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Authors: editor Elizabeth Benedict

Me, My Hair, and I

BOOK: Me, My Hair, and I
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My Hair,

and I

Edited by



also by E

The Practice of Deceit


Safe Conduct

The Beginner's Book of Dreams

Slow Dancing

The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers


What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most

Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives

For Nancy, James, Emily, and Julia

“To be born woman is to know—

Although they do not talk of it at school—

That we must labour to be beautiful.”

, “Adam's Curse”

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten?

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

It's like the medical field. Aside from people being born and dying, women will spend their last dime to get their hair done, so I'll always have a job.

, a student at the Beauty Schools of America, Miami Beach, Florida, on why she's chosen to be a hairstylist




Rebecca Newberger Goldstein,
The Rapunzel Complex

Suleika Jaouad,
Hair, Interrupted

Marita Golden,
My Black Hair

Anne Lamott,

Patricia Volk,

Alex Kuczynski,
And Be Sure to Tell Your Mother

Rosie Schaap,
Kozmic Hippie Hair Breakdown Blues

Bharati Mukherjee,
Romance and Ritual

Emma Gilbey Keller,
My Thick Hair

Adriana Trigiani,
Oh Capello

Deborah Tannen,
Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle over Hair

Honor Moore,
Beautiful, Beautiful

Maria Hinojosa,
My Wild Hair

Jane Green,
Love at Last

Deborah Feldman,
The Cutoff

Ru Freeman,

Elizabeth Searle,
Act Tresses: Hair as Performance Art

Hallie Ephron,
Remembering Sandra Dee

Katie Hafner,
Maids of the Mist

Deborah Jiang-Stein,
Hair in Three Parts

Siri Hustvedt,
Much Ado about Hairdos

Myra Goldberg,
Two Hair Stories from One Life

Julia Fierro,
Capelli Lunghi

Deborah Hofmann,
Heavy Mettle

Jane Smiley,
At Last, I Learn How to Turn Heads

Anne Kreamer,
Getting Real

Elizabeth Benedict,
No, I Won't Go Gray



About the Editor

About Algonquin


As always, I am indebted to Gail Hochman and Marianne Merola for their steady, serious devotion to the work of fostering authors and books, in this case my own. Andra Miller is a writer's dream of an editor, and Algonquin a writer's dream of a publisher. I offer my heartfelt gratitude to everyone there who has worked on What My Mother Gave Me and Me, My Hair, and I. Outside the publishing world, I want to acknowledge Thea Piltzecker, who put me in touch with one of the contributors.

It's impossible to sufficiently thank the writers who've shared their deepest feelings about their families, their spouses, their children, their cultures, their religions, their illnesses, and, oh, yes, their hair! in these scintillating essays. I hope this is just the start of a long public conversation about what we all talk about when we talk about hair—because we talk about everything: politics, passion, motherhood, mortality, vanity, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-esteem, rebirth, regeneration, and, occasionally, the deep pleasure of a really great haircut.

Hairwise and otherwise, I'm grateful to my sister, Nancy Neiditz, who once delivered a comic lecture at a posh New York restaurant—pointing out women around the dining room—on the immutable desirability of straight hair, which had everyone at our table doubled over in laughter, especially those with curly hair. Her devotion to her own hair puts me to shame. I'm immensely grateful for the company and inspiration of my niece Julia Smith, who wears her hair very short and no longer bright green; to my stepdaughter, Emily Daggett Smith, who wears her long hair with style and elegance; and to my husband, James Smith, who puts up with my tangled, sometimes Phyllis Diller–like tresses with great good humor. Best of all, on those occasions when I get my hair done, he notices.


about her hair, and she just might tell you the story of her life.

Ask a whole bunch of women, and if
Me, My Hair, and I
is any indication, you could get a history of the world: reflections and revelations about family, race, religion, ritual, culture, politics, celebrity, what goes on in African American kitchens and at Hindu Bengali weddings in Calcutta, alongside stories about the influence of Jackie Kennedy, Angela Davis, Lena Horne, Madonna, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Temple, Sandra Dee, Joan Baez, Farrah Fawcett, Kelly McGillis, Judith Butler, the Grateful Dead, and Botticelli's Venus.

What's abundantly clear in all these personal stories is that hair matters. Many other facts of life matter too, oftentimes more than hair (illness, poverty, war, famine, flood, and sometimes shoes and makeup), but hair can be counted on to matter just about every day, at least to a high percentage of women—and to more than a few men, at least back in the day. The Beatles' long hair, when it first shimmied and shook on
e Ed Sullivan Show
in 1964, in time to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” changed the course of social history. Way before that, the Old Testament's Samson believed that his hair, seven braids' worth, was the source of his strength, and his enemies hired the temptress Delilah to cut if off.

