My mother was in hair. She owned Marie's Beauty Shop on Main Street in Minerva, Ohio. There were no African Americans in Minerva, no Asians, no Latinas, so my mother only did white people's hair. That changed in 1977 when my brother Jim returned from Taiwan with Ye Chun Mei, his lively, tiny, dark-haired Chinese wife. Ye Chun Mei spoke some English and was anxious to assimilate. She asked us to call her Jennifer, wore white go-go boots and miniskirts, and begged my mother for an Afro, a popular hairstyle in the seventies. African American hair was ideal for an Afro, a hairstyle that required thick, tight curls in a rounded shape that burst from the head in all directions, a mass combustion of fireworks. Asian hair is not a good choice for the Afro because the hair shaft is thick and round and not given to changing shape, but Mom didn't know that. She thought that if she gave Jennifer a perm using small rods to get a tight curl, then Jennifer would have her Afro. Mom tried and tried to get Jennifer's black stick-straight hair to bend. No luck, just a little lift in the crown that quickly deflated with absolutely no curls. It may have been Mom's first lesson in diversity.
Gentlemen prefer blondes.
— Anita Loos
If I want to be a Senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.
— Warner Huntington III to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde
I'm not offended by all the dumb-blonde jokes because I know that I'm not dumb. I also know I'm not blonde.
— Dolly Parton
I grew up in the forties and fifties, a time when most women didn't color their hair. My father's older sisters, my grade-school teachers and my Sunday-school leaders—they all had gray hair. Women who dyed their hair were considered suspect, fast, with loose morals. Only actresses and burlesque queens dyed their hair. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Clairol started selling their home hair-coloring kits with a brilliant marketing campaign: "Does she or doesn't she?" "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and "The closer he gets, the better you look." In 1950 only 7 percent of women colored their hair; in 2015, the percentage was 75.
Women who dyed their hair were considered suspect, fast, with loose morals.
There's a common belief that our hair continues to grow even after we die. This is an old wives' tale. As the body dehydrates, it pulls away from the hair shafts, giving the impression that it is growing. I imagine that when people used to lay out their dead at home, vigilant mourners noted this change and the myth was born.
Why are we so emotional about our hair? Why do toddlers scream at their first haircut? Why do women cry when a new style doesn't look the way they expected? Why do men's spirits sink when they see signs of thinning? Why do the first gray hairs cause such despair?
Farrah Fawcett, one of Charlie's Angels, was famous for her hair—long, thick, lush, layered blonde tresses that were the envy of countless women who tried to emulate the style. When Fawcett was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, she tried many types of treatment—radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries, alternative treatments in Germany. It was a happy day in February 2007 when doctors declared her cancer free. But a few months later the cancer was back with a vengeance, having spread to other parts of her body including the liver. The doctors told her they would have to try chemotherapies they had previously avoided because they caused hair loss.
After some treatments, Fawcett's hair was noticeably thinning and she called her longtime hairdresser for help. The hairdresser was in tears as she combed Fawcett's hair and tried to hide the handfuls that fell from her comb—like a tumbleweed rolling on the floor. Finally, Fawcett took the matter into her own hands and shaved her head, leaving only bangs.
Gotschall-Hutchison Funeral Home
Every so often, my mother got a phone call from Dwight Gotschall asking her to come to his funeral home to dress the hair of one of her clients who had died. She always said yes to honor her client, but she hated it. She would pack up a kit of dry shampoo and hairspray, a hairbrush and comb, and a heavy black curling iron. She would go to the funeral home at night, after work. I imagined her driving into town in the dark, dreading the assignment, and walking down a set of dank stairs into a basement lined in limestone blocks. In my mind, a fluorescent light illuminated only the table holding the body while the rest of the room was in shadows. I shivered as I thought of her approaching the body of a friend. Was she scared, repulsed, sad? Did the basement smell of chemicals? Did her hands shake as she pulled out her hairdressing implements?
I once attended a conference for higher-education administrators where an audience member sitting nearby started plucking hairs, one at a time, from her eyebrows. She held the hair between two fingers, looked at it, ran it over her lips as though tickling them, and popped the hair into her mouth. She probably had trichophagy—a condition in which people eat their own hair.
Trichotillomania (TTM)—from the Greek thrix (hair), tillein (to pull), and mania (madness)—is a condition in which a person repeatedly pulls out hairs over a long period of time, leading to visible hair loss on the scalp. People may also pull hairs from their eyebrows, beards and/or eyelashes as well as other parts of the body. It's listed as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Trichophagy, where people eat the hairs, is a health hazard because hair cannot be broken down and digested. The ingested hair collects in balls, called trichobezoars, in the stomach sometimes blocking the intestine or causing internal bleeding and must be surgically removed.
"Just an inch or two off the bottom," the young woman with silky, light-brown hair that fell to her waist said as she discussed her hair length with the hairdresser. They seemed like old friends, bantering back and forth. He started snipping away and she called her father on her cell phone to tell him what she was doing. "Oh, your beautiful hair," one could almost hear the father saying as the stylist wielded his shears. "Just an inch or two," she assured him.
