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