Before I started school, my older sister and I both wore our hair in thick ponytails, high up on our heads. I remember wiggling impatiently while my mom put my hair up in that ponytail with a rubber band (no nylon-covered elastics then). She would command me to sit still, which I seemed unable to do, and the rubber band would always pull the loose tuft of hair that she tried to capture as she transferred the rubber band from her fingers to my hair.
Mom would wash my hair every week as I knelt on a chair and tucked my chin to my chest and dunked my head into the bathroom sink, “Just like the duckies,” she would coo. I remember the distinct smell of Lustre-Creme shampoo, so rich and creamy as it was scooped out of the shiny white glass jar. On cool summer nights, we were allowed to go to sleep with wet hair — a cotton square tied babushka-style under our chins and a warm white towel protecting our pillows.
My next hair memory is first grade. I am 5, and I have had my hair cut short — VERY short. Perhaps my mom thought it would make her life easier, or maybe she truly thought my pixie cut was becoming. All I remember is the feeling of humiliation as my first-grade teacher nicknamed me “Johnie-Joe.” My only consolation was that my male cousin and tormentor could no longer grab me by my ponytail and drag me around the room.
I never remember being given a choice as to how to wear my hair, but I do remember the frequent haircuts — sitting on telephone books in the enormous chair at the beauty shop, scratchy hair escaping down the back of my shirt in spite of the towel wrapped around my neck. I felt sheer terror when I was admonished, “Sit still…or your ear will get cut off!”
My mother always told me I had beautiful “natural curls” like her own — that she cut my hair short to show them off. But even as she justified my close-cropped hair, she would reminisce about the long curly tresses of her girlhood that she wore well into young adulthood.
When I was 12, my eldest cousin brought his fiancée home to the Midwest to meet our family. She was a sleek, stylish New York woman who, in our minds, could have been a model. She wore her beautiful ashen, shoulder-length hair parted, with half tucked behind one ear and the other swept seductively over her eye. My three female cousins, all close to my own age, were blessed with straight hair, and they would run into their bedroom and comb each other’s hair to mimic her style while I watched enviously.
My next hair memory was in middle school. It was the ’60s. All the girls had long hair, hanging down to their waists like the actresses and folk-singers of the time. My hair struggled to reach my shoulders, and I watched with envy as my sister, like my friends, rolled their hair up on empty frozen juice cans with large bobby pins to keep it straight. I resigned myself to trying to sleep in torturous “brush rollers” jabbed with pink plastic stickpins and wrapped in a triangle of loosely woven fabric netting to hold everything in place. It was futile. Those rollers always managed to escape during the night and end up all over the bed. I tried countless home remedies for my unruly hair, including a vinegar rinse that left me smelling like the pickle barrel of a delicatessen. My hair was always a mass of frizz and had a mind of its own — no matter how much cool green Dippity-do I used.
And in between all of these memories there is an echo of a constant refrain of my looking into the mirror at my own image and feeling that my hair was NEVER right.
In high school, I saved my money from waiting tables to have my hair chemically straightened. The smell of the procedure, more than mildly reminiscent of the scent of rotten eggs, lasted far longer than the effect of the treatment. The beautician assured me that it would last for months, but a week later my chemically limp hair was a frizzy mess once again.
There was one interlude, just before I graduated from high school, when my hair somehow matched the fashion of the day: Shag haircuts were in style. My mother, trying so hard to help soften my teenage angst about my appearance, sent me downtown to a fancy department store for a stylish cut. And I do remember a time of brief satisfaction with the curly mane that I saw when I looked into the mirror after that cut. It didn’t last long. As that fashion came and went, my hair seemed unable to keep up with the new looks in Seventeen magazine. I would grow my hair to shoulder length time and time again, only to find that I couldn’t manage it and would cut it off.
A photo from college — during the days of hippies and The Whole Earth Catalog — shows me with a tight frizzy bubble of hair around my head. Out of desperation, after all those years of trying to straighten it, I had my hair permed and used a pick to pull it out into a neat fro. The one stubborn straight patch in the front, with a mind of its own, gave me away — and the chemical perm mixed with the sun gave it a brassy, dry appearance.
