It all started in 1990 when we were drinking Jim Beam out of beach buckets which were Happy Meal promotions from McDonalds. A bohemian affectation that went perfectly in an era wherein the world looked like this. We — my friend Steven and I — had just gotten going when Steven looked at me like a prophecy had been revealed to him and said “We should make you blonde for the summer.”
I had, at that time, achieved perfect hair. It was like a resume you could read in one second and know all you needed to know: Bettie Page, That Girl, Veronica, a tough cookie…but a cookie nonetheless. After a childhood of thick glasses and dreaded pixie cuts I had grown up wanting "sex hair," that tousled, post-coital cloud worn by who were wild, confident bombshells. My girlhood beauty icons like Raquel Welch, Donna Summer, and Cher all had hair to be reckoned with. As I got older I understood that even if hair didn’t impart those traits it could make people think you had them, which was half the battle. Just not the tough half.
In my early 20’s and a long way from the sexual confidence of midlife, I was still appraising what sex was supposed to be/look like and hair had part in the play. It wasn’t just alluring: if you had enough and threw it around a lot it could have an orgasm for you. Your lover would have to push it away from your face — just like in the movies. Never mind that in real life it gets in the way of everything, ends up pinioning you to various objects (“You’re on my hair!”) and that when it’s cluttering your path during oral sex you can end up with a strand in your throat the length of a Trapper Keeper and have to cough like a cat with a Mogwai in it’s throat. Alluring.
I didn’t care. It was all worth it to have the hair shield. When I agreed to go blonde I never imagined the havoc the bleach would wreak.
The black dye in my hair proved harder to strip off than a bumper sticker. Several bleaching processes in, Steven (a licensed cosmetologist) said “You look like Cheetarah from Thundercats and had a laughing fit that nearly got him kneed in the groin. This did not bode well.
Eventually it went blonde. But not healthy Jean Harlow blonde. It was more Grandmama Addams. All that processing had turned my hair into fishing line.
I didn’t actually cry when I eventually dyed it brown and got it all hacked off, short-short, gone-daddy-gone, but I felt like a boyish visitor in my own mirror.
Hair does have a psychological impact on us. “The requirement for hair grooming standards is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population,” About.com says of the “neat and conservative” military haircut. Prisoners’ heads are often shaved for cleanliness but also to "clearly" demean them says Wikipedia in its head-shaving entry. In a nice story on hair's social history and psychology, YouBeauty.com reports that a Tresemme survey found that "23 percent of women don’t want to leave the house on a bad hair day." We want to think appearances shouldn’t count and surely our cultural views of attractiveness shouldn't be so narrow as they are, but we are stuck with attraction that largely comes through the senses first, and with it our desire to be what we think is attractive.
That varies with circumstance and for me the accidental pixie affected my hair-centric self-image until I became like the people on Hoarders who have lost something dear to them and now save everything: I kinda started hoarding my own hair. Outside of the odd trim, I didn’t cut it for another 20 years. I’d see cute, short do's and quickly think “I can’t,” like the people who want to throw that expired can of beans away but, for whatever reason, don’t have the psychological wherewithall until the therapist shows up.
And it never dawned on me until very recently that the hair I’d been tending, like Gollum hanging onto his precious, wasn’t giving me that spiffy chutzpah it once had. I was so intent on keeping it I never realized that if you’re really confident you can let things go.
Several turns of events occurred last spring (including my finishing a book) that made me take a long, unflinching look at the coping mechanisms I’d acquired over the years and inventory the ones that were working and the ones that weren’t, like the hoarders have to inventory their broken dolls and pizza boxes. I realized that the hair that was once such a pleasure had become a psychological combover that helped me stay in a place I had grown out of. It’s not that for everyone — some people have long hair and it’s just hair — for me it became emblematic of a self image that had expired.
As I watched big swathes of it waft to the salon floor — voluntarily this time — I found my sexual self didn’t deflate like a released balloon. I’d worked on it enough that at least some of the confidence was finally on the inside.
So I no longer see a bombshell wanna-be in the mirror. I see me looking happy a lot, though. And I see a reminder of how good it feels when you let go of what’s not working and how fast “I can’t” can turn into “I did.”