Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hair Reactions

Once a long time ago, a psychologist explained to me the difference between a reaction and a response. 
A reaction is knee-jerk, like when the doctor hammers your knee during a check-up. Or like when you put zebra-stripes in your hair, take one look in the mirror, and scream.
A response is more carefully considered, something over which you exert some control, like when your child hits you in anger, but you do not hit back. Or when you don't shave your head for 24 hours, hoping your new look will grow on you.
Cultural stigmas about hair color -- that blondes are dumb, brunettes  bitchy, redheads fiery-tempered, etc. -- are not rational. (Reactions to the color gray I'll save for another post.) But according to Melissa Leo (of the recent films "Frozen River" and "The Fighter"), hair reactions are alive and well. 
The actress wandered into the subject this month during an NPR Fresh Air radio interview with Terry Gross. (Click to here to listen, or here for the full transcript.)
GROSS: Was red hair a good thing or a bad thing when you were growing up? Some kids get teased for it.
Ms. LEO: I had so little contact with other children when I was little that I don't really know. They might have had an issue with it. If they did, I didn't notice.
As I got - you know, there was one opportunity many years ago that I dyed it brunette. And that experience taught me something about myself that I would not have learned without dying my hair brown, which is that people judge.
As a brown-haired woman, I walked out of the hotel in Rhode Island, and people looked me in the eye and greeted me good morning. And for me, that was astonishing. It had never happened in my red-headed life.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. LEO: Because people judge a book by its color, and if I wasn't sure, by the time I'd done these two blondes of Lois Riley and Alice Ward and walked in the world not just in costume but, you know, on off days as a blonde, people not only look you in the eye and say good morning, men and women both come up and touch you and ask you very intimately how are you today.
GROSS: Wait, so...
Ms. LEO: A redhead, on the other hand, is someone who will steal your husband, has a fiery temper, and people tend to cross the street when they see a redhead coming.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Backwards and forwards

I confess a personal prejudice against the bob, especially the kind that's long in front and short in back (to see pictures, check out this link to Victoria Beckham).

I'm sitting in the salon chair when I notice all the girls at the counter have this kind of bob hair style. Even now, my stylist Jeff is clipping away at the back of my head. Uh oh. I clear my throat.

"A lot of people wear their hair long in front and short in back these days," I say.

Jeff pauses. "It's a popular style. But that's right, you don't like it, do you?"


"What is that, anyway?"

He stares at me in the mirror. I'm thinking. Do I have a good reason, or merely a blind prejudice?

"Okay, I have a theory. But you may not like it."

"I don't have to agree."

"Fine. Here goes. It feels asymmetrical to me. Not unified. As if a person is showing one superficial face to the world, but in the back, there's another, different person. It's almost as if there's a second face in the back of a person's head. Just part the bangs back there, and you'll glimpse it. Like the two-faced Janus."

"My God, you've taken this to a whole new level," Jeff says (clip clip clip).

In the mirror, I study his arm, coated elaborately in a tattoo. "It must be generational," I reflect. "As a child, I imprinted on hair that's long in the back and short in front. That's my normal. All that neck feels wrong."

Now Jeff is excited. "I get it! You're a fan of the mullet."

"The mullet?"

"You don't know what a mullet is?! Hockey Hair? The Canadian Passport? There's a ton of names for it. The Kentucky Waterfall. Ape Drape."

I make a mental note to look into it. Sure enough, the mullet earns an entry on Wikipedia. For further edification, visit this "history of the mullet" that dates back to the Sphinx.

We're one month shy of 2011, and I am reassured: There will always be something new to try. For now, however, the back of my neck remains curtained by my hair.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hair International

I'm getting ready to go to Germany, so I make an appointment for a haircut.

"Do you know anything about hairstyles in Germany?" I ask Jeff.

He shrugs. "Should I?"

Fair enough. I mean, it's not like there's a Paris or Milan (or Berlin) of hairstyles. There is, however, Hollywood. In Germany,  I noticed how many teenage boys had haircuts like the current teen idol Zac Efron.

Across age and gender, the most remarkable thing was hair sameness (if that's a word). People in Germany wore their hair just about the same way as people I see every day in Seattle. I did snap a few pictures of especially eye-catching styles (mea culpa to these unsuspecting people -- what can I say, you were stylin').

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hair Cost

My friend Jo started cutting her own hair. Self-preservation, due to the eccentric methods of her last hair stylist.
"I swear to you, when I lived in Bellingham, my hair stylist was this New Ager who'd swoop in with the scissors with his eyes closed. I knew I could do a better job than that."