She made other calls and talked on her cell phone as I watched her hair fall to the floor. The hair collected around the chair like a pool of water. She continued to talk, oblivious to what the haircutter was doing. I was uneasy. I looked in the mirror at my hairdresser. Did she notice what was going on in the next chair? I saw her glance over and look away. Someone should prompt the woman to look up and check the progress, but I didn't do it and neither did anyone else. When he had almost finished, she looked into the mirror and started to cry. She had a cap of hair, a gamine cut, an extremely short haircut—and it wasn't done well. It would take years to grow out and weeks to get over the shock. I wondered what the stylist was up to. His client had been clear about the length she wanted. Was he angry because she spent the hour on her phone? The heartless act reminded me of how French women after World War II were punished for collaborating with the Nazis. All that was missing was the tar.
Any woman who has entered the world of hair professionals hopes beyond reason for a miracle.
My mother was called a beauty operator when she started in out 1933. Beauty operators permed, dyed, shampooed, cut, set, and Marcel-waved women's hair. Think of the job title: beauty operator. What promises lie behind that designation? A beauty operator should be able to make a woman more attractive, add attributes not naturally occurring, supplement, augment, disguise. Any woman who has entered the world of hair professionals hopes beyond reason for a miracle. And every woman has had her hopes destroyed at some time or another—most women can relate at least one such event in detail, no matter how long ago.
Lovers used to exchange locks of hair to be treasured and sometimes worn in a locket. A lock of hair locked up in a locket. During Victorian times, the hair of a deceased loved one was sometimes woven into jewelry. Long hair is best for this effort. The hair is secured to a form, woven into the desired shape—a ring, necklace, watch fob—removed from the form and boiled to set the design. This custom died out in the twentieth century, but the Internet reminds us that pet lovers, especially of dogs and cats, can collect their hair and fur from combings and cuttings and have it woven, often with another fiber such as Merino wool, into yarn. Then, it's just a matter of knitting the garment: a scarf, beret, stocking cap, vest, cardigan, pullover, mittens, gloves, slippers, socks.
Before birth, our body is covered with lanugo—fine delicate hair. Lanugo is shed in the seventh or eighth month of gestation and replaced by vellus—finer, shorter hair, almost invisible to the eye. The fetus ingests the discarded lanugo along with amniotic fluid and urinates the fluid back into the womb. The hair residue collects in the infant's intestine and is expelled after birth as the meconium, the infant's first bowel movement. If a baby is premature, the mother may be presented with her child exhibiting fine dark hair on its back, arms, shoulders.
We notice a newborn's head and hair and we often comment on it, searching for compliments to pay the parents: what a thick head of hair, what a well-formed head, look at that peach fuzz—adorable. As a grandmother I monitor my grandchildren's hair as they grow. Is it fine or curly, thick or thin, blonde or brown? Is it like my own?
My 87-year-old mother lay in a walnut coffin in the Gotschall-Hutchins Funeral Home. Dwight Gotschall's son had taken over the business. My brothers and sister and I arrived around 6:30 in the evening for visiting hours. She was dressed in clothes I'd bought for her to attend a wedding. She loved that outfit—a black jersey straight skirt and sleeveless overblouse topped by a fuchsia mohair jacket and a chunky black jet necklace. Her face was covered with skillfully applied pancake makeup with pink lipstick that perfectly matched her jacket. Someone who cared had dressed her white hair—soft and full around her face.
Most of us have occasionally neglected our hair and sported oily, dry, frizzy, flakey, faded, flyaway, matted, tangled, wind-blown, uncontained, unconditioned, unkempt, uncombed, gummy, dull, dirty, greasy, or unruly hair.
Forty-four days after Barack Obama became president of the United States, the New York Times ran an article speculating that the stress of the job might be turning his hair gray. The reporter went on to say that stress doesn't change hair color, age does. The hair follicles begin to produce hydrogen peroxide, which blocks the follicle's ability to make melanin, the pigment that gives hair its color.
I began going gray in my thirties and immediately started coloring my hair. By the time I was in my sixties, I was tired of spending two hours every three weeks in the salon and thousands of dollars a year on my hair color. I decided to let the gray grow out.
I'm gray now, graying in the same pattern as my mother; patches behind the ears spreading to the temples, up almost to the top of my head, a splash of dark in my bangs, the back of my head still brown. And my son is starting to gray, patches behind his ears too. He welcomes it, though—believing it gives him more gravitas in his work, where people think he's too young to carry the level of responsibility his firm has given him at the age of 38.
I wonder if artists have trouble painting hair.
If you want the lowdown on what's happening in a small town, don't go to the newspaper or the coffee shop; go to the beauty shop or the barbershop. Quidnuncs, gossips, are sure to be there. There's something about sitting in that special chair with the pneumatic pump, the hairdresser close to one's ear and able to bend even closer to hear intimate conversation, that invites telling all. And if you have the right kind of operator, she'll confide that she's heard something she really shouldn't tell but will because you are discreet.
