Wednesday, February 23, 2011


One warm afternoon when I was eight years old, I was skipping down the sidewalk under a row of black walnut trees on my way home from a friend’s house after school. As I passed a couple of boys in backpacks, I heard one whisper to the other, “Was that a boy or a girl?” I turned my head just in time to see the other boy shrug as he looked left and right before crossing the street.

There was no malice intended in that brief inquiry. Clearly, they thought I was out of earshot. But I, with my Dutch Boy haircut and my unisex corduroy pants, could hear those words with the precision of a freshly honed knife. With that simple overheard question, all my third-grade self confidence dropped with a crash into my gender neutral sneakers and shivered into ten thousand sharp-edged pieces.

From that day until the day I graduated from high school, I avoided getting my hair cut short.

• • • • • • •

What makes hair so important to our self perception? To the perception others have of us? According the Apostle Paul, it’s meant to be a glory and a covering. It’s a means of pursuing beauty. But it’s also a way to distract ourselves from pursuing beauty of a more lasting kind. It’s one of the first identifying features we use to describe other people, and it has a remarkable capacity to either attract or repel.

Just this weekend, after dropping off two of my kids at a birthday party, I saw a woman walking through the Safeway parking lot. She wore a cute white coat, a pair of trendy boots, and carried an armload of carefully folded, environmentally friendly, reusable grocery bags. She also had one of the worst cases of bed head I’ve ever seen. On account of her hair alone, she looked, to put it bluntly, like a mess—like she’d had, if not a terrible life, then at least a terrible morning. She looked like someone who deserved my pity.

Odd as it seems, hair has a way of telling a story; we use it to show the rest of the world who we are and who we want to be. According to one recent survey, the average American woman will spend roughly 2 ½ years and $50,000 on her hair before she dies. Apparently we think our hair is a worthwhile way to invest our time and money. And maybe the returns are substantial enough to justify the expense; a person’s “do” is often all the signal we need to tell us whether she is headed for a night on the town or a day at the gym—whether she is one of us, or one of them.

Hair is, in fact, behind many of the snap judgments I find myself making. One look at a woman with a pink Kool-Aid dye job, or a mane of carefully highlighted layers, or a slicked-tight chignon, or straight, down-to-the-rear tresses can leave the impression—accurate or otherwise—that this person is insecure or confident, ambitious or socially inept. It seems a bit strange that I, who spend relatively little time on my own hair, would instantly attach such significance to what other people have done with theirs. Does it prove that I am shallow? Mercilessly judgmental? Astute? Could it be that some poor woman’s bad hair day has kept me from making a new friend? Is it possible that the lady in the Safeway parking lot had her Saturday morning act together more than I did? Or did I accurately assess the truth about her from one quick glance at the back of her matted head?

• • • • • • •

During my last year of high school, I had spent months wanting to change my look. I would stand in front of the mirror, pull up the ends of my long hair and fold it over on itself, letting the bottom of the loop hang down to my jaw, giving me an amateur preview of the style I wanted. I would raise and lower the looped hair, trying to decide how drastic an amputation this should be.

I was partly excited and partly terrified as I finally picked up the phone and scheduled my haircut for the day after graduation.

When the day came, I sat waiting in the salon chair, all nerves beneath my black cape, watching in the glass as a girl with acrylic nails and “Tammie” stamped on her nametag twisted and clipped the top layer of my hair into loose coils around my head, transforming me into a kind of brunette Medusa. Across the salon, a lipsticky woman with squares of foil sprouting haphazardly around her face stared at my reflection, if not exactly turned to stone, then temporarily transfixed as the last snake of my hair was held in place.

“Okay, girl! Ya sure about this?” I turned my eyes toward Tammie and nodded, feeling my heart beat rise. I watched her raise the scissors, felt the cool metal against my skin, heard the first definitive ksssht of blade against blade.

Oh gosh. Oooh my gosh. What had I done?

When that first foot-long snake of hair slithered to the floor, the woman with the foil seemed to revive from her state of petrifaction and dropped her lipstick mouth wide open. “Oh honey,” she said with a loud East-coast accent, “Oh my gaaahd. You are so brave! I could never just go cold-turkey short like that.” My eyes made contact with hers in the mirror, and I saw her shake her metallic head in disbelief. “You are so brave,” she said again.

So brave. Something about those words calmed my jitters and made me feel almost heroic, a sort of side-kick to my acrylic-nailed Achilles. With a repetitive click and hiss, she cut down snake after snake while I looked on with growing approval.

When Tammie was done and the blow dryer was turned off, she passed me a small hand mirror and spun me around to give me the full, 360-degree view. I liked what I saw. So did my foil-framed admirer. “Oh wow, that is so cute!” she said, “You are so, so brave!”

For weeks afterward, I would find myself stopping by the bathroom mirror just to see if I was still satisfied with the new look, half afraid that I’d find nothing but an older version of my crushed Dutch Boy self staring back at me. But each time I looked, I liked this girl—this young woman—better. I felt somehow grown up. Sophisticated. People I had known for years would pass me by on the street without recognizing me, and, when I said hello, would repeat some variation of the foil lady’s shock and admiration. I reveled in their reactions at the time, but in retrospect, I wonder what else they could possibly have said.

The only person who has ever reserved the right to criticize what I’ve done to my hair is my grandmother, who let me know in no uncertain terms that she had liked it better long. But hair, to my grandmother’s relief, turns out to be a renewable resource, and for the past 15 years I have let it grow and cut it off at roughly annual intervals, shocking my children, dismaying my grandmother and pleasing myself every time. I might like to think that these periodic drastic alterations prove that I am so brave. But really, it’s just that I’m no good at fixing my hair; when it gets unwieldy, it has to go.

• • • • • • •

Just a couple of months ago, I went to get my hair cut at the local beauty school. (Risky, maybe, but it’s hard to argue with a five-dollar shampoo, cut, and style.) I’d intended to go sooner, but with other priorities getting in the way, I had left my hair to grow until it reached past my shoulders and was spending its monotonous daily existence as an inartistic—but highly practical—ponytail. So when I sat down in the salon chair and explained what I wanted, my student stylist, was timid about cutting my hair back as far as I’d described. Not once, not twice, but three times I had to ask her to cut it shorter. After an hour under her scissors, it was still an inch longer than I’d hoped, but I decided it was close enough. I paid my five dollars, threw in a tip, and walked home.

When I entered the house, my sons received the new me with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “You look ridiculous,” one of them told me.

“Whoa,” was all another had to offer.

And my youngest child, who always has a flair for flattery, assured me, “You look beautiful, Mommy.” I play to a tough crowd.

I remember, though, how the same alteration startled me the day my own mother cut her hair short when I was little. It took several days to convince myself that, in spite of all appearances, she was still the same person.

• • • • • • •

Even knowing what a powerful effect hair can have, I usually hate taking the time to fiddle with it just to make myself presentable, which is why I like a low maintenance style best—and which is why it’s probably a good thing I don’t have daughters. With five kids (who sport no-nonsense buzz cuts) keeping me busy, there are plenty of occasions when I skip the hair routine and spend the day looking like more of a mess than that lady from the Safeway parking lot. At least she had trendy boots. I, meanwhile, schlep around in my slippers until lunchtime trying to get ahead of the laundry.

But still, even if I am less than gifted with a blow dryer, I do appreciate a good hair day. It’s a lovely feeling to step out of the house with a fresh haircut and a sense of having faced the enemy and prevailed. Nevermind that the enemy was nothing but a bad case of bed head.


Allie B. said...

I love this. Thanks for being able to captivate an audience with a topic as mundane as a haircut! That takes talent. :)

Abra Marie said...

So true. My most dramatic haircut was when I moved out of my parents house. I went from waist long hair to a short euro-boy cut. Thankfully, the woman who cut my hair was very talented and it looked fine, but it was a good 20 inches of hair gone. I like to do my hair pretty when I have the time for it, but more often then not it ends up in a ponytail. I don't think there is anything wrong with a ponytail. Our appearance does tell a story, and right now mine says I'm happy and well taken care of, but busy.

Carissalayla said...

seriously, considering chopping my hair off now!

Aunt Evelyn said...

Short or long, your hair is always beautiful, Hannah. You know, dark, smooth and shiny. Try a mop of hair like mine: ordinary brown with gray highlights, some curls, but mostly just wavy frizz. At 52 I still haven't found that perfect do. Loved the post!

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