As I read and reflect on these essays, I'm struck by just how much hair matters to so many of us, and by the tangled intricacies of why. Why so much? And why with this intensity?

“A woman's hair is her glory,” Maya Angelou explains in
Good Hair
, Chris Rock's documentary about African American women and their hair. But long before it has a chance to acquire glory in our lives, it demands attention and care. It's an early life lesson in basic grooming, a public window into the private household. In social science terms, hair is a signifier. One of the earliest signals it transmits, when we're kids, is whether we are being looked after properly. A child's unkempt hair invites scrutiny, condemnation, and, if it's really a mess day after day, maybe a visit from Child Protective Services. As girls grow up and learn to groom their own hair, they learn to take care of themselves. When they have daughters, they groom them too, and so the cycle continues. Along the way, we learn that the hair choices we make for ourselves and others reveal who we are, the worlds we live in, and how we want to be perceived.

For women, hair is an entire library of information, about status, class, self-image, desire, sexuality, values, and even mental health. For many of the years I lived in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, I remember frequently seeing a woman with gnarled, matted hair that stood a foot off her scalp. She was protesting—I think it was nuclear war—on the sidewalk outside the White House. While I shared her views on nuclear war, the state of her hair told me that she was not entirely well. I can summon her face vividly, but I know the reason I always noticed her was the house of hair atop her head.

Hair matters because it's always
, framing our faces, growing in, falling out, getting frizzy, changing colors—in short, demanding our attention: Comb me! Wash me! Relax me! Color me! It's always
, conveying messages about who we are and what we want. Invite me to the prom! Love me! Hire me! Sleep with me! Don't even think about sleeping with me! Take me seriously! Marry me! Mistake me—please!—for a much-younger woman!

It's always there, unless it's gone or it's hidden—and those absences tell stories too. A common one involves the ravages of chemotherapy; missing hair is evidence of illness. Then there are cultures where women shave off their hair and cover their heads, and other cultures where women may keep their hair, but their heads must be shrouded in veils, sometimes with only slits or screens through which to see. Why the shaved heads? Why the draperies? There are many reasons and many interpretations, depending on one's relationship to the veils. Covering the hair signifies membership, to insiders and outsiders, in a specific group; it's a quick self-identifier. It may remind members of the group how to worship and to behave. It focuses attention on the face, not the secondary characteristics. And shaving or hiding the hair fundamentally nullifies hair's ornamental, aesthetic, and sexual properties, thereby sending unambiguous messages about the women's availability and independence. Finally, there's the hair that's almost always hidden from view—but that has crept into public conversations in the past two decades, as Brazilian waxes, dyes, bleaches, and other grooming gimmicks have made achieving childlike genitals the new normal.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a hair story in the news just about every day, and because we live in the twenty-first century, most of these stories then leap to Twitter, Facebook, and TMZ, and heavens knows where else. Before long, the whole world—or just a few thousand people—is debating Jennifer Aniston's layers, Michelle Obama's bangs, the toxins in hair dyes, the Duchess of Cambridge's teasing her husband about his bald spot, a movie star on a TMI jag about her pubic hair, a child expelled from school for a hairstyle, an Olympic gymnast condemned for her kinky hair, and the US Army's issuing new rules about which hairstyles are permitted and which are not. News stories about hair run the gamut from pop-culture fluff to ethnic and racial hot buttons, and the hottest of those often involve African Americans and their tresses. If we're black, we know the landscape of this territory intimately. If we're not, we may be oblivious to the very separate world of African American hair, an issue so complex and charged that it's been the subject of dozens of books—histories, self-help, and photo essays. Long before
Good Hair
, Maya Angelou told her own hair history in
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, and in his autobiography, Malcolm X describes his introduction to getting his hair straightened into a “conk,” using lye, eggs, and potatoes, and later his condemnation of this brutal technique.

In African American culture, “good hair” is smooth and soft. For many of the other contributors, “good hair” is also the straight hair that they don't have naturally and always wanted. As all unhappy families are different in their own ways, each story here of a woman at war with her hair is unique. Fortunately, not all contributors have had such adversarial relationships, though family conflict and connection were often acted out through the writers' hair and the locks of other family members.

While it's easy to make light of our obsession with our hair, very few of the writers in these pages do that. We get that hair is serious. It's our glory, our nemesis, our history, our sexuality, our religion, our vanity, our joy, and our mortality. It's true that there are many things in life that matter more than hair, but few that matter in quite these complicated, energizing, and interconnected ways. As near as I can tell, that's the long and short of it.

BOOK: Me, My Hair, and I
8.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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