Almost a year into my project of growing out my hair to make a donation to the Cancer Society for wigs, I’m having second thoughts. Will they even want my mouse-brown, silver-streaked (that’s silver, not grey, OK) hair? If someone who has lost her hair to cancer treatments is going to wear a wig would they rather it is a pretty colour? There are lots of donations of pretty hair from young women.
For women, from the first time our mothers manage to make a ribbon stick in our tiny locks, through a lifetime of good and bad hair days, much depends on our crowning glory. It starts with the compliments that come from nice hair in childhood and continues as we struggle to fit the current mode, make boys notice us and the other girls jealous.
One of my favourite memories of my grandmother was when she would visit and do my hair in French braids with red ribbons. Bangs were the thing for little girls then and my mother would efficiently cut my and my sister’s bangs very short, like large toothbrushes on our foreheads. We admired the girls with ringlets and a few times my mother gave us home perms which gave more the effect of badly pruned rosebushes. My father had curly black hair but genetics did not favour me.
Then, by some lucky alignment of the stars, by the time I was in my late teens straight hair was in fashion. It is the only time I have ever been in fashion. While my dorm-mates at university slept with their hair wound on juice cans or ironed it to get rid of curls, I simply washed my hair and let it dry. I was admired and envied for my straight, honey-blonde hair to my waist.
The hair became my most prized possession and I forgot the childhood trauma. The hair and I had lots of fun together. We worked, made friends, traveled, got lice from staying in youth hostels in Europe. We saw the then-controversial musical Hair in London. We learned a lot, could have/should have learned a lot more. Life, at least on the hair frontier, was good for many years.
There came darker days when I let others dictate how my hair and clothes should look. Then, when anyone looked at me, I was worried that they were thinking critically that I did not meet their strict, arbitrary standard. Some of them told me this, only to be helpful and give me proper guidance, to be sure. The hair was chopped.
When that time was over, there was so much to be done otherwise and I was old enough that hair didn’t play as big a part in my life any more. I’ve only recently thought of it again as the silver slips in like mist. But now that I do think of it, I think how much difference hair makes in a woman’s life. From all the pictures I’ve ever seen of beautiful women over the centuries, they all had curly hair, these include some famous mistresses. What if I had had curly hair? How would my life have been different, ruling out the likelihood of being a famous mistress? Would I have been better able to make my way in the world? Would I be a better person, or at least think of myself as a better person?
Hair is one of the first things we notice about anyone. It’s always in the police description of the suspect. We consciously or sub-consciously judge it, current style or not, clean or not, a colour we like, age-appropriate. Then there are the stereotypes — sultry brunette, dumb blonde, fiery redhead. I know it’s in no way rational but I still tend to regard people with curly hair as somehow more special, more smiled upon by the gods, more gifted and worthy.
There is much to be said about hair, its use as self-expression, status, protest, mate attracting, punishment, covering it, shaving it, colouring and decorating it. Note: it is a good thing to let your children use their hair as a way to rebel, pretend to hate what they are doing with it and they may be content with shocking you that way and not feel a need to do anything further to show how different they are from you.
Women of a certain age sometimes wonder if they should have long hair. Why not? My hair keeps growing until I check to see if the Cancer Society accepts silver hair. If not, I will continue to let it grow so I can have a long silver braid, like the one I once saw on a lovely old woman. At least straight hair is good for braids. I might even put a red ribbon on it, like when I was a little girl.
Cara Brady is a reporter at The Morning Star.