No doubt she's saved a bundle. My son does, too. He's in college now, but still he comes home for a hair cut chez moi. It started when I picked up a home haircutting kit at Costco. An impulse buy. It had a buzz cutter and a comb and a pair of scissors in a little black plastic case. I've gotten better at it over time, especially by studying what stylists are doing to me and those around me while I'm sitting in the salon chair. 

Saving money, not my expertise with the buzz cutter, is my son's impetus for relying on me. It does make a difference. Genius Beauty on-line magazine reports that Pantene has crunched numbers to arrive at the following estimate: women spend $250/year on haircuts. For guys, I'm guesstimating half that amount, so figure $125/year. If I've been cutting my son's hair for 10 years, minus the $19.99 for the Costco kit, we've saved a whopping $1,230.

But hair costs more than money: It also costs time. Pantene estimates the average woman devotes 7 months of her life to her hair by age 65. Mail Online's estimate is even more drastic: 2-1/2 years of our lives "washing, styling, cutting, colouring, crimping and straightening [our] locks in salons or at home."

So is it worth it? This Good Hair Revisited Newsweek blog examined our "Mane Issues" in June. Kate Dailey notes how what we do with our hair every day is a choice (even if that's doing nothing at all), and generally a visible one. "So because our hair is always, always saying something, it's often difficult to ignore it." 

Speak, hair, speak!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Daring to dare

"You need a haircut."

My aunt said this to me, my friend Jo said this to me. Thing was, the last time I visited my salon, I paid a pretty price for what amounted to nothing special. Even before the stylist unpinned me from the chair, I was contemplating how, next time, I'd try somewhere else.

But how to find somewhere else? A problem. I wanted some place close to home (carbon footprint) but the phone book ads for my neighborhood were decidedly unhelpful.

I cogitated the issue, until one morning, feeling especially shaggy, I came up with the bright idea of shopping for a new hair salon by driving around. You know, case the neighborhood for beauty shops, check out what they had to offer. You should have seen the looks I got from the receptionists ... "Excuse me? Just looking?!?"

Seriously, "browsing" beauty salons can reveal more than you might think. All I had to do was peer in the windows to see that Dooz was just for kids. The tip off? Airplane chairs and party balloons. Nor did I have to go inside my second stop, located in the crumbling 1940's office building -- I made a snap judgment based on two white-haired ladies perambulating through the parking lot with perfect perms. Stop #3: the receptionist wore a bad wig, and the sweep-up lady's hair porcupined out in a variety of tints. The customers all sat under hair dryers getting manicures as if it were the 1950s. Stop #4: a salon in a new condo complex with New Age music piped in and -- you guessed it -- a staggering price list.

I went home and surfed the web. (After all, I can take the bus into town.) Customer Reviews were key -- they sent me to Jeff. Half my age, tattooed forearms.

"So what are we looking for?" he asked.

"I'm trying to be a writer, so I want to look like I know what I'm talking about," I babbled. Then: "I don't know what I want, but I do know what I don't want -- a bob, or anything short in the back." After these two flashes of brilliance, I threw in: "By the way, I have a cowlick."

Though hair perplexes me, it doesn't seem to perplex Jeff. He ran his fingers through my hair a few times, pulled up his palette of blond to bronze, and started to paint.

"It's scary," I ventured.

He spun around the chair so I faced him. The psychotherapist is IN. "What's scary?"

"Saying you want something new, but not entirely sure you mean it."

"Trust me, I get new clients all the time who wait 3 or 4 haircuts before they confess they were hoping for a change. Better to speak up."

I trusted him. Jeff turned me upside down, made my gray highlights into lowlights, perked up my sidelocks with some tawny blondes, dared me to dare. I'm lovin' it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hair Museums

As I work on my MFA thesis, I've been rummaging through the 19th century. Which means I've spent countless hours in musty museums, and been known to linger over-long at spots like the Western Trails Museum at Knotts Berry Farm.

From the dim inner sanctum of this fascinating 19th century collection, my teenagers chafed at the rumble of amusement park rides just outside, the thrilled screams of the riders. My kids tried to hurry me up, but I just kept getting side-tracked, by pot belly stoves, button-up shoes, three-foot tall coffee grinders. When I saw the framed hair wreath, I let out a shriek.

"Mom, what?!" asked my daughter.

"Did you see this wreath? It's a hair wreath. It's made of hair. You know, human hair."

My son tugged me by the arm. "C'mon, let's go!"

We rode many rides at Knotts, but I have to say the hair wreath thrill almost equaled the adrenalin rush of the Timber Mountain Log Ride. I already knew about hair wreaths, having discovered Leila's Hair Museum by surfing the web. But to see one in person like that, well, it made my day.

On our heads, hair grows gray and falls out, but when hair is woven into a decoration, it's striking how permanent it becomes. No longer attached to our heads, it transforms into a relic of who we once were, a silky filament of us preserved in time, an artful style and a record of our DNA, all in one.

