Dear Lily June,
It’s amazing to me how much stock for womanhood and femininity we put into what are essentially dead cells thrusting their corpses up through the scalp. And shampoo commercials have the nerve to call those inactive protein filaments “healthy.” Why does have hair such cultural resonance? Should those of us who could hospitably house birds on our heads feel like lesser women?
As with most aspects of my physical appearance, I have a complex relationship with my hair. Often referred to as a woman’s “crowning jewel,” when I began to lose mine at the tender age of nineteen due to a bout with alopecia, I largely started ignoring my locks, caring only when they weren’t there. When I got pregnant with you, what had been an already thick mop became an unmanageably lush thicket (hello, prenatal vitamins!), and because it was suddenly so shiny and luxurious, I began to almost enjoy my mane.
And then, you came, and while the hair that remained on my head stayed thick, it also grew dry as a broom in the desert used exclusively to sweep sand, and again became something to lament. I can only shrug and say I’m sorry, kiddo, if you inherit my penchant for split-ends. I used to laughingly say of a particularly scatter-brained professor I had in grad school (who had a rat’s nest coiffure similar to my own), “She’s only as organized as her hair.” Now, I wonder if others could say the same of your mother.
It’s interesting to me that when you were born, your own head of hair is what drew the most attention of strangers to you. Even my own OB, who’d delivered you, would, at postpartum checkups, sigh lovingly, “That hair!” when she saw you.
I don’t deny your tresses are beautiful, my dear, but there is an old wives’ tales that says the more hair a baby has in utero, the more heartburn the mother suffers. When I look into your glorious strands, I can’t help but be reminded of a lot of painful slices of pizza. (My fault, my fault entirely, and it was worth every pang to experience your beauty!)
Looking back, at a time when I was sporting bald patches, I was ironically assigned a monologue to perform in college called “Hair.” Of course, it was a Vagina Monologue, and so the hair it referred was in the “down there” feminine netherworld, Lily. In the tale, a woman recounts how she’d been pressured by her philandering husband to hack off the fluff from her nappy dugout.
At a therapist’s suggestion, she even let her lover shave her pubic area, an act which excited him but made her feel vulnerable and exposed. Hair is, first and foremost, a protective cover. Are women expected to be more vulnerable? And why? Why couldn’t a woman, if she so chose, pack a pelt or participate in No-Shave-November without being made to feel like she was some kind of dangerous and wild animal?
One of the defining characteristics of mammals, hair is a reminder of our evolutionary past and our primal connection to species far furrier. Are we more concerned that women evolved from monkeys than men?
Why don’t we pressure men, for instance, to be more like the birds in whose males the plumage is notoriously more elaborate, ornate and decorative in color and texture than their female counter-squawkers?
Of course, it’s one thing for me to squawk the squawk but am I willing to walk the walk? That same year in college, I took a Feminist Literature course. I know we read an alarming amount of Austen, but the line that stuck out to me from the course as a whole was from a Wendy Wasserstein play called “The Heidi Chronicles.” In the play, the titular character Heidi struggles with what it means to be a woman–and a feminist–across several different decades in America, learning just how much more complex that identity is to don than a dress.
At one point in her struggles, she meets a comically oversimplified feminist named Fran who tries to reduce feminism to a single precept when she says,
“Heidi, either you shave your legs or you don’t.”
While the rational and twenty-first century woman in me knows, Lily, what a minimalist view of feminism that is to take, the line has haunted me on more than one occasion.
It haunts me when I’m in the shower, deciding whether or not to rake a sharp blade over what feels like 90% of my body, removing the hair that grows naturally on my legs, arms, ankles, toes, armpits and even, I admit to you and to the whole world proudly now, a Frida Kahlo-esque unibrow:
It haunts me when I take the plunge and decide not to remove what nature has endowed, and I look down at my legs guiltily hidden under a skirt or a pants all day, wondering, if I still feel ashamed or if I tuck what grows there under fabric, if this still counts.
I can’t help but think it was was unfair that when your dad and I were still teachers in the South, your father earned instant credibility in the classroom just off the size of his beard alone.
I joked that my students would listen to me, too, if I rocked a small chia pet from my chin, but I’m guessing they would have been listening for all the wrong reasons.
Ultimately, Lily, I suppose I live fraught with confusion over the connection between my hair–any hair–and what it means to be feminine and a feminist. Most days, when I don’t shave, it’s out of pure laziness and not some political rebellion.
I am often ashamed of my tangled crown, though I personally wouldn’t choose, with the options we have today, to swap it for a scepter (so to speak). My split ends on my head are my own, and if nothing else, the frizz is a perfect predictor of weather. You’ll always know, kiddo, from looking at your mother whether or not it’s going to rain. So there, hair?
- “Blackhair10” by Tharish – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blackhair10.jpg#/media/File:Blackhair10.jpg
- “Female Northern Cardinal in my garden” by GeoffClarke – http://geoffclarke.hubpages.com/hub/Canadian-Birds-in-my-Garden. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Female_Northern_Cardinal_in_my_garden.jpg#/media/File:Female_Northern_Cardinal_in_my_garden.jpg
- “Northern Cardinal Broadside” by Dakota L. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Cardinal_Broadside.jpg#/media/File:Northern_Cardinal_Broadside.jpg
- “Frida Kahlo (self portrait)”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Frida_Kahlo_(self_portrait).jpg#/media/File:Frida_Kahlo_(self_portrait).jpg