hen lovers describe their sweethearts, they usually mention the color and length of their hair. One may love the whole person, body, and spirit, but hair becomes the fetish of that love. Yielding and soft, sumptuous and colorful, decorative, and dangling, it invites a lover's touch. It's fun to fondle, play with, and disarrange. Messing it up is the symbolic equivalent of undressing the other's body. A woman quickly learns that cutting her hair without warning her lover first is a bad mistake. Even a becoming change of hairstyle can be shocking and disturbing.
A boyfriend, on the verge of breaking up with me, once exclaimed with a wince, "Your hair!” "What's wrong with it?" I asked, suddenly vulnerable as a trembling fawn. 'Well, there's just so much of it ..." he said. I knew then that everