I am losing my hair, or more correctly it is migrating. What was once covering my forehead now seems to grow out of my ears. Where there was once a smooth stomach, there is now a soft fur of hair. For reasons that I can only assume are vanity, this stays in my mind. My hair was always thin and I also had the unfortunate trait of ears that tended to stick out. I did not look good in a crew-cut. When long hair came into vogue, I embraced the style with passion.
My generation was identified by hair. It was a symbol, a “freak flag” that identified a person as having certain ideas. People with hair that hung down passed their shoulders instantly earned respect. As one of my friends from that time said, “When I see hair that long, I think old.” This was not the bad kind of old, but an old that meant that one was not a newcomer to having a rebellious nature. We were so identified by it that the one word could be the title of a Broadway musical and everyone knew exactly what it meant. We happily drove barbers out of business.
Hair felt good. Guys dreamed of girls with long straight hair. Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips were young men’s fantasies and part of that was because of their hair. We looked at myths where hair was a strength with renewed interest. For Samson, it was his source of power. For Rapunzel it was a pathway to freedom. Mother Earth’s hair saved Buddha. The hair of Medusa spoke of her rage and vengeance. The most beautiful hair that I ever saw belonged to a red mane girl with whom I went to college. Her hair hung perfectly straight down to her waist and when we were in classes together, I would sometimes lose myself in the sight of it. It was simply beautiful and I imagined its perfumed scent.
We used our hair. Sometimes it was camouflage behind which we could hide. It gave nervous fingers something to do. When I was interviewing a champion runner, she told me that when she was warming up she would sometimes pass an opponent on the track and use her hair to brush against the other girl as she sped by her.
Teachers, policemen and parents tried to either induce or force haircuts on us. We countered by saying things such as, “They didn’t even make Jesus cut his hair.” We stuck together. We looked at Bob Dylan’s tangled and uncombed head of hair as an indication of his genius and non-conformity. We hung posters of Albert Einstein with his wild shock of hair. We adopted him as one of us. Kojak was one of them. Hair meant freedom and the lack of it was symptomatic of a certain rigidity. I suppose that Yul Brenner was the exception.
Looking back at these oversimplifications and categorizations, one has to smile at their naiveté. It is not unlike listening to twenty-somethings throw around the word “hippie” today. But I also see the current styles as ones which pay homage to a militaristic, utilitarian perspective. Clean, crisp and dispassionate bonding with the way that things must be is what their hair says to me.
I have never dyed my hair or had any treatments given to it, but I did used to cut it to gain a professional advantage. If I was interested in a promotion, I would cut my hair in order to show my sincerity. After I got the position, I would grow it back.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I met a girl who told me that she did not like hair. She kept hers cropped very short and it accented the almond shape of her face and made her eyes prominent and seem more inquisitive. She was Winona Ryder before there was a Winona. Her distaste for hair was not as much of a political statement as it was a personal preference. This intrigued me, a girl who did not wish to have long hair. It was the first time that I realized that our non-conformity had become conformity. I wonder if people see themselves this way today. It’s hard to be exhibit a rebellious nature when you are wearing a team’s baseball cap or sporting designer labels, but were we any different really?
Recently, I asked this woman for her feelings about hair and this is what she told me. “What do I have to say about hair?? From a women’s perspective? It is a shield, a protector, provocative, a place to hide, a way to shine, attract and wrap someone or trap someone, not unlike a spider’s web. It is a ritual washing, rinsing, creaming, spraying, coloring, making us into different beings than we may be after all. Women of the Caribbean take great pride in their braiding techniques. Waspy women wear blonde bobs, they are proud of their heritage. They can be 82 and the bob will still be the bob. It is an identifier. African-American women spend more on their hair than any other ethnic group, they embrace their ethnicity through their hair, or shun it, again, through their hair. They straighten it, curl it, hair is never what we want it to be. It is a source of dissatisfaction. You can, like Lady Godiva, ride naked on a horse if you have long enough hair. In the bible, Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet with her hair. I found that abhorrent, it was here that hair was obvious to me, for the pleasure of men. And yet, there are rules for hair, women over 40 shouldn’t have long hair, they are too old, meaning unattractive. Hair is an object that makes the woman an object and tells her when she is old. I wanted nothing to do with it. I couldn’t anymore. It betrayed me. It had to go. I couldn’t comb, brush, force it to do things it didn’t’ want to do, all for the attractiveness of it. You have obviously never ironed your hair or slept in rollers the size of beer cans, in some cases actual beer cans. Hair inhibits one. It is a time waster. It focuses energy where it doesn’t belong. It is the ultimate vanity.”
I will not do a comb over. I will not shave my head. My hair is shoulder length and now when I run my fingers through it, I feel little brittle ends breaking off. Is this just part of aging?
I don’t know what it is like to have a recognizable face. No one has ever stopped me on the street and said, “Are you Ken Hart?” So when I talk about names of celebrities, it is just names and pictures and, of course, their artistic work. I admire that James Taylor accepted his baldness openly and I thought less of Paul Simon for his baseball cap. I have male friends who have great heads of hair and I have noticed that there is a certain confidence that seems to go along with it.
Perhaps my friend is correct. It is an ultimate vanity and a source of judgment, but we didn’t always feel that way, did we?
Last week, I was driving on a country road that wound past a high school. It was a sunny day and the students were taking gym outside. On a softball field, there was a class of girls playing ball. As I drove passed, in that second, I counted eight who were playing with their hair as they waited for the next pitch, one was even the batter.