When my kids were born, I chopped my hair off again, enjoying the cool breeze on the nape of my neck. It brought back memories of how my mom — no longer alive — used to kiss that spot when I was little, before she wrapped the towel around my hair to dry it.
After I was married, I remember sitting around my mother-in-law’s table as she pontificated that it was good my hair was short — that older women should not wear long hair. I bristled at such a statement, but it didn’t matter much since I had little time to worry about fashion. With three little kids, expedience was the rule. And besides, I had finally found a hairdresser who I loved and trusted, and didn’t feel the dread when I looked into the mirror after a haircut.
During the next 20 years, photos show my hair remained close-cropped — when I am wearing it a bit longer it is often because I have not had the time to deal with it — and my husband and my children were certainly not proponents of change. As I peruse photos once again, I see one in which I am sporting a more stylish do: very close to my neck again, with the curly tresses left longer on top. I remember the day I had that cut done. My youngest son walked home from middle school. Entering my home office, he saw me from behind and immediately pronounced that I must be having a mid-life crisis. “Next,” he pronounced, “you will probably get pregnant and buy a Ferrari.”
That comment took place about seven years ago, but when I contemplate it, I realize how many times I questioned my looks and specifically my hair — how many times I looked to the reaction of others. I would ask my husband how he liked my new haircut. Did it really look okay? The judgments that always seemed to live in my head often centered on my hair.
My mother was proud that into her late 50s she never colored her hair and had only a sprinkling of grey around her temples. I was in my 20s when I sprouted a few grey hairs. When my mother would spy those errant hairs she would surmise that I, like her own kid sister, would be prematurely grey in my mid-20s. “Or bald,” I remember muttering under my breath when she would pluck them from my head without warning. My mother was wrong, though she would not live long enough to know it.
Now I am in my late 50s — almost the age that my mother was when she died. I, too, have just a sprinkling of grey hair. “I’ve earned these highlights,” I would tease my own, grown children. “You gave them to me.”
Almost 30 years after I was married, I faced another change in my life as my marriage ended. Perhaps in the beginning, the shock of my marital upset caused me to take less of an interest in my appearance, but somewhere along the way, I consciously started to let my short hair grow out once again. It seemed fitting to mark the end of my marriage, like a Jewish mourner, by refraining from cutting my hair. As I noticed my hair getting longer, I realized an odd kind of symmetry. If traditional Jewish brides cut their hair at marriage, perhaps it made sense that a divorced woman should grow her hair. This time my hair got longer than it has ever been.
I colored it briefly. “Not to cover the grey, but just a rinse to restore your old color,” my hairdresser encouraged me, and I capitulated for my oldest son’s wedding. I think the only person that really noticed was my youngest son who spied the shampoo for color-treated hair in the shower and rolled his eyes loudly. The change was anything but radical, but I was self-conscious as it grew out. And something felt dishonest and unnatural about the even shade that stared back at me in the mirror.
When the grey surfaced again,
I decided not to cover it. The next time I sat in the hairdresser’s chair for a
trim, I said, “Highlight it! Don’t cover the grey, but add some highlights for interest!” When she was done, the result was subtle, but as the weeks went by and I spent time painting “en plein aire,” the sun seems to mix with my chemical highlights and add some of its own.
Now my hair is long and free. It forms exuberant coils that surround my face, and I don’t try to match anyone else’s idea of style. The natural grey mixes with golden highlights given to me by the hairdresser and by the sun. I look in the mirror and I have a hard-won sense of satisfaction at the face that smiles back at me. I am trying harder to accept the gracious compliments I receive.
The other day, a young woman — one of my son’s friends — came up to me at shul and told me she loved my hair. While secretly pleased, I tried to silence the familiar, critical voice in my head that questioned what she really meant. Was she trying to tell me that something about my hair was wrong? Was I calling too much attention to myself? I pushed those thoughts out of my head as I thanked her, but she was still searching for more words.
“Your hair looks so… so… happy,” she blurted out, and we both broke into grins. After all those years of trying to tame my hair, I have finally accepted it. Like me, it has a will of its own. I realize I have “happy hair” and I like it.