Lady in the House: Robin Ford

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that I have the kind of head (big) that requires a certain amount of hair. I’ll never be able to rock Halle Berry’s pixie or do a buzz cut the way India.Arie did. I’m envious of those with cute small round heads, but that’s the head I was born with, so what can you do?

Back in the eighties and early nineties, I tried tons of different styles. I hadn’t found my own identity yet, so I copied everyone else’s – the severe Grace Jones from “A View to A Kill” (bad idea!!!), New Wave’s short cut with long floppy bangs (although I didn’t have the guts to dye the bangs blue or purple), and just about every iteration of Janet Jackson: from the big 80s hair of Control to the loose curls on the cover of Janet.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually walked out of a salon with a cut I loved– as in didn’t have to do anything to it to make it look like I wanted. It just worked. And it worked the next day, and the next, and even after I shampooed it. I was going home to California for a visit, and I wanted a new look. I had been growing my hair out so the stylist had a lot to work with, and I finally understood what a good cut can do. When I walked out of the SoHo salon that day, I was definitely feeling it – I was fierce, I was New York City – “California, look upon me and tremble at my awesome NewYorkness!”

 

Is hair a performance?

It depends. There was a time when my hair was as much a performance as the fifty-something shoes I had. It was all a very specific style designed to say, “Don’t you wish you were this cool?” What it actually said is something I don’t want to think about. I had blond stripes at the temple, one time I shaved lines in the sideburn area. Nothing too crazy, nothing I couldn’t wear to work, but just enough to be unique.

You have to be brave to fully commit to performing hair. A green Mohawk is performance, dreads on white people used to be performance; anything that shouts out, “look at me!” is performance. Willow Smith has performance hair. She wrote a song about it, then cut it all off! I admire that kind of bravery.

Now that I’m older, I don’t feel it’s necessary to have performing hair. I’m happy to have my hair sit quietly in the audience and watch the others perform.

 

What is your “hair politic?”  

You are not your hair.  There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” hair – there is hair and then there is bald. It’s your hair do what you want with it – don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

 

In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

As much as I wish it wasn’t so, I’d be very unhappy if I lost my hair. I’d love to be confident and daring enough to just shave it all off, but I’m not. And if I lost it due to sickness, I’d be very upset.

Other black women have always told me that I have “good” hair, which simply means it’s not as kinky as theirs. But I was taught that just like skin, everyone’s hair is unique – not better or worse just different, so I don’t take it to heart. My hair is what it is:  a combination of my mom and dad’s.

When I was young, my hair was a pain in the neck as far as I was concerned. I had very long hair that reached my waist at one point. It would take my mother hours to do it, first washing it in the kitchen sink, then combing it out (this was the worst part), then setting it and finally I’d have to sit under the dryer for at least an hour. So I didn’t know what was “good” about that. After it was styled though it didn’t look much different from the other little girls in my school, so I never gave it a second thought. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized the importance women put on hair, particularly black women.

I can clearly remember my great aunt in Tennessee telling me to never cut my hair because it was so beautiful and long, and that the Bible says that, “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.” Of course I cut it shortly after that. It was just too much to deal with. I kept it relatively long until my sophomore year of college, when I just couldn’t take the upkeep any longer. That was when I got the Grace Jones look. Since then, it’s been long and short and in between.  I know that some women have been envious of the way my naturally curly hair, and think I must not be fully black, which annoys me, but I know who I am.

I’ve never thought of my hair as political. I wear it the way that I feel is most flattering and easiest for me. I’m glad that we’ve evolved so that black women don’t have to straighten their hair for it to be acceptable. There are still some old-school ladies hanging onto the idea that natural hair is messy or dirty or something, but that’s their hangup— don’t put your issues on me.

I’ve been blessed with strong hair that grows quickly and that I have finally learned to manage – that’s all that’s important to me.

 

If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be?” 

The “Afro Puff:” A slightly controlled form of non-fiction that encourages the writer to use their natural language and style. It would allow the writer to use their authentic voice while utilize more formal strategies when desired. Plus, Afro Puff is fun to say.

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Lady in the House: Robin Ford

A Care Package for Tiana

by Dr. Yaba Blay

DSC_5848 a TEXTPhoto Credit: Sabriya Simon

Black women’s hair has made the news again. In the same week that Sheryl Underwood, comedian and co-host of The Talk (CBS) referred to “afro hair” as “curly, nappy, beaded…nasty,” a 7-year-old girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma was sent home from her African-Amerian led charter school because according to school officials and school policy, her dreadlocks are “unacceptable.”

When I first heard this story (sans the video), I, like so many others, became angry. But when I watched the news story, and saw little Tiana in tears, head hung low, I became saddened. Had I not seen the story come to life in that way, I would have likely kept my focus on the school, its administrators, and its offensive, anti-Black policy. But seeing that precious little brown girl break down and cry in front of news cameras, seemingly a day or so at least after the incident occurred, I became instantly focused on her. And her spirit. And her self-reflection. And I wanted to do something for her.

Here is that something. A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.

Of course, I will send this care package to Tiana’s father and ask that he give it to her on our behalf, but I’m also going to send it to administrators at Deborah Brown Community School, as well as administrators at Langston University, a historically Black university under which the school is chartered.

I also ask that you share this with your networks because as much as this is for Tiana, it is not just about Tiana. Tiana’s story is the one that made the news. Our girls are under attack everywhere. I want them all to know that they have an army of sisters, cousins, aunties, Mamas, GrandMamas, and elders all over the world who support them and at the drop of a dime (or a news story) will have their back.

UPDATE: So many women and girls have reached out to me since I shared the care package asking to be included. For now, the care package is all wrapped up. We’ll see what the Universe has in store for this project, but in the meantime, PLEASE share your photos and messages of love with the growing Facebook community We Love Tiana & her Hair. 

