Hair as Signifier

I run my fingers through the hair at the nape of my neck and I still can’t believe I had the courage to do it.

My hair is the shortest it has ever been in my adult life. This may not seem like a big deal to other people, but to me, it’s huge.

I have always identified with my hair far more than any other part of my physical appearance. According to my baby book, the first thing my father said about me was, “She sure has a lot of hair.” Later I found out how apt his comment was when I realized how much he preferred for women (and girls) to have long hair. A formative experience: my mother always had a mid to short-length bob, but she once had my Aunt Jean (dad’s sister) cut her hair into a very chic short style. If memory serves me correctly, dad didn’t speak to mom for a few days after he saw what his sister “did” to his wife’s hair. Personally, I think mom looked fantastic. Only a few pictures were taken then, but I think that she had what we would now call her Mad Men-esque cut for at least one family Easter photo, and while my eyes were drawn then to candy, now they would gravitate towards her teased ‘do, and I know the next time I see her, I will ask how she got such height at her crown in an age when hair products were limited (my guess is that it had something to do with Aqua Net).

So I am sure that that experience had some effect on my gendered associations with hair. Men have short hair; women have long hair. This is the way of the world. This also extended, incidentally, to facial hair, for the story in the family goes that I was terrified of men with facial hair. Again, I may conflate memory with fantasy, but I think I recall that when I was suffering during my divorce that my maternal grandmother told my mother, “You never should have let her hide in that closet when your brothers visited when she was 3 years old.” (My uncles both had facial hair and apparently that frightened me because my father did not, and so I hid in a closet when they visited). I think this was my grandmother’s way of saying that if I hadn’t been coddled as a child (the first-born typically is) and made to face my fears, I’d have weathered the divorce storm better as an adult.

Hindsight is 20/20, right?

But in any case, I formed very specific associations with hair when I was a child that carried through to adulthood, and my long hair was something to which I had an enormous tie.

When I was a teenager, and Olivia Newton-John’s iconic album “Physical” was released, I was struggling to find myself in high school. Elementary school was very near my home, and what we then called junior high was a school where my mom taught, but high school was a few miles away and entirely new. I remember thinking that I wanted to reinvent myself, though that phrase “reinvent oneself” was not around at the time, and to that end, I got my hair cut to resemble Olivia’s. It looked fantastic–while I was at the salon. The next day, afraid that I’d never be able to get it to “feather” the way she did on its own, I had my mom perm it, and that resulted in my having a very strange short curly hairdo. I remember the lavender-walled bathroom in our house on Clark St., my sobbing in the shower as I washed it the first time, lamenting “what have I done?” over and over in my mind.

I ended up having to get glasses for the first time soon after, and this only compounded  my misery.

I felt completely hideous.

I never dated that I can remember at that age, and here I was, in 9th grade, with this short curly, if not wiry, hairstyle, glasses that got darker when I went outside, marching in band camp. My initials in gold gothic lettering at the corner of my glasses. Such a nerd.

And so I remember fighting to get past that stage–I grew my hair out, which took years. I got contacts, which was painful, as I could only wear semi-hard gas-permeable type at the time. Oh, the agony of those until I grew used to them.

And eventually, I brought my appearance back to the place it was before. Long hair–no glasses–feeling ultra-feminine again, just the way a girl was “supposed” to look and feel.

Flash things forward 20 years, and I start getting these streaks put in. I keep altering the colors: teal, purple, hot pink. I am all over the place. I am going through a trial separation that I think is going to end in a reuinification of my marriage (I was wrong) and my then-separated-husband says to me, on one of our dates, that he notices the streaks, and he likens me to Clementine of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This sets me off. I get angry at him, and I tell him I’m not this person he thinks I am who has no identity, who is slipping different masks on left and right to try to find the one that fits. I get offended and tell him how wrong he is. I tell him that he is the one who can’t find himself.

After we get back together and that makes no difference, I go back to the color changes. Sometimes it’s streaks. One time I went nearly black all over, and people started to call me Snow White. My latest workplace photo preserved this look which I think now looks pretty ridiculous.

But everything was moving towards something I had denied my whole life, other than that ill-fated Olivia debacle. I was moving towards going short again. But in order to do that, I had to get past a lot of self-held preconceptions:

Primarily, I had to get the courage to go against my own attachment to the two men in my life who held the most sway: my father and my ex-husband, both of whom remarked so often that long hair was feminine and therefore, more pretty.

I didn’t have my hair cut in one fell swoop. I didn’t do it as a gesture against either of those men. My relationship with my father is better now, I think, than it was my whole life. I have no relationship to speak of with my ex. Rather, I had my hair cut shorter and shorter in fits and spurts, when it felt right for me, when it felt like keeping it in the status quo felt wrong.

I am grateful that I have a very dear friend of 20 years who is a stylist and skilled colorist. I placed my trust for this most important endeavor in her.