Creepy. But an even creepier concept is this museum of preserved hair in a Hair Cave in Turkey.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hair food

Photo by Emily Talen Anselin
I have a daughter going off to college, which has reminded me of dorm life and cafeteria food.

At that juncture in my life, I was a vegetarian. Alternative food choices at cafeterias in the (ahem) late 1970's were not all that appetizing, if they existed at all. Hence, the salad bar became my mainstay. My source of protein? An enormous bowl of peanut butter set on crushed ice at the end of the salad bar, right next to the slices of white bread. I ate peanut butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the better part of two semesters.

Predictably, this shift in my diet to a high-fat (and carb) regimen widened my hips; unpredictably, it seemed to have a spectacular effect on my hair. In addition to growing faster than it ever had before, my hair turned thick and lustrous. I had so much I didn't know what to do with it, and struggled mightily with French braids, topknots--stuff I'd never tried before.

All that mirror-gazing gave me time to wonder on what had caused this serendipity for my hair. I narrowed it down to the peanut butter, and proclaimed this theory to my skeptical roommates. My assumption had no scientific basis, until lo these many years later, when I've thought to look it up.

According to "Healthy Hair" type web advice, peanut butter is good for hair. It contains biotin, a vitamin conducive to hair growth. Oatmeal and legumes also have biotin, and oysters (though there's little chance that food graces college menus). (Top Ten Foods for Healthy Hair at Webmd.)

This info got me wondering what other hair issues might have their source in diet. I'd seen a Facebook post by a friend claiming wheat was the source of her psoriasis. I asked SF about it, and here's what she said: "What I did was I took omega fish oil and went on a diet that consisted of only meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts. No dairy, no wheat. In just a few days my scalp got better and better and cleared very quickly. I added back dairy later, but just recently I tried wheat again and the itch came back."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Prom glam

The Complete Book of Hairstyling sits on the kitchen table. I leaf through photo after photo of styles: short hair knotted on the head in messy clumps, or tinted, or ironed to straight perfection; long hair teased, braided, twisted, kinked, or sproinged.

"What's this for?" I ask my daughter, though I have my suspicions.

"I'm thinking about styling my hair for the prom," she says, "an updo possibly, or curled and gathered at the back."

Except for the picture on the front cover, there's not a single style either one of us likes. For that matter, there's not a style in there we've ever seen on anyone else. This book isn't for girls, it's for aliens.

"What if I went to a salon?" my daughter asks.

Has she been reading my hairpisodes, I wonder? "It'll cost us," I say.

"$75, or $85 if I get a master stylist."

I give her my listen-and-listen-good stare. "One day you'll be out on your own, and reality will strike. Then you'll realize how much all of this is costing."

My daughter smacks her forehead. "Oh, give me a break. Prom is not reality."

My friend Kari says her stylist hates working on prom day. Apparently, many of the girls end up in tears because the styles don't match their expectations. But when my daughter comes home from her appointment, she seems pleased with the results. And we even manage to get her dress on over her head without ruining her hair.
The girls gather and, as they're waiting for the last of their friends to arrive, they cluster in the bathroom in front of the mirror. Their dresses are aglitter, their makeup seamless, but just before they head downstairs, the last thing they check on is their hair.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hair Beliefs, Part IV

Standing in line at Disneyland, I started to think about dreadlocks. I wonder why ...

I got to thinking how dreadlocks weren't exactly a sought-after hair style when I was growing up. But now, people from all walks of life and ethnic groups choose to wear their hair this way. It's all in good fun, right?

Not exactly. For Hair Beliefs, Part IV, I checked into the history -- recent and ancient -- of dreadlocks.

The fact that the term "dread" is attached to "locks" in the English language apparently comes from slave ship days. According to, the hair of slaves looked "dreadful" when slaves were first dragged off ships from Africa, their hair matted and scrunched, so their heads were shaved, and laws were passed to forbid slaves from wearing the dread locks.

Before Pirates of the Caribbean came along, the hair style was most often associated with the Rastafari movement, which arose in the 1930's. Rastas wore their hair in dreadlocks as a source of black pride. At the core of the Ras Tafari movement is the belief that the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is the supreme being and ruler of the black people (see correction on this point in the comments below).

Dreadlocks are a potent symbol, just one sign of the ways blacks are superior to the blond whites of Babylon, their unjust oppressors. Then too, Haile Selassie's power is symbolized by the Lion of Judah, so many Rastafari see their dreadlocks as imitative of the mane of the lion. Also, Leviticus 21:5 and Numbers 6:5 are two scriptures that say hair is not to be touched by a razor.