Our girls need constant affirmation. They need to know that even though there are people in this world that would have us believe that our natural hair is “ugly” and “nasty,” that it is they who have a problem – not our girls. Not us.

As I did back in December, as I do almost every day, I’m calling on EVERYONE to join me in “singing a Black girl’s song,” not only for Tiana, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value. An intimate weaving of past and present, memory and contemporary, their stories are our stories. Perhaps if they know that we truly understand, they can be encouraged to see themselves through our eyes; perhaps they will soon be able to see themselves for what they are – Pretty Brown Girls.

Not matter her hair texture, length, color, or style, please, in some way, tell a little Black girl that she is beautiful today. And every day.

A Care Package for Tiana

My Personal Haircut

by Lynne Schmidt

I’m seven years old and naked in the shower. To my right is the typical things you’d find: shampoo, conditioner, soap. But there is also a pink single razor staring back at me. My sisters are both old enough to shave, and they ask my mother for new razors when theirs rust. Two years behind my older sister, I haven’t begun the rite of passage.

I know two things at this moment: I’m a girl, and because I’m a girl, I’m supposed to shave. But…what exactly am I supposed to shave? I look down at my prepubescent body. My leg hair is fairly stubby, but mostly invisible thanks to the blond hairs. I look to my arms, which kind of resemble a hairy monster. It’s like my body is telling me what’s right. For the next six months, I shave my arms because that’s what girls do.

Later, I was informed women shave their legs, so I left my arms alone and began doing what girls actually do. It wasn’t until late into middle school when my formerly blond pubic and armpit hair began to darken. I knew to shave my armpits, but no one ever said anything about my crotch hairs, so I left them alone.

Adventures and sexual escapes in high school never told me otherwise. Plus, I figured that if a guy had his hand down my pants, perhaps that should be the last thing to worry about. Adventures and sexual escapades in college would have guys tell me, “No one will ever go down on you if you have pubes,” yet their advice was wrong. The few guys who did give me oral sex never complained about my pubic hair cut, or lack thereof.

As a sophomore, I dated a timid yet beautiful blue eyed, dark haired boy. He’d never had a girlfriend before. As his hands began to dive into my pants, and mine into his, he stopped short. “Does my hair bother you?”

My hand stopped moving. I chuckled, surprised by the question. “No. Does mine bother you?”

“No.”

And like that, we continued along.

After feminists raved about The Vagina Monologues, I dragged a different significant other to a show. In the audience, I listened to a woman recount another woman’s story. Her husband was cheating, because “if she’d shaved down there, I’d find her more attractive.” Their couple’s therapist suggested shaving the wife, together. They did, and she bled. She recounted pieces of herself falling into her hands. It hurt her, but they continued despite when the razor would slip and injure her private area more.

In the end, she was shaved.

In the end, her husband still cheated.

Sitting in the audience as I heard this story, I made a promise to myself that I would never shave anything for a guy.

Still, when my body would be explored, and underwear would be moved to the side, my little black hairs would get caught, and tug, and hurt. So I began to experiment with my hair style, eventually settling on a “landing strip” and barely (but still there if I’m lazy) there under area. I didn’t look or feel like the seven year old girl lost and confused in the shower. Instead, I felt like the twenty-something-emerging-woman taking control of what I wanted my body to look like.

Adventures post-college would have guys hovering above me, mid thrust asking, “So, next time we do this, can you trim up a little bit?”

“Sure,” I’d answer, but I would remember The Vagina Monologues. I’d remember the promise I’d made to myself. If he’s still able to get off, my pubic hair should not be a big deal.

I have met and been with guys who have told me with and without clothes on I’m beautiful. I have been with guys who have manscaped themselves, and guys who’ve been hairy. I have been in unhealthy relationships where my significant other and I emotionally destroyed each other, and I have been in healthy relationships where we’ve pushed each other to do great things with our writing, our careers, our lives.

In the years since my pubic hair has grown in, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on whether or not I want to keep them there. I’ve continued to shave my legs, and my armpits, and from time to time chop my head-hair very short. I make these decisions. I decide if and when I want to shave or cut anything.

In the end, after I’ve had several men disparage me from keeping my little black hairs on my otherwise blond body, I’ve determined that it’s no one else’s decision to make but my own. If I am with a man who prefers me to look like an eleven year old girl, chances are I don’t actually want to be with him. If I’m with a man who truly values me, not just my body, he’ll accept all of my bodily hair styles, not try to push me into a hair cut I’m not comfortable with.

Unless, you know, he’s willing to get all of his hair waxed.

My Personal Haircut

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

A few years ago when I moved to a new town, I was advised to use a local salon. “They really know curly hair,” I was told. It cost me a couple hundred bucks.   This poem, “Beauty Salon Love,” appears in my newest book, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, came out of that visit.

Beauty Salon Love

He says, Oh, I understand your hair; you need

and rattles off a litany that includes

coconut oil infusion

after, of course, a clarifying shampoo,

and talks curl shape and cuticle health

and color, Oh, we’ll talk color next time;

your red is so good, we don’t need to go there yet,

but when we do, you’re in the right hands,

and I admit, I started to weep,

not a lot, but yes, like when you’ve finally made love

rather than had sex,

the whole sweep of your future

opening both out to that future

and back to the dream

you had as a little girl of being rescued

and loved for ever and ever and ever

and suddenly I could make love to my new hair-guy,

but instead buy close to two hundred dollars worth of products,

everything he says will transform me,

and I nod as he takes my money,

would kiss him if he let me,

and then go home to my husband,

and tell him, I like the new salon,

but in our bedroom I hide the bag

with the shampoo, curl activator, and everything else

I will rub in my palms,

apply to my head, every day until I can go back,

spend a little more,

hoping the husband won’t find it,

knowing he will,

knowing he’ll forgive me my desperation,

this lapse in judgment,

and he’ll say, you always look beautiful to me,

and I’ll smile with gratitude,

and won’t tell him

how that’s just not enough.

 

The “curly hair expert” really was great at making me feel fawned over, but he cut my hair in the standard way he cut every woman’s hair, and in a few days, the stepped layers he’d done made my hair look a bit like a Lego stack. This had cost, to me, a huge amount of money, the first time I had paid so much, and now I was certain it would be the last.

I began stopping curly haired strangers in the street to ask them about their hair. Women were always willing to talk about their hair, the products they use, where they get cuts.

One day, a woman sighed, looked around each shoulder as if someone might be listening in, and leaned toward me. “Listen. This is crazy, I know,” she peered at me over hipster Warby Parker frames, “I go to this place over in Eatontown.” She put a hand to her chest in an, “I swear to god gesture. “Ten bucks.”

“Seriously?” I asked, thinking, Holy Grail.

“Seriously,” she said, pulling a card from her shoulder bag, then holding it out, so I could read the name of a “fast food” hair joint. She mugged a face. “I know. I know. Don’t judge it. It’s dirty. No frills, but ask for Linda.”

I took the card. The following week, I had an appointment with Linda, who turned out to be very heavy, who wore a cut off Harley Davidson T-shirt with the neck ripped low to expose sweaty cleavage and a bosom not bolstered by a bra, and who smelled like an ash tray and disinfectant. The cut cost ten bucks, and I gave her ten in tip. The cut was great, too, just right, not fancy, but a disciplined, careful, and loving cut, so my curls layered gently and with bounce. I’ve gone to her ever since. She never blows it dry. She doesn’t use fancy product. We talk about her chopper, her divorce, her kids, her health, my health, my kids, my marriage, my writing. Sometimes politics, money, the culture, her fears for her kids, my fears for my kids; kids, kids, kids. We like each other. We understand the fears.

Recently, I called for an appointment, and they told me she was gone. Gone where, I wanted to know. Don’t know, they said. I’d been going to her for four years.  I haven’t gotten a shaping since. My ends are getting stringy and splitting. I guess I could start talking to strangers again.

 

Is hair a performance? 

Three things have happened recently to collude in me growing my red, kinky, curly hair long:

1. I realized that I cut my hair whenever it gets to the length my mother cut my hair when I was a kid. Back then, there were no “hair products,” and my mom had straight hair and no idea what to do with my mess of red frizz. She begged me to comb it every night to get the knots out, then, “Do a hundred brush strokes to make it shiny.” That just turned my hair into a straw broom. My hair can’t take a comb or a brush, but it would be years before I had black friends to show me how to use a pick, to turn me on to Cream of Nature conditioner to soothe the cuticle of my hair shafts, so it could curl instead of kink, and so my mother is to be forgiven for losing her patience one day, standing me in the bathtub, and with her sewing shears, cutting my hair straight across just below my chin.

It took me well into adulthood to understand that some voice echoes in my head from that day, “Your hair is a rat’s nest! If you can’t keep the knots out, it’s coming off!” sending me into a panic for a hair cut came from that childhood event. Now that I know this, I am working against the sense of chaos on top of my head.

2. My hair cutter is gone (and I do need a new one, but I won’t pay for the salon-spa pampering bit of show-biz nonsense).

3. I met a curly haired women at a conference with tresses to her shoulder blades and made a pact with her: I will see you in a year, and except for shaping and trimming to keep the cuticle from splitting (split ends are real and get worse if not trimmed—the shafts shatter from the bottom up!), I won’t cut it.

So I am letting it grow. And yes, I can see that it is a performance. I am constantly asked about my hair. People comment on the color, the texture, the wildness of it. It is bright. It is bold. It is a defining element of my physicality. Growing it now is a statement of authority and ownership of self. But my head of wild red hair seems to elicit all kinds of reactions.  Just this week, I was in Atlantic City for a few days. Here are some comments I was on the receiving end of:

From a man on the boardwalk: “I love that red hair!” Pause, as I passed, then, cheekily, “Are you a real redhead?” (I have been getting asked this one since ninth grade, when the boys in science class selected a representative to ask me this, the actual query, of course, being about what was behind my skirt, and the boys, perhaps–I’d like to recall it this way– as embarrassed by my silence as I was inside my silence.)

From a woman in a store, but to her companion: “Oh, I just love redheads; they are so cute!”

From a man I had just met in a lobby as we exchanged friendly conversation: “Wow, you have some amazing hair.”

From a child at a public pool: “Can I touch your hair? Is it like wool?”

From a friend, during a gathering, “God, I felt like somebody’s redheaded step-child.” They were discussing someway they had been treated poorly.

When being introduced to read from my new book, my hair was mentioned multiple times: “Dazzling.” “Wild.” “Fiery.”

In a thrift store, from the clerk: “Is that really your hair color?”

But I am being disingenuous.  My hair communicates, and people respond. This is not a bad thing. I don’t even really mind, though I used to and though I am still astonished. I choose how to respond, or not. Sure I let the kid touch my hair. I thanked the man who commented in the lobby. I said nothing to the stranger snorting and chuckling behind me on the boardwalk. I rolled my eyes at the woman referring to me as “cute” (I am a grown up, and nothing about me is cute anymore). I explain gently that “redheaded step-child” is a fraught phrase on many, many levels. And I always say I was born a redhead, yes, which is true while also allowing me not to launch into an explanation of beginning to go gray and now using a plant-based henna to cover the gray, staying as close to my original color as possible, and yes, I have kids pics to prove it.

Which means I am performing something with my hair, because I could just shave it (I have several times done so over my adult life) or not henna and watch it dull (which happens to red hair) and then go gray. So what is the performance?

There is a billion dollar industry out there dedicated to hair. A New York Times article reported not long ago that curly haired women buy hair product more than any other hair demographic. I will buy almost any jarred or tubed thing if it promises to soften my cuticle and make it bouncy and shiny. For a long time, I desperately wanted straight hair. The performance I wanted was simple: make me beautiful, average, regular, skinny, and popular, normal and desirable.  Once a year for many years I would freak out and spend a hundred bucks on a hair straightener and some products, invariably burning my hair (or my neck) and spending hours only to have it look like a witch’s wig.

“What’s wrong?” I begged my husband once. ‘Please, please, tell me the truth.”

He sighed, and I could see him working up the courage to go against the good man code of telling your woman she looks beautiful no matter what (One marker of maturing relationship is about honoring truth not illusion). He said, “When you straighten your hair, it is stiff. It doesn’t move.”

Bingo. That was it. Hair needs to preform with gentle movement, too, to be sexy, alluring, touchable.  Now my desire for my hair to perform is shifting. I own this red, damn it. I suffered as a child with it, withstood the mean bullying comments about my nasty hair for years and then lived in stunned shame as that turned into intrusive sexual comments from men and boys when I was an adolescent (Oh, I have stories! When I was sixteen, a man pulled up next to me in a car and held a rose out the window to me. “I can’t resist a redhead wearing white,” he said. “What a vision you are.” Or recently,  “Every man remembers his first redhead in the back of his car,” a poet told me.   Yeah, dude, I have been hearing about that one for a long, long time.) Redheads are sexy. Redheads have a temper. Redheads are hot. Redheads are magical. Today, my red crazy curls say, I am in the room, and you can’t render me invisible nor make me feel ugly.

 

What is your “hair politic?” 

I have probably already given a sense of politics, though not directly. There are politics of black hair that are more discussed, but red certainly has its issues, and frankly, women are identified by their hair in very profound ways.

Here’s a story: For some reason, with the birth or arrival of each of my four sons, I cut my hair quite short, nearly crew length. The last time I did this, I’d been a full time professor a few years. I noticed my students responded to me differently with my hair shorn, and I had the worst student ratings that semester! I was also regularly asked if I am a lesbian, a question that deserves no answer, in my view, as my sexuality is no one’s business, but answering or not answering is fraught because one wishes to be politically and socially responsible. One of my older sons gave me an answer: he came up behind me one day after I’d cut it when we adopted his youngest brother, and said, “Mom, you look like a lesbian.” When I turned around, I realized our hair was about the same length and cut, so I exclaimed without thought, “So do you!”  He never mentioned it again.

But your question was not about politics, but a hair politic, an art or craft of hair, and for that I have a few cunning little points nearing a manifesto for curly red hair:

  1. Leave-in conditioner is your lifeline.
  2. Do not over wash.
  3. Lock in curl with a brief blow dry with defuser, and then finish with hair dry.
  4. Use orchid clips to keep it out of your face. (I love when people give me an orchid as a gift. I steal the clips.)
  5. Rock your red. Henna to cover gray; don’t dye it. They never get red right, and it fades. And most dyes have carcinogenic.
  6. Honor Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus as a hero. Talk about Lucille Ball’s beauty, not just her comedy. Admit Bette Midler is a gorgeous diva and so was Queen Boadicea.
  7. Red heads should breed; we are an endangered species. And no, coloring doesn’t count. It’s genetic.
  8. When it comes to your genes, know the deal: Red heads need more anesthetic, but often need less pain killers, two very different things. If you are a “real” redhead, meaning by genes, or if there are red heads in your family, make sure to bring this up with your doctors. I have the stories to prove it anecdotally, but the science is there and easy to Google.

 

In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

OMG, how is it not? I think many women of all races and ethnicities would say that hair is inextricably linked to the way a woman is perceived by others, but of course, the real question is how we link it to ourselves. Most of my life, I have had a real love hate relationship with my hair. As a child, I was ashamed of my unruly mess of frizz, bright as a copper penny. Until I was 18, I tried to flatten it in every way possible, and even slept with a book under my pillow and tried to never move my head. Lost cause.

Once in college, I was offered a part in a musical, but conditioned upon my dying my hair dark. I wouldn’t do it.  I hated my hair, but it was me! What would I be without it? WHO would I be??

A few years ago, I was helping someone I loved die in hospice. It was a grueling several months and the stress was enormous. One day, my husband pointed out that my hair was falling out at the top of my head in front. I ran to the mirror. He was right, but I had been so absorbed in the family issues that I hadn’t noticed.

I stood in front of the mirror, my hand in my hair, seeing how it was thinning, my scalp shining through. The family member who was dying was also a redhead, and she’d lost all her hair months before. Suddenly, the grief, the impending loss, my own mortality, my sense of my physical self in the world came bursting into my consciousness, and I disassembled into tears. We lost her not long after, and the healing began, and my hair filled back in. Since then, I have loved my hair, and I am letting it grow. My hair isn’t me, but it is emblematic of living life now and larger, while we can, loving as we go. My hair says, I am here, world; until the dying, I am alive.

That’s how I see my hair right now. Maybe someday I will be dying and lose it all, and that will be okay because it is not what makes me—or anyone—beautiful; being is what makes you beautiful, but owning my age, owning my hair, my big butt, whatever it is that makes me physically represented in the world, that’s where I am at now.

 

If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be? 

Write it all now, edit later. That’s what orchid clips are for.

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

by Christine Clifford

Twenty years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty, my biggest fear wasn’t about dying: it was about losing my hair. I don’t know why it was so important to me, but at the time, I was a busy executive; I had young children and it just seemed so . . . visible.

It fell out with a vengeance; and I wore my wigs and my hats for one year, four months and twelve days. But who was counting?

Fortunately for me, my kids were only ten and eight at the time. So when my older son, Tim, approached me and said that all the neighborhood kids wanted to draw on my newly bald head, I happily complied.

My mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 42, but I always knew if I ever had to lose those particular assets of mine, I always had my best asset: long, thick, curly luxurious brown hair. My friends all kept saying things like, “Christine, don’t worry about it. When your hair grows back, it will grow in thicker, curlier, and more beautiful than ever.”

