming grey. And we all loved her beautiful crown of hair above laughing blue-grey eyes. Few lines on her face even at 90. (My father had so-called good hair, once black gone white; his eyes were bigger, bluer.) She infrequently complained it had become more scarce but it was no tragedy. She got her hairdo “done” every week until the end–that was what women of her generation did if they could possibly manage it. A few times I rolled her soft hair in the bristly rollers, dried it under a hair dryer cap. The look was curlier than she liked but attractive. Nonetheless, she preferred her small beauty shop, and her stylist was one of her best friends. It was a happy social ritual, too. It’s safe to say it was a point of pride to keep her pretty hair in good shape. It was clear my father thought she was wonderful to look at no matter what. Yet pictures of her when younger astonish me–her spirited, intelligent face framed by cascading dark auburn hair. Her personality likely was close to the same.
What does hair mean to us women–and, likely, men? How much does it impact our sense of identity? How much speaks to our specific cultures and chosen subcultures, our socioeconomic groups? I suspect it affects how we feel about ourselves more than we care to admit. Which seems absurd as i write it. It likely moves others to pigeon-hole us, make decisions about who we are despite true identity being very much deeper. I experienced this to a dregee in the 1960s and ’70s. Activist men and women became more androgenous in atttitude and behavior, more experimental with fashion and risk-taking with political activism. After all, the personal was and can yet remain political. How are we set apart or pressured to blend in? How do we keep oursleves unique in a world where there is boring replication and uncannily fast? Our variety is an aspect that makes humans so fascinating–unlike the vast numbers of strikingly similar other creatures we live with on earth!
Let us be who we are– it seems such a reasonable thing to expect…and yet it seems even more a hot topic despite the loosening of strictures regarding appearance. Perhaps the more our world becomes multicultural, the more dividing lines may blur. Some will welcome that; others will not. But when it comes to hair–it is our own, it’s attached to our bodies so we own the right to do with it what we will. It ought to be an enjoyable freedom. We need to play it and adornments, if we chose–it can indicate more of who we are. But I know that for many this choice is not a given. I can only speak for myself, my own lifestyle milieu. I left behind judgments of how I look long ago (my thinness being another focal point of others over decades).
Our interest in hair–not to say obsession–daily supports a huge industry. Not only hair salons but endless products that one can amass, each more nature-made or fancy or miraculous than the last. I have a few but mostly forget to use them, so end up pawning them off on daughters. I haven’t tried aything to stop hair loss. I’m not close to balding and I guess if that happens I may cut it short once more. As an older woman, I choose to not shear it off yet like so many do. I want to feel it sway at my neck, let breezes muss it up. But my more loosely woven grey-to-brown hair doesn’t define me now, if it ever truly did. It’s like a practical accessory; it protects, warms and can be decorative.
I’m settled in with myself, this body. I’m my everyday self–no need to dress up or look fabulous–and so life is lived in such a way that renders what is on top of my head the least of priorities. Still, maybe one day I will blend in a soft lake hue of blue. My daughters have thought I should do that for years. It’s a tiny bit tempting–a last hurrah from a woman who knows her own mind, with hair that seems to have its own life. The aforementioned granddaughter, just back from Hawaii and glowing, would likely give me a “thumbs up”, as well. Meanwhile, there are many more intriguing matters to capture my interest, regardless how this mop of hair looks as I go through the day and night.