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The Hair Thing

November 10, 2015 • Laurie Newbound

I couldn’t help but notice the other day, wow, my hair has gotten long.

hair1Now, long for me is hitting my collar bone, for years I have been wearing it in a kind of layered bob.  I try and get in a good sweat every day and it’s an easy style for that, I just put in a hair band and it often looks better a bit dirty after a workout, with more shape and body. The little natural wave I have comes out which I think is flattering after a certain age. (Gwyneth Paltrow, take note, I know you are reading this.) But, let’s face it, it never looks great. It looks, well, fine. What saves me is the color, which through the magic of chemicals, is the exact color my hair was naturally at sixteen, with just as many youthful highlights.

Nora Ephron quite correctly noted that one of the major breakthroughs of the twentieth century, beauty product wise, was the advancement of really good hair color. She claimed that the reason we all look ten or fifteen years younger than women of the same age looked a few decades back is simply because we, well, the vast majority of us, don’t have grey hair.  Do you remember when they used to call the older women who went to theatre matinees the “blue haired crowd”?  That was because even wealthy women over sixty, for the most part, put some kind of “rinse” (I never even really understood what that was) on their hair that made it, I guess, shiny but with a slight but noticeable blue cast. My grandmother had that kind of hair.

But now, and this has been true for decades, women can wear their hair long, full, shiny and subtly highlighted. Not only can they have the hair of their twenties, they can often have the best hair of their lives. (Yes, some wear it bright pink but I am not talking about them here.) Granted, if we want this look, we need to work at it. My daughters can pretty much wash their hair and air dry it and it looks great. It looks amazing if they blow dry it.  We need a whole bunch of conditioners and treatments and frequent coloring. And some of us raise the ante and get extensions if our hair has gotten a bit thin. They have gotten pretty good, unless you are in the beauty industry it can be hard to spot them.

hair2I grew up with platinum blonde mostly straight hair that darkened to a lovely wheat/honey color in my teens. I had the good fortune to naturally have the hair that everyone supposedly wanted at that time, especially in L.A. Straight and soft and long and blonde. But it then morphed alarmingly quickly to a dingy brown/blonde once I left the California sun and went to college in New York. (When I came home at Christmas my parents actually walked right by me at the airport.)  In my twenties I began highlighting it and my “base color” was still so shiny and young that my hair looked great. My hair has been the one constant in my life, the one thing I could always count on, the one physical trait that, well, always looked good. I had friends (still do) who fight their hair, straighten it when it desperately wants to be curly, or don’t leave the house on rainy days because of the possibility of frizz. My best friend in middle school slept with “curlers” made from frozen orange juice cans, I kid you not.  I had another friend in college who literally ironed her hair. On a board, with an iron. Previously I thought this was just an expression. My hair only improves with humidity. (Before you hate me, may I acquaint you with the cellulite on my thighs?) It could look amazing if I took the time to get it properly cut and blown out, but I rarely have. Because, with little if no thought or time, it has always looked good.

Until it all fell out.

In 2001 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and as I told people, especially my female friends, they pretty much had two questions. 1) Will you be okay 2) Will you lose your hair? Honestly, many of my friends SEEMED more horrified about that prospect than the other thing, the death thing. I was pretty freaked out by it, I’m not going to lie, but it’s just so funny, it even struck me at the time, like as if that small side effect of my treatment (my friends and I referred to it as the “hair thing”) was the biggest deal about having cancer. Not all the side effects of the surgeries, radiation and chemo, not even, oddly enough, about the possibility of losing a breast (I didn’t), not to mention my LIFE, but the hair thing.  hair3I was actually pretty okay about it until one friend asked me, “are you sure it will come back?”  I didn’t think that was even a possibility but, no, she had heard of someone who never got her hair back, whose scalp was merely covered in some kind of grey/brown fuzz for the REST OF HER LIFE? Thanks for letting me know, you are SUCH a good friend.

I decided to wear scarves in the house and do wigs out in the world once I saw the pity on people’s faces. It was a while ago, the world has shifted a bit, but in suburban Connecticut there were no bald women, with or without cancer, and the hats and turbans felt less like me than the wigs. The wig thing, apart from being hot and itchy, was interesting, my “hair” was now always perfectly cut and blown out and one time I ran into an old PTA friendly acquaintance (who didn’t know about the cancer thing) and she was positively effusive about how wonderful my hair looked and demanded to know the name and place of my stylist.

It took a while but of course it did grow back, all of it, but it was curly. Like, really curly, like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. My oncology nurse and the women I had met through my support group all told me that this would be short lived, that it would go back to its old texture soon enough. But it didn’t. So I adjusted to having this head of curly hair, I actually really liked it. It was the polar opposite of bald, it was so thick and abundant. It was a statement of alive-ness. And it needed, if possible, even less maintenance than my old hair. I thought, and still do, that it made me look younger. So, I had this wild, curly hair for five years and then, almost overnight, it went straight. My oncologist had told me once I passed the year mark that if it was curly for that long a time it was going to be that way permanently. So I was pretty unprepared for this transformation but, hey, in the scheme of things, it wasn’t that big a deal. But suddenly I realized that if I was going to have long hair I needed to spend a lot more time on it, otherwise it just kind of lay there, lank, against my face, and it wasn’t close to flattering.