I don’t know about any of you who may have been through this experience, but when my hair grew back, I looked something like a cross between Andy Warhol and Lyle Lovett. It came back all gray. It was absolutely stick straight. But I have to tell you, it felt wonderful to be able to say, “I’m having a bad hair day, instead of a no hair day.”

And what cancer and my bald head did for me twenty years ago was to reiterate one of those life lessons we all learned as children: beauty is only skin deep. It’s what’s inside that matters. So now, here, I find myself twenty years later, and breast cancer has come back into my life again. This time, I had to have double mastectomies as opposed to the lumpectomy I had in 1994, and reconstruction is a topic I could write on for hours, if not days. But once again, I am bald.

It’s funny, though, actually. I’m treasuring each tiny little eyebrow or eyelash that still clings to my body. Shaving my legs? Wouldn’t even think of it! After all, it’s hair! It’s amazing how different you look without it, and yet, it is far, far easier! Getting ready in the morning has become a ten-minute ritual instead of an hour ordeal.

I’m reminded of a book I read when I faced this baldness the first time around. The super model of my era was Cindy Crawford, and she wrote a book titled Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face. As I read through the book, Cindy talked about how even one tiny little eyebrow could make all the difference. I figured if she’d just give it to me, I’d plant it on my head!

I’m reminded of an awkward situation that played out in my life many years ago. The year I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I decided to take a break from my treatments and the cold Minnesota winter. We flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, where there was a professional golf tournament going on: The Tradition on the Senior PGA Tour. We bought tickets, and we were standing on the third tee, watching my three idols in golf tee off: Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, and Tom Weiskopf. A gust of wind came up and blew my hat (and my hair!) right off my head and into the middle of the fairway. The gallery went silent. My golf idols stared at me as my hair was in their flight path. I took a deep breath, slipped under the ropes, wandered into the middle of the course, grabbed my hat and my hair, and turned to the golfers. “Gentlemen,” I offered, “the wind is blowing left to right.”

They said the laughter could be heard all the way back to the clubhouse, and I realized that once again, laughter is the best medicine. Don’t forget to laugh!

I’ll get through my treatments, and reconstruction. My long-term prognosis is excellent. And I know, too, that one day, I shall have hair again.

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

HER KIND: Why do we care so much about our hair?

 

 

 

Lisa Russ Spaar: I wonder if our being mammals has something to do with why hair—which can seem weirdly both animal and plant—is so primally charged, across time, place, and culture, with all sorts of projection and symbolism.

Hair (or lack of it) is associated with virility and strength (think Sampson and Delilah, think premature baldness, think Brangelina’s “heroic,” Byronesque tresses), sexuality and modesty (consider the marriage or religious veil, all those hirsute or shaved torsos, no-shave November, the popularity of French waxing or the full Brazilian, the so-called Holy Whores—Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt—whose hair grew to cover them), freedom (“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair. / Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen. / Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer / here baby, there, Momma, everywhere, Daddy, Daddy, Hair!”), personal expression (the mullet, the Mohawk, the faux hawk, My Little Pony hair dyes, dreads, the Van Dyke, the soul patch, Pippi braids), transgression (the bearded lady, fetishism, scalping, Medusa), sacrifice (think tonsure, think voodoo), mythology (Rapunzel, Godiva, Beauty and the Beast, all those apocryphal urban myths about ticks and handguns and mice hiding for weeks in beehive up-dos), illness (chemo hair loss, the lanugo of anorexia), aging (nose hairs!  The uni-brow), memento (a lover or baby’s hair braided into jewelry pieces, pressed into lockets, clipped and tied with a ribbon), humor and derision (wigs, clown tufts, toupees, comb-overs, plugs), and rites of passage (a baby’s first hair-cut, the growing of payot), not to mention the burgeoning commercial industry (salons, treatments, products, cures) that has grown up around it. Hair, like fingernails, can apparently grow after death, and survive in graves and on mummies for centuries. The potent, the rogue, the surprising, the transformative: this is also the stuff of poetry.

So no wonder hair holds a particular place in the poetic imagination. I’m not just talking about all those hair haiku websites. I’m thinking about Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Sherman Alexie’s “Good Hair,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” Kiki Petrosino’s “Afro,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” Sappho (“But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair”), Debra Nystrom’s “The Haircut,” Robin Behn’s “My Hair.” And of Rumi (“I’m tangled, like the curls of my love’s hair”) and of Cate Marvin’s “Why I am Afraid of Turning the Page” (“Spokes, spooks:  your tinsel hair weaves the wheel / that streams through my dreams of battle.  Another / apocalypse, and your weird blondeness cycling in / and out of the march’ &c).

What do you think, Zayne? Hair. Poetry. Poetic Hair. Hair Poetry. A tautology?

 

Zayne Turner: When I first read the question, I thought: how do I care about hair? I cut my own hair—because I’d rather buy other things, not because I’m particularly good at it—and my mother’s repeated advice about hair is, “Once you walk away from the mirror, your hair becomes everybody else’s problem.” But you remind me, Lisa, of all the years I did care, very much, about the visibility of my hair. Curled, straight. Brown, blonde, red, or not. How much I just wanted my hair to not betray any sign of difference–style as invisibility, protection.

And now, your question of a tautology between Hair + Poetry make me think of style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access. Personally, I find that my desire to style myself into invisibility has waned—both in terms of my hair & my poetry. So I find myself reading & writing more in the liminal areas. But then I find myself thinking of hairy questions like: at what intervals do erudition, intellection, formal/procedural necessity become so tangled they become more about the spectacle of the mass, the physics of the impossible snarl? And if so, does that matter? Or what if someone decides to take a snarl & slather it in tonic? If we make snarls shiny, but do not undo the tangle, do we just make our knots able to be skimmed over, combed through? What of those who decide to keep everything in a ‘manageable’ style or length, where nothing can possibly tangle? And what of bun fillers, wigs, weave, extensions, Bumpits? Chewing gum or glue? What if the tangle is the result of materials & objects not entirely consisting of our own keratins?

