I’m part of the grow-your-own movement. Hair, that is. You’ll find no extensions in my waist-length mane, not that you’d think about it if you saw me on the street. Women my age can’t wear their hair down loose without being thought eccentric, perhaps because long, flowing hair is associated with sensuality. Unfettered sensuality in an older woman? Indecorous at best. So I wear my hair piled, twisted, and clipped-up to seem respectable.
That’s a choice. I could braid my hair and circle my head in the style of my mother and grandmother. Or, for that matter, I could be Princess Leia Organa for a day.
Hairstyle is as much costume as grooming.
The first time I wore my hair in a single braid over one shoulder, I did so on a lark. I thought I was being outrageous, my eyes lined with dark pencil meant for eyebrows. When none of my friends commented, I realized that my concept of “outrageous” was conservative — but that was Greenwich Village in the late ’60s. After that first self-conscious time, for years the single long braid was just the way I wore my hair as a casual alternative to the headache-inducing bun.
When, in a different social context, I prepared for my first day as a student teacher in a suburban school, I banished my pageboy flip. Instead I took myself to the local branch of a national Beauty Academy and saw to it that my hair was teased, sprayed and tamed into a neat French twist. It didn’t work. The secretary in the school office mistook me for a student. Nonetheless, I persisted with the style, enduring nights of trying to sleep while dozens of little hairpins poked my scalp, all in an attempt to look professional.
More high style (both literally and figuratively) were the beehive and the bird’s nest, which I admit to sporting on rare occasion.
No wonder that a nymphomaniac was defined as a woman who made love with her husband on the same day she’d gone to the beauty parlor. We called it a “beauty parlor” then. It wasn’t a “salon” with all the pretension of the secondary definitions.
The last time I splurged on a professional hairdo at a salon, I was shocked when I looked in the mirror. The stylist had changed my appearance, all right: when he had finished blow-drying my hair, I looked as if I had just stepped away from an extraordinarily pleasant romp in bed, not at all the effect I’d hoped to achieve. I couldn’t believe I was going to be seen in public like that.
Although I’m grateful for the kindness of a cup of strong coffee or ice water with lemon, I’ve never delighted in the artificial pampering that goes along with the professional services associated with hair care. Hair is washed, detangled, combed, snipped, set, dried: styled. That’s it. What’s missing is the sensation I remember of my mother brushing my hair when I was a child.
I grew up in the days when it was thought that brushing hair was good for it. One of my early memories is playing with suds in a sink full of soapy water while my mother brushed my hair. And brushed and brushed.
Almost 10 years after my mother died, I drove into Monument Valley with a guide who told me stories told to her by her “grandmothers.” Her soft voice was continuous as we jounced along the road in an open Jeep. We stopped at a rug weaver’s hogan, dark after the glare of the July sun, cooler than the Jeep. The two women chatted with one another, speaking in the Navajo language. I understood nothing, and I didn’t care. I was happy to sit and listen as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. And then my guide spoke to me. I had long hair. If I liked, the rug weaver would tie it up in the Navajo style. While she combed my hair without once catching a tangle and then bound my hair up with white wool, I sat and listened to the two women talking. Because I couldn’t understand them, I was relieved of all responsibility. Moreover, perhaps as a reaction to her slow movements and her patience, I was lulled into passivity, a child-like state that reminded me of how I felt when my mother brushed my hair.
About a decade after that I returned, this time in a tourist tram, with a guide making pronouncements about the Navajo and the Anasazi. Because it was the coolest way to wear my hair in hot weather, I’d made two braids. One of the German tourists asked me my tribe; without a pause I answered, “Ashkenazi.”
“Where’s that tribe from?” someone else asked as a follow-up.
“Eastern Europe,” I said.
When we stopped at a rug weaver’s hogan, I almost held my breath. Yes, it was the same woman. This time we had an audience while she again combed my hair and bound it with white wool. Were the physical sensations the same as before? As I waited this time — expectant, hopeful — I couldn’t feel my mother’s touch.
Just before I turned 50, I reverted to the hair color that was mine when I was born, which sounds better than “I dyed my hair.” I’d convinced myself that it wasn’t because I wanted to look younger, but rather because I had to avoid looking messy when my gray hair was out of place. The lies we tell ourselves!
My old friend who had led the way to the colorist’s chair when she was in her late 30s explained that she decided to dye her hair after she went out one night to have dinner with her mother and her aunts: She looked around the table, saw that she was the only one with gray hair, and thought it was absurd. At least she was honest about her feelings.
I’ve heard more than one man claim that he shaved off a beard he’d had for years because he wondered what he looked like. Of that group, most of them were barefaced when they told me. (Of course, though a beard disguises a weak chin, and a mustache looks good on an over-long upper lip, a man’s facial hair is more than a cosmetic decision, in much the same way as a woman’s coiffure.)
A similar impulse to see what I looked like, really, spurred me to go gray, or, at least to see how much gray I had. But an impulse would not have sustained me through the four years that stretched between unsightly roots and today’s silvery swoop. The truth is that when I was 50, I wasn’t ready to go gray. But now I’m ready for everything. • 21 April 2010