Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

My Hair, Myself

by Alice Lowe

Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, Long as God can grow it
My hair



A peach-fuzz patina covered my tender newborn scalp. A year later, sparse silken brown tufts were all that had emerged. My mother recalled how annoyed she'd be when people peered into the carriage and said, "Aw, isn't he cute."



I never had a professional haircut as a child. When my bangs crept below my eyebrows, my mother would order me to a kitchen chair, drape a towel over my shoulders, and have at me with the scissors. Had she put a bowl over my head, it would have been an improvement. She cut freeform, peering up then down through the lenses of her bifocals, standing back and squinting, closing in again. "This side's too short," she'd mutter, and then—you know how it goes—back and forth, side to side, a snip here, a snip there, the result always jagged, lopsided, ultra-short.



I have a picture of myself at six, looking like a street urchin, skinny, with butchered bangs and scrawny pencil-thin braids, wayward wisps escaping everywhere. Pippi Longstocking's plaits stuck straight out, but she was happy with her freckled face, unruly pigtails, ragamuffin appearance. Her author created her with moxie, whereas I was tentative and wary. I saw myself as a homely misfit and imagined other kids making fun of me.


Brown to browner

Over the years my hair darkened from a middling nut brown like my father's to the color of Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet dark chocolate, stopping short of the jet black of my mother's thick mane. Did I imagine it, or were there glints of red when the sun hit it just so?



Not straight, not curly, my hair had a mind of its own, ornery and obstinate like an untrained pup. Never having mastered the coiffing skills that seemed to come naturally to other teenage girls, I pulled it back in a ponytail. For senior class yearbook photos, I set and styled it to the extent of my ability, but it was a damp, overcast day, and I'm memorialized in frizzy, out-of-control chaos. A bad hair day recorded for posterity.



A friend in cosmetology school asked if I'd be her model. I was an eager volunteer, lured by free services and first aid for my limpid locks. She streaked and frosted it, adding dramatic platinum highlights to my sable tresses. She cut and styled it in elegant up-dos, popular bobs and flips of the day. I was mesmerized by my mirror image. Was the ugly duckling metamorphosing?


Ratted and teased

Under my full, smooth helmet of hair was an intentionally-tangled bird's nest. Back-combing added volume, which I needed, and height, which I didn't but liked anyway. It was a fashion trend—think Jackie Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Marge Simpson's blue beehive is an exaggerated homage to the high hair mania of the time. These were the days when we set our hair on big pink foam rollers or orange juice cans to give it body and tame wayward waves. I tried them but never lasted through the night—in the morning I'd find curlers strewn around the room.



Posturing poise and savvy-for-my-years sangfroid as I entered the working world in my late teens, I mastered the French twist, with the help of dozens of bobby pins to hold flyaway filaments in place. And the chignon, hair pulled through and around a wire donut form, tucked under with more bobby pins. Unruly tendrils weren't chic in the sixties as they are now, so my final act of grooming was to spray antisocial strands into stiff submission with my trusty crimson and white can of Aquanet.



Coco Chanel said that "a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life." I assert the opposite, that the haircut follows the life change. Pregnant during the long hot summer of 1967, I didn't have the energy to fuss with my hair. I had it pruned back, like a rose bush in winter, to a minimalist pixie cut. It was comfortable and easy to maintain, but with my large distended lowey and close-cropped crown I looked bottom-heavy, like the weighted punching-bag clowns that pop back up when you knock them down. I'd hoped to appear pert and puckish, like Shirley MacLaine or Mia Farrow. Top-fashion stylist Vidal Sassoon was flown in from London that year to cut Farrow's hair for the filming of Rosemary's Baby. Photographers snapped while he snipped. Except that her hair was already short, and Sassoon's $5,000 trim (including travel and photographers) was a publicity stunt. Hollywood tattle had it that her husband, Frank Sinatra, divorced her over the cut. They did split up, but not because of her haircut.



In the '70s we wore long, straight hippie hair parted down the middle or masses of springy curls for a "natural" quasi-Afro or disco look. The former would be ghoulish on me—goth was a couple of decades away—and the Angela Davis black power dynamic wasn't natural for most white women. Still, I opted to perm my shoulder-length layers, a la Stevie Nicks, Cher, Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born. The ammonia and other chemicals in the perm solution made my eyes and nose sting as my scalp cooked under a dryer while it processed and no doubt damaged every follicle. But I was making a statement—assertive, liberated, reckless, I thought—to proclaim my latest incarnation. And all I had to do was wash, scrunch, and air dry.



At 30 I was dismayed by my forehead's premature and unsightly wrinkles and hid them with long, shaggy bangs. At 40, more confident and aware that no one but me noticed anyway, I deemed that same forehead remarkably, relatively unlined. I abandoned my fringe, boldly baring my brow.


Whacked and whittled

An ardent feminist, there was a span of years when spending time and money on hair, makeup, and clothes seemed trivial and wasteful. I cut my own hair, a daredevil acrobatic feat with comb and scissors, clips and mirrors, contortions and backbends. My wily waves were forgiving of my unskilled labors, and my tousled no-nonsense "I am woman, hear me roar" look suited my current identity.



A defender of my gender, I laughed away the first strands of gray.


Dark chocolate redux

But the gray washed me out, made my face appear faded and ashen. I was newly single and a middle manager on the move. I wasn't ready to be rendered invisible. I took to the bottle, reverting at first to my natural color. "Does she or doesn't she?" was the Clairol catch-phrase for those of us seeking a subtle, youthful enhancement.


Reddish, red, redder

If I was going to defy nature, court cancer, and risk my feminist credentials, I might as well have fun and be a little daring, right? A character in an Amy Bloom novel colors her graying hair in preparation to meet an old lover. She calls the resulting hue "sprightly mendacious auburn." I started with a discreet red-brown. Soon I was hooked, and there was no turning back as I sought the perfect hue. Currant, carmine, cardinal, mahogany, maroon, garnet, amaranth, brick, berry, cherry, sangria, merlot, claret. This one's too purple; another too orangey. Too dark, too light, too bold, too bland. Ruby Fusion by L'Oreal—just right!


Ponytailed again

I'm a late-blooming runner. I don't run or look like the young women I see looping around the bay like frisky colts, long lithe legs in fluid motion, shimmering sunlit ponytails flapping behind. I'm a slow but steady mare, and I've racked up miles and medals. I grew out my hair so I could pull it back and keep it off my face and neck, but my ponytail was painfully thin, reminiscent of those childhood braids. I cut it shorter and stuff it under baseball caps.



Still sprightly, still mendacious. My principles are intact, and so is my vanity. I want to age gracefully, but I'm not ready to go gray. The cut hovers between ear and chin, practical and efficient, not too long or too short, easy to care for, flattering (for my age). I get it cut professionally but lop off ornery strays between cuts, to my hairdresser's dismay. I'm alarmed that my hair is thinning—I can't afford to lose it. Men can shave their heads to evade a receding hairline or monk's tonsure. I submit to the siren call of products that promise thickness, enhanced body. My hair has kept pace with my many incarnations: shy and insecure, showy and sophisticated, comfortable and confident. Older and wiser but still in the game.