Swinging back to a more closely literal orbit of poetry, I’m thinking of the conversation between Barbara Hennings & Harryette Mullen in Looking Up Harryette Mullen, how the politics of accessibility or aesthetic choice intersect with literacies, economic opp/ortunity/ression, gender, race, our aggregate identities. The brouhaha over the Penguin Anthology & subsequent reviews. Amy King’s “Poetry & the Beastly Po-Biz” (which gives us an allusion & flirtation with another hairy tale–), taking on conceptions/receptions/productions of group identity in poems, by poems, around poems. I’m thinking of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and the ‘divide’ between page and stage in poetry communities. When is a trick (repetition or volume, perhaps) a stunt, when is it a device. A choice. A tool.

The near invisibility of visual and concrete poetries in all of these discussions. How even an adventuresome press like Siglio would like us to “Please note that we do not publish poetry.” Does poetry somehow not exist in the world of visual-literary hybrids? Or just The Last VisPo? The towers that be, that divide.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Let down your hair. Let loose. Loose women. Lack of moral fiber. Split ends. Now we’re in a tangle. A hairy problem. Pepón Osorio’s “En la barbaria no se llora.”

 

LRS:  No crying in the barbershop, indeed, Zayne. Clearly, it’s hard to think about any aspect of hair and hair culture that isn’t psychically italicized.

Your mentioning of the Osorio and of sites like The Last VisPo makes me think of other poet/artists who foreground hair as subject or material, or who privilege sheer process itself in their work. There are so many of them, but right now I’m recalling those hair-like red threads and flosses in Jen Bervin’s series on Dickinson’s fascicle scorings and variants, for instance (incidentally, Dickinson herself seems to have been obsessed with hair—not only her own auburn tresses, which had not dimmed by the time of her death, but hair in general, referring to the word itself some 27 times in her lyrics), and of course the temporal beatitude of your own luminous hybrid work, which evokes, by turns, meridian cross-hair grids and the ephemeral fletchings of border spaces.  Cindy Sherman’s perverse and haunting photo collage spread of the Grimm Brothers’ Fitcher’s Bird toys with the “humanimal” excrescences like feathers and fur.

Surely there is a language of hair. As Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde:  On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, “The language of the self would be stripped of one of its richest resources without hair:  and like language, or the faculty of laughter, or the use of tools, the dressing of hair in itself constitutes a mark of the human.” Just as our “callings” are signaled by our “hairy signs”—a military crew-cut, a skater boy’s flaxen mane, a butch girl’s crop, an athlete’s pony tail—Warner writes that “on the one hand, hair is both the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial, nature and the natural with the inferior and reprehensible aspects of humanity; on the other hand, hair is also the least fleshly production of the flesh . . . [and] seems to transcend the mortal condition, to be in full possession of the principle of vitality itself,” connecting it with magic, relic, loss.

What happens to our hair reflects our helical dance with the mortal coil.  Zayne, do you know Stephen Cushman’s three-line poem “Story of my Life”?  It goes:

Light hair.

Dark hair.

Light hair.

And how we arrange, ignore, or style our hair (Warner mentions Joan of Arc’s fatal boy cut, Frieda Kahlo’s angry self-shearing in the wake of Diego Rivera’s departure) can help reduce (or exalt) us to our essential selves, allow us to express gender ambivalence, sexuality, anger—or permit us to be other than we are (Harryette Mullen in “Quality of Life”: “Tina Turner set fire to her wigs so she could wear all that burnt hair.”)

And so I’m especially intrigued by the related matter you raise about “style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access.” In his booty call poem “The Ecstasy,” John Donne writes that our bodies “are ours, though they are not wee.” Hmmm. But when he goes on to say that our bodies are our books, he may be on to something related to these issues.  In fact, I think your questions probing the interaction of “product” (conditioner, sea salt spray, dye, straightener, what have you) or embellishment (beads, dreds, extensions) (and here, in poetic terms, I’m thinking of elaborate syntax, recherché diction, cross-outs, collage, &c) and, for lack of a better word, a poem’s essential message or matrix, its “own keratins,” as you say, are at the heart of what’s at stake in thinking about poetic “style.” When does texture, gesture evince or reveal something essential, occult, and signature, and when does it lapse into or fail to deepened into anything more than mere surface glitter, dross, smoke and mirrors?

 

ZT: That is the question—or, at least, is something that concerns me quite a bit. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a craft talk by Dara Wier at work recently, and she asked all of us if there was some thing, some quality or event, etc. that only happened in poetry. That we couldn’t get in any other genre/medium. And my immediate reaction was a deep and sudden sense of discomfort. I think that’s one of the quickest ways to make a room of writers suddenly a wild and— depending upon who’s facilitating/speaking— divisive place. (And I appreciate that, in that context, the question was more about what we each got from poetry, more than what poetry is.)

I hate it— and I think many others do, too— when talk of craft or aesthetics devolves into statements about who is/could/should ‘be’ in poetry or art or whatever, and who isn’t or shouldn’t be. But also I think there’s something at stake with these kinds of conversations— especially/even just on the level of the individual practitioner/reader/entity. How we each define revelation or surface gloss or genius or careerist posturing crap for ourselves  says more about each of us than about the work. (Which is something I first heard from Brian Reed at UW Bothell’s fantastic Convergence on Poetics.)

And I think that it’s dangerous to go about without knowledge of self. On a micro to macro scale, with various kinds of ‘dangerous’ consequences for various arenas. Halliburton, George Zimmerman, NSA. Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus. Egg on my face, my fly undone.

One could argue that knowledge of self is really what’s at the heart of the VIDA Count.

I’m thinking now of Paradise Lost, how Eve is described as turning away from the outside world (aka Paradise) “with unexperienced thought,” and preferring her own reflection, the “answering looks/Of sympathie and love” she finds there.