And what I find fascinating is that we did go shorter and shorter, redder and redder, over the past few years, but the most drastic change occurred after I had had a hysterectomy, and I credit that loss with the beginning of a whole new life and a whole new identify for myself.

Understandably a hysterectomy is often a terribly painful experience for some women. I can’t imagine what some go through when they are told they have to have one to preserve their health if they still want to bear children. I am grateful that I did not face that pain, because I had chosen a long time ago not to have children and was comfortable with that decision. But I know that other women struggle mightily with the sense of loss and my heart goes out to them.

But for me, the biggest worry was “how am I going to handle taking care of myself when I live alone and am in recovery from a significant surgery?”

I need not have worried, for my family and my friends were there for me. I am stunned at how giving people can be when their assistance is needed.

Interestingly, I received the message that it was “time” to go all-out with my hair during my recovery. I had been home a day or so and found that I needed a few items from the pharmacy. My mother was here but to give her a break, I asked my friend Carol–who is also my stylist–if she could pick a few things up for me. She did, and when she came to the house, the first thing I noticed was her hair.

She was sporting a very striking bob, and it looked stunningly beautiful. She had this way of tucking the hair that fell across her face that I kept noticing: it was at once elegant and endearing. I had the instantaneous thought, “I want my hair to look like hers!” I remember asking her if she could “get my hair to do that” and she said it would take awhile, but yes.

And so the next time I went to see her, still healing from my surgery, I told her to go for it. I had the summer off, and it was finally time. So she chopped off the final few inches of my hair to get me started on that bob and replenished my bright red, and I was on my way.

During the summer, I ended up going to physical therapy, and my new hair was often a topic of discussion among the all-women therapists at the facility. Despite my fears that going short would make me appear less feminine, I was told repeatedly how attractive the style was, how much it suited me.

This struck me as odd: how does THIS style suit me, when all my life, but for that one aberration, I’ve been the girl with the long curly hair?

But I kept it short, and the more I did, the more it felt right.

The last time I had it cut, I told Carol I was ready to have the back cut so short that I could no longer pull it into a ponytail. And so now, the back, at least, is as short as that Olivia Newton-John style.

Did I cry in the shower after she cut it? Not in the slightest. In fact, what is more likely is that I marvel at it. I marvel that I could lose that much hair and still feel feminine, that I could lose so much of me and still feel like myself.

Scratch that, better than I’ve ever felt.

I resisted that hysterectomy for 10 years. I say that without hyperbole. The signs (and doctors) telling me that I needed one began 10 years ago. Rather than listen to anyone, I simply changed doctors. I ignored test results. And I didn’t take any of it truly seriously until one day in spring 2014 when, in a waiting room after an acute attack, I texted a friend, “I’m done. I need this thing out.”

I was so scared of that surgery, because it was something new. I’d never elected to undergo an extensive surgery; never scheduled myself to be in the hospital for a few days; never considered having a part of me cut away that might cause lasting effects, for good or for ill. Instead, I suffered the consequences of keeping that part of me intact, afraid of facing what needed to be done.

I’m not saying that getting one’s hair cut is the same as a hysterectomy, of course, but I do see a parallel between them, for both life choices involved a lot of fear of the consequences, and fear is paralyzing. Fear keeps us stuck in place.

And so I find it fascinating, now that I am “wiser” and can look back, at how the message to finally cut my hair came right after my surgery. I cannot begin to describe how much having that surgery changed me, for the better. It had ramifications that went far beyond improving my health. The loss of that part of my body altered me in so many ways that I have nothing but gratitude towards my doctors and the family and friends who supported me.

So, too, did this haircut change me. I think for the past four or five years, at least (perhaps more), I have struggled to find out who I am. To his credit, my then-husband was entirely correct about the way my wild hair colors reflected my internal chaos. I have struggled, as many of us do, to become comfortable in my own skin. And somehow, my hair as it is now–entirely different than it ever was in my life, distinguished from all my prior associations with femininity, feels correct. Finally, the outside and the inside match.

I found a photograph recently of my parents sitting at the bar my father made in their basement. I think it was taken before I was born, when my parents were entertaining their friends Gus and Janet. My mother is sitting on a barstool wearing a turtleneck and a pencil skirt and fishnet stockings. She sports a chic bob, her hair smooth and shiny, her clothing sophisticated yet comfortable–she has kicked off her shoes.

And it strikes me how much now, at 46, I somewhat resemble her. Was this always where I was headed? And when I am elderly, will we share yet another similarity? I wonder what life event will encourage me to say to Carol (who I hope is still coloring my hair into old age) “oh go ahead, make me snowy white. The change is long overdue.”

One thought on “Hair as Signifier

  1. I am honored to be in your life. Your journey has been a blessing to watch unfold. You trusted me with not only your long hair, but your weakness, your strength, and helping you discover your beauty. After many discussions about hiding behind your long hair and having it define you, you took your soul back and decided to dig your heals in and love the way you look. You rock all the styles and color and it is only just begun! Much love my friend! ~Carol


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