Most, no, ALL of the women I know have long hair. I have friends who have never had anything else, who haven’t, really, changed their hair since they were 28. Many wear it up almost all of the time which looks great on a lot of people but not on me. All of my daughter’s friends and acquaintances have hair streaming at least half way down their backs.  I do have one aquaintance who wears her hair pixie cut short, she changed it while going through a lesbian relationship after a divorce. Cliché but true.  I have another tennis friend who wears her gorgeous long thick hair free and loose on the tennis court. I have endless admiration for this, because if I tried it I wouldn’t be able to see the ball. But somehow she does.

I actually like, physically, the feeling of having at least shortish hair. As previously mentioned, I don’t like the way I look with my hair up, and having it down does create quite a maintenance issue. Messy shortish hair can look cute, like it’s what you meant. But long unkempt, lank, hair just looks like you have given up. And one of my biggest fears is to leave the house with that telltale bedhead thing going on in the back and having no idea.  Well, that and climate change. It’s cute on a toddler whose parent can’t be bothered to have the hair brush fight. But after four…..no, just no.

The other day I turned a corner and there was Jamie Lee Curtis sitting by herself outside a Starbucks on her phone. She doesn’t wear make up, she wears her very short hair naturally grey. She looks great. But she is (or at least was) a movie star, she is undeniably genetically blessed, and she may be the only well known woman of my generation who NEVER wore long hair. And, going back a bit, even Mia Farrow and Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy (and interestingly they all had a sort of androgynous, waif quality) had long hair phases. My guess is that JLC never had great hair but she made up for it by having good, um, other things. And she had the confidence, as she still does, to pull it off.

Sometimes, when she has one of those amazing yoga bodies, I will, from the back, mistake a fifty something year old woman for a teenager. The hair can look that good. But then she will turn and even if she has, through the magic of perfect aging or peels or surgery, retained a youthful face, she is not young. And I don’t know if at a certain point long hair doesn’t just pull your face down.  But, and maybe this goes back to the horror that friends expressed all those years ago at the prospect of my going bald, most women just don’t want to give up something that seems to shout their femininity to the world. Why it shouts their femininity I am not even sure. But even Beyonce couldn’t stick with that pixie cut that she instagramed a couple of years ago, three weeks later her long locks were back and they haven’t left since. Does BEYONCE need long hair to feel feminine?

It’s interesting to me that my mom and pretty much all of her friends started cutting their hair shorter by their mid fifties, and I have to wonder what it means that so few of us are doing that. It crosses socio-economic and racial lines, pretty much EVERYONE seems to want long, swingy hair. As we are celebrating our diversity, we all pretty much want exactly the same hair. As more and more of us are out in the world in meaningful work and non-work ways, why is it that we want to look like girls? Is it that even if long hair doesn’t make us look young it makes us FEEL young? Why do I suspect that there is something anti feminist about this, that we wear our hair in a way that demands that we spend an undue amount of time grooming ourselves, that our physical appearahair4nce remains of such paramount importance long after most of us are in the market for a mate. That we hold on to this, perhaps, signal of fertility (God, my hair looked amazing when I was pregnant and nursing) LONG after there is any truth to it. What I have heard over and over is, “Men like it long.”  But I guess my answer
to this is, really?  Really in the sense of, are you sure men have such strong feelings about this? But also, really, in the sense of why do you really even care what “men” like?  And even if your husband prefers you with long hair, don’t you get a vote?

Having said all this, I still think, oh, what the hell, I’m going to give it try. I haven’t had long hair in fifteen years and maybe I have one more long hair phase in me. Or maybe I will look in the mirror one cruelly lit sunny morning and want to chop it all off, we’ll see. Or maybe I’ll just try some bangs.

2 thoughts on “The Hair Thing

  1. Debbie Alpert says:

    I have had long hair for the majority of my life. There’s no question it’s some kind of security blanket. It’s a link back to my mother and my grandmother who both had long hair. I thought when I turned 50 that I “should” chop it off and act my age. But, I just couldn’t do it. I’m dealing with the same “shoulds” now that I’m 60. I’ll let you know when I get brave and “make the cut.” I keep telling myself that short hair on me would look better when I’m super skinny. I think that just might be an excuse to not do it.

    1. Laurie Newbound says:

      Interesting, Debbie, the idea of your long hair being a link back to your mother and grandmother. Kind of goes back to what I was thinking, that hair doesn’t seem to be JUST hair.

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