For most of us, where hair is concerned, the grass is always greener. Women with straight hair get perms; women with curly hair buy straighteners. Truly, hair has become The Enemy.
Elizabeth Benedict (perhaps best known for her essay collection, What My Mother Gave Me) has an upcoming release that’s all about hair and women’s follicle fight. The book is called Me, My Hair, and I, and in it, we meet several women, ranging in race and age, all of whom have something to say about hair.
Critics might say an essay collection all about hair is a bit superficial, but when I spoke to Elizabeth, she said hair is anything but. “Hair is a whole library of information,” she said. “It exposes who we are and our values and our heritage, much more than anything else that’s connected to our bodies.”
Women spend full paychecks at the salon. They spend hours every day washing, drying, straightening, curling … you get the idea. Paying attention to our hair has become an obsession for many of us, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Elizabeth said it best when she said women are now expected to look “unnatural.” She continued, “The whole beauty industry tells women they’re supposed to look a certain way to be attractive. It’s very easy to become a slave to those ideas. We’re in love with beauty. If we’re not careful, beauty can be the only thing we care about.”
Essays in Me, My Hair, and I are sometimes serious, sometimes not. In “Hair, Interrupted,” Suleika Jaouad loses her hair to cancer and must deal with her new hair identity. Author Marita Golden bemoans and rejoices in “My Black Hair.” Then, the essay I related to most: “Frizzball,” because let’s face it: weather is not a curly girl’s friend.
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Elizabeth’s own addition to the collection is called “No, I Won’t Go Gray,” the irony of which is that she has since gone gray. She said the essay was less about her refusal to go gray but more about her ambivalence. She blames it on the availability of hair dye. She said, “Prior to the 1950s, when you got old, your hair went gray. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that you can just keep dyeing your hair forever. You’re not supposed to look ‘old.'”
She continued, “It’s okay for men to look old, but women are never supposed to look old,” which again, goes back to the immense amount of pressure we seem to place on ourselves to have the perfect look and the perfect hair.
We talked a little bit about the idea of long hair being the equivalent of sexy hair. (Think Victoria’s Secret models.) There’s the old movie bit about the librarian who wears her hair up but, when things are about to get sexy, she lets her hair down and shakes it all around.
Elizabeth said long hair is “sensual. It’s free-flowing. A little bit out of control. That’s what sex and sexuality are about — about being open to sensations. If your hair is long, that’s a message about one’s openness to one’s sex and sexuality.” At least, this is the image our culture embraces … although I must say, having a pixie cut years ago never stopped my admirers.
Hair is a huge part of our identities, as shown by the myriad of essays in Me, My Hair, and I. So why do we still consider hair care such a battle? We need to change our outlook.
According to Elizabeth, “When you read the essays in this book, you can see how common it is to feel your hair is your enemy. But all the essays are about making peace with your hair. You can read the essays in the book and see, ‘This is who I am; this is my hair, and I’m okay. My hair is me, but my hair is not all of me.'”