But the style of locks now known as dreads date back thousands of years. There is evidence that the hairstyle was once worn by sects of Judaic, Islamic, and Hindu peoples. Some scholars speculate that Samson's seven locks were dreads, since he was Nazirite, of a Judaic sect known for wearing their hair in locks.

Standing in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, I wondered about all the unsubstantiated rumors surrounding dreads: That dreadlocks are by definition unwashed. That if you cut open a lock, you'll find mold growing inside.

I wonder what locticians would say in response. Locticians: people skilled at creating dreadlocks. Someone you'll need to see once you've attempted to make your own dreadlocks, via youtube or a web site.

Jack Sparrow, aka Johnny Depp, makes for an entertaining pirate, though his character in the movies is divorced from any semblance of real pirate origins. Just so the proliferation of dreadlocks in the twenty-first century. We've adopted the look, without the hook.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hair Change

I love my book group. When we first started meeting, we named ourselves "The Women Who Sleep With Books" because we all had young children, and the only time we had to read books was in bed late at night. By then, we were often too tired and fell asleep.

But the we-all-have-young-children days are long gone. Now we're in leagues with our hot flashes. Apparently, I've been more flamboyant about mine. At book group last night, one of the Debbies said she'd explained to her daughter she didn't want to go off estrogen because this woman in her book group (namely, me) was taking off her socks when the hot flashes struck. She just didn't want to go there. What? Is removing socks in public so wrong?

When it comes to menopause, just about everyone has heard of hot flashes. But not about hair loss. Yup, you heard me right. Hair loss. You'll find it on the list at 34 Menopause Symptoms Item #8. Worse, the term for it is male-pattern baldness (choke). The write-up about the symptom supports what I've been insisting all along: "Hair loss can be one of the more depressing symptoms of menopause, as a woman´s hair is associated with her femininity, sexuality, and individual sense of style."

But that's not all. Michelle Slatalla's column in the March 4, 2010 New York Times tipped me off to the web site Gail Sheehy has founded called Women's Voices for Change. There, you'll find a sweet little write-up on hair gain. We may be losing the hair off our heads, but meanwhile, it's arriving on our chinny-chin-chins. It's growing in as sideburns and on our upper lips, too--guy stuff, due to increased levels of testosterone in menopause. Yikes!

But Gail Sheehy is not willing to let us crones twist in the wind. In the same Slatalla column ("Fast Forward to Old Age, Please"), she is quoted as saying that when women age into menopause, "you go through the doorway to the most creative and individual and exciting period of your life."

Which must be why it's called "the change."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hair resemblance

This month, I'll let images speak for themselves.

My son and my brother:

My father and his greatgrandfathers, German to the left, Scottish to the right:

It's a little tougher to make comparisons between women, because we're always stylin'.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hair Unnatural

I've noticed a lot of Atomic Pink hair lately. Brighter than bright hair colors are today's fashion choice: Limelight, Blue Mayhem, Napalm Orange, Pimpin Purple. But I've noticed Atomic Pink hair the most.

The other day I was standing in line at a fast food burger place with my octogenarian friend Gordon. It was a busy lunch hour, the lines stacked four and five deep. Gordon surveyed the room, his eyes finally coming to rest on one of the workers behind the counter.

"Look at that girl with the pink hair!" he said, laughing. "Looks unnatural, if you ask me."

Unnatural. Remember the Highlights magazine: "What's Wrong With This Picture"? Under the fluorescent lighting, the girl's long atomic pink hair appeared alien. It definitely caught my eye, kind of like a sewing basket tucked under the seat of a van, or a raccoon in broad daylight, cruising down a crowded sidewalk. For some, the color is the ultimate in pretty. For others, it's exacerbating.

Gordon's discomfort reminded me of 1986, when some friends and I visited the University of Washington. It was summer, and on the lawn outside the Henry Art Gallery something unusual was going on. Several students had carefully arranged themselves as a tableau, and completely coated themselves in the color blue. Any one stopping to check them out was free to wander among them. In low voices the blue people were uttering words that expressed blue thoughts: "sky" "sadness" "ink" "jeans". A handout described the installation, a series of different colors on different days.

We responded on such a visceral level that we returned the next day for the event listed on the flyer. Same experience--those real people completely coated in an unnatural color, only this time in gut punch green. One tourist, a retired gentleman in white shorts and white socks (and yes, sandals) really got in the face of one of the artists.

"What are you, some kind of communist?" he bellowed at the guy.

"Broccoli grass splitpea soup moss"

"Cut it out! Now!" the retiree said.

"Pine tree Washington State flag four-leaf clover"

The wife pulled the tourist away before he could do the kid physical harm. The man's distress was palpable; I worried he was going to suffer some kind of stroke.

Unnatural colors can elicit visceral reactions, like suspicion and apoplexy. Then again, they can be just plain kewl.