 

LRS:  I love your turning toward Eve here, Zayne, in the context of your meditation on the difference between what we get from and what is, and especially in relation to “knowledge of self.”  Hair is revelatory of female agency and selfhood in Paradise Lost, I think; here’s a familiar passage describing Eve’s hair from Book IV:

Shee as a veil down to the slender waist

Her unadorned golden tresses wore

Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d

As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d

Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,

And by her yielded, by him best reciev’d,

Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,

And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (4.304-311)

In John Milton:  Language, Gender, Power, Catherine Belsey calls Eve’s hair in this passage “both a glory and a snare.”  Leaving aside whatever Milton’s own conflicted feelings may have been about the paradoxes of Eve’s nature, I’ve always responded to the electric balance between the language of traditionally “modest [female] pride” (“veil,” “unadorned,” “ringlets,” “gentle sway”) and the language of wild and “wanton” (archaic meaning:  “ungovernable”) naturalness (“dishevell’d . . . / As the Vine curls her tendrils”).  Rather than finding in this description a woman who coyly seems to be one thing but who is also already guilty of a fatal susceptibility and inevitable lapse, I read instead, in that barely pent, “sweet reluctant amorous delay,” a signal of volition, an ownership of desire.

And speaking of ownership and desire, could Cher and her new blonde tresses be a kind of low (or high)-end parallel to my discussion of Eve?

In Milton, though, Eve’s hair manifests the multitudes she contains, and is at the heart of her mystery and her power.  She is her own answering look.

 

ZT: Mmmm. Yes. I love the reading of Eve via her (vexed!) hair. Paradise Lost is one of my favorites—not just because of the textures/language, but also all the complex characters and Milton’s own thorny logics.

And—after a quick nod to the platinum connection, which is hilarious—Cher is absolutely an example of being multiple & full of volition. The Cher connection also makes me think of survival—of pulling yourself up & through this post-lapsarian (a phrase you definitely mine for all its worth, Lisa!) world by your wigs and Bob Mackie originals.

Also, speaking of amazing things on the internets, have you seen this, Lisa?

 

LRS:  Heh.  Wonderful.  Future jobs for poets!  Naming the cardigan shades at J. Crew, the haircuts of the future.

Seriously, though, this conversation has been a joy.  We got us, Babe, &c.

You:  Swoopy bangs?

Me:  Acoustic feelings?

 

ZT: Looking back, I’m realizing that we didn’t even address hairlessness. Or hair replacement therapies. Or really, the whole world of body hair. We might have to keep this going off-line, Lisa!

 

Zayne Turner grew up in the rural High Desert of Oregon. She is the author of the chapbook Memory of My Mouth, available from dancing girl press. She has received grants and fellowships for literary & visual arts from the Arteles Creative Center in Finland, Oregon Arts Commission, Vermont Studio Center and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Her literary work can be found in places like Ancora ImparoCaketrain, ColdfrontPoecology and Terrain.org. She also sometimes makes things on Storify.

 

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012).  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations of Contemporary Poetry appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

Pull

by Deborah Reeves

The night before we flew away, our dad sang “Moon River.” You know how it goes—“Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see”. I think now of a poem by Bill Knot, and of where and how my sister and I are bound:

“Hair is heaven’s water flowing easily over us.

Often a woman drifts off down her long hair and is lost.”

 ***

It is dark when he wakes us to take us to the airport. It’s December in Dublin, a couple of days after Christmas. Presents have been unwrapped and it is the New Year that glints now and begs to be opened. Though it is frosty, we dress in light cotton and jeans that will soon be too heavy. I hold on to a cup of tea, brush my teeth, and triple-check I have everything I need in my backpack. And my sister, she wraps a silk scarf around her smooth head, then carefully places her hair inside an old hatbox, closes the lid, and pushes it far under her bed with a flip-flopped foot. I look into her frightened eyes and she stares into mine. I want nothing more than to crawl back into my own bed, forget the whole thing—except the whole world. I want that more. And so, we step into the still dark and soon are sitting at the gate, waiting to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro.

I had planned to travel alone. I had not imagined things this way. But how can I tell my little sister that she can’t travel with me when she asks? What right have I to stand in her way? I have shared everything with her—from a room to a doll to the unfathomable urge to pull out the hairs on my head. She was carried along that path right behind me and there is no returning now.

Our dad is driving home in the dark and we are anxious in the airport’s interminable glow and the glare of so many strangers’ eyes. I keep up a steady chatter, trying to distract her from looking to see who is looking at her. She reminds me of a nervous bird, bright eyes red and brimming. But I am looking too and, in the harsh fluorescent light, I see her as those who do not know her might: an invalid, an oddity, an alien—a girl with no hair.

I see, too, all the years of our girl lives before this. My mother wrapping tape around my gloved hands before bedtime. A boy in school plucking wildly at the air above his head, mimicking me. I see bare patches of scalp and tufts of downy damaged hair. I see hairs on the floor, on the couch, on my desk, between the pages of books. Myself crying. Myself not knowing how to stop. I see my sister say, “Look,” and point to her eyes. And a sickly fear spreads through me: raw, smooth ridges where eyelashes should be. I see I turn to Now Her Too, to We.

We hid from experience, from our lives: dancing, swimming, running, the rain, the wind, and boys. But, though I suffered with my own hair-pulling, with shame and self-loathing, my compulsion was never as acute as hers or the consequences so drastic. When every effort to stop had failed through the years, I see the day she made the decision to shave it all off and wear a wig. So long ago now that it seems to be a part of her. Barely out of school, it was supposed to be a final fresh start but what was meant to be temporary had become a painful and perpetual solution. The decision, then, to leave her hair at home filled her with anxiety and trepidation. But Brazil would be hot and humid and her synthetic hair was so stifling already. She wanted to dance unchecked till dawn. She wanted to swim in the ocean.

And, suddenly, we are there. Copacabana, Ipanema—from winter to summer in half a day. On stamps and postcards on every corner, Carmen Miranda wears a tall crown of fruit and flowers, and Jesus floats too far above us with outstretched arms. Beach-bars pipe out samba and bossa nova calls us in. We drink straight from the coconut and wander in a dream world where, as far as I can see, the girls are all tall and tanned and young and lovely. Regardless of who they actually are, I cannot—me, of all people—see them any other way but through their bodies. Brazil is beauty.

And women pay small fortunes in salons for all forms of it. The illusory hairless female body. The “escova progressiva,” otherwise known as the Brazilian treatment—a carcinogenic hair masque that straightens kinks and frizz. In the lucrative wholesale of human hair, the temple-offerings of Hindu-women’s locks in India are sold and rebranded as Brazilian. All around the world it is customary for women to lie on their backs and pay someone else to rip the hair from their legs and faces. Beauty is the dissolution of reality and the Brazilian wax epitomizes this. I’ve had it done too and felt quite normal. But when I do it to myself, when I pull the hair from my body in my own ceaseless cycle of insecure anxiety, it is a disorder and I feel like a freak. What is the difference though? It is all anxiety, fear, and self-loathing: the belief that we’re not okay as we are.

The allure of travel is not only to see a new place but also to be seen newly in a place. People do not know your story or the things you carry. They see you with fresh and, often, more forgiving eyes. You realize that you are not tethered to the beliefs and meanings you have assigned yourself. There are different ways of looking at a thing—even the hairs on your head. In the backpacker hostel in Botafogo, difference is a boon. Here, my sister is not perceived as a freak as she feared; rather, her bare head signifies freedom and non-conformity, along with the natty dreadlocked chicks and the boy with a bone through his nose. I can barely make out the anxious, little thing inside. Instead, she seems to me a Gypsy girl, bright scarves and golden hoops in her ears, silver in the palm of her hand.

We are blank slates and on New Year’s Eve we follow the custom, dressing all in white along with the entire, feverish city. We pin ourselves with flowers and ribbons, the color of which represents a wish, a desire, for the year ahead: yellow for money, red for passion, pink for love, and green for hope. White is the symbol of peace. Jenny appears in a bright white sundress and a bob of hot-pink hair, a novelty wig she picked up some place. She has hair again but it is no secret that it is not real. She’s excited for the party on the beach that night. She is glowing from the inside out. She is extraordinary. People are looking at her, the women and the boys, but she doesn’t seem to notice or need it. She is just happy. The ribbons are working.

It is a holiday so there are no trains or buses. We join the crowds and walk with everyone in the hostel around the bay of Botafogo to Copacabana. We dance in the streets and mingle and wander. There are thousands of people dressed in white and ribbons; there are drinks and drugs. Someone stops to tie a shoe, to take a photograph, to pee behind a wall, and in a moment Jenny is gone, swallowed by the white city. There is nothing to be done but believe she is part of a happy group and not lost or on her own. Others assure me she is fine and I know that it’s true, but it’s hard for me to not be afraid for her and the night loses its glitter.

Still, another part of me acknowledges that this is what I wanted. What color ribbon signifies your wish to be free of your sister? Free of her pain and my guilt. For years I have been carrying the thought that I am the reason she began to pull her hair, that I was the catalyst and the cause of so many years of damage and hatred and hopelessness. I am the eldest, I pulled first and she followed. And though I still struggle with the disorder myself, I have not suffered as severely as she has. My load has been lighter and I have compensated by taking the blame. Research says that it is chemical, perhaps genetic. But when my eight-year-old sister said, “Look,” and I saw her naked eyes, my twelve-year-old self saw a link from my hair to hers. No matter where I go, I cannot leave it behind.

On Copacabana beach, at midnight, fireworks blaze the sky and we jump backwards over dark waves seven times for luck. We send tea-lights and wishes out to sea and pray they don’t return on the waves, unfulfilled, or sink to the bottom. We ask this of the orixá Iemanjá. The trail that moonlight leaves on water is thought to be her flowing hair but the moon is missing tonight. My sister is out there somewhere, leaping and wishing: perhaps she wishes to be free of me. There are millions of tourists and cariocas on midnight sands. We all have hopes and secrets to confess into a breaking wave. The difficulty is that pain can’t tell what it really wants.

It only seeks to soothe itself and I am ready for a new form of relief. When I twirl my fingers around a hair and pull, I cannot describe the release I feel. They call it trichotillomania: trich is Latin for hair, till means to pull, and mania is a madness that implies a sort of frenzy. But I’m not sure about that part and hardly ever call it that. It is a calm, soothing sensation for me—methodical, almost meditative. Agitation comes after and perpetuates the cycle that is potentially never ending. At thirty-two, I have been pulling for three quarters of my life. The pain doesn’t leave no matter how much of myself I pull and pluck away. Hair grows back, mostly.

And I know, too, that a continent or a city cannot remove me from the tangle of sorrow, regret, and guilt I feel for my sister. Rio is just the first stop on a much longer journey. And as much as we share the same experience and habits—and whatever the origins and reasons for them—we are ultimately each on our own path and will have to find our own way through this thing.

The fireworks have finished but the beach continues to sparkle and flicker, a million people dance and sway, an undulating sea of white. It is beautiful to watch and I am excited for what comes next in my six months in South America. There is such a lot of world to see. But I am missing my fellow drifter, my huckleberry sister, and I hope that she’s okay out there tonight. The moon is out now and the waves are softly crashing against music and revelry. I stare out into the crowd and catch a flash of hot pink, bobbing and weaving in the distance: a wish returned on the waves. Our hair will always bind us. It has been and will always be a way to know and see each other. I stand on my tiptoes and shout: “Jenny! Jenny!” And, somehow, she turns and sees me, smiles and moves my way.

Pull