My mother would occasionally bring home a juicy tidbit—like the time she saw my classmate Carole's mother kissing Oscar Lewis in the back room—but I don't think she liked gossip. She preferred dirty jokes to dirt.
Women plucked the hair from their hairline in Elizabethan times to give the appearance of a higher forehead. They plucked out their eyebrows, completely erased them. They powdered their faces white and dyed their hair with mixtures containing saffron and sulfur powder for a reddish effect, all in homage to Queen Elizabeth I.
In the 1930s, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, and Gloria Swanson plucked their eyebrows pencil thin and women all over America imitated them.
Today, waxing is the preferred method of hair removal. Eyebrows are waxed, the upper lip is waxed, chins are waxed, legs are waxed, pubic hair is waxed, men's chests and backs are waxed. Who could forget Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin getting his hirsute chest waxed?
Ponytail, pigtail, pompadour, bob, pageboy, dreadlocks, shag, braid, bubble, poodle, flattop, flip, ducktail, duck ass (DA), feathered, wedge, spit curls, sausage curls, buzz cut, beehive, bun, bangs, bouffant, chignon, cornrows, Afro, Mohawk, French twist, Roman, Marcel wave, Grecian, Italian.
When I was in first grade, we regularly lined up at the nurse's office to be checked for ringworm. One by one, we sat under a purple lamp while the school nurse parted our hair, looking at our scalp. Waiting for her opinion, I remember how scared I was because ringworm meant a shaved head, noxious ointment, and your mother's nylon stocking fitted like a cap over your head and tied into a knot on top. I'd have died rather than go to school like that. We were warned to never let our heads touch the back of the seat at the movie theater and, believe me, mine never did.
I remember how scared I was because ringworm meant a shaved head, noxious ointment, and your mother's nylon stocking fitted like a cap over your head and tied into a knot on top.
Tinea capitus, ringworm, is a fungus found on cats and dogs. The Wood's lamp—source of the purple light I remember—creates ultraviolet light that spotlights the fungus. Most cases occur in children and these days, the treatment is not so embarrassing. Instead of a stocking cap over a shaved head covered in ointment, the patient takes a prescription oral antifungal medication.
I love being unique, being distinctive. I remember getting an asymmetrical haircut in 1985 and the look on my daughter-in-law's face when she first saw it. Horror.
Being a hairdresser is not easy. There's the physical work, standing all day, using scissors, curling irons, dryers, and brushes, and breathing in chemicals. But the hardest part must be maintaining a pleasant demeanor. Many hairdressers are people oriented, but I have encountered a few who concoct a facade for work and once outside, revert to their true personality. The man who cuts my hair definitely has two personalities.
One day when I arrived for a haircut, I was very upset with my husband's children. I ranted about them for the hour it took Michael to cut my hair, and when I checked out, I was charged $10 more than usual. I realized I had overstepped the boundary of acceptable hairdresser conversation. During the next haircut, I was upbeat and the cost went back to normal.
Want longer hair? Want a fuller head of hair? Want it today? Get a hair weave and plan to spend a good part of the day in the chair while the hairdresser sews real or synthetic hair sections into your hair.
X's and O's
Hair issues are not only on the scalp. There's the hair "down there" which can be dyed in startling colors or to match the artificial color on the head. You can even have your pubic hair sculpted into designs. I recall a television show about bridezillas and a young woman trying to convince her father to pay for a waxing that would produce X's and O's in her pubes.
Seventy years later I still remember how upset I was when my mother cut my long hair before I went to first grade. She said it would be easier to take care of—sensible from her standpoint, since she had three younger children at home including a newborn. Devastating to me with my brown hair shingled in the back and banged in the front, especially when I saw Jenny Lee Betz with her long blonde ringlets and her black patent-leather Mary Janes. Jenny Lee's mother tied up her hair in rags every night to create those curls. My mother didn't have the time or energy for such nonsense. I yearned for curls.
Mom's zest for life came alive after she was done with hair. She was so done that she wouldn't even cut her children or grandchildren's hair, much as they begged her. Mom looked forward to retirement. Her feet hurt and her back ached and she loathed managing staff, especially when they wanted raises. She would have enjoyed today's business practice of leasing chairs to hairdressers rather than employing them. Mom loved to travel; she had a zest for new places, new people, and new experiences, and she tried to persuade my dad to buy an RV so they could drive all over the country. Dad died a year after retirement. She never toured the United States in an RV, but she enjoyed a Caribbean cruise with friends, driving around Ohio with her boyfriend Bud, and trips to visit her children in California, Oregon and Washington.
Susan Knox writes short stories and creative nonfictions and authored Financial Basics, A Money Management Guide for Students published by The Ohio State University Press, 2004, 2nd edition 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, Forge, The MacGuffin, Zone 3, and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, "Autumn Life" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle, near the Pike Place Market where she shops most days for the evening meal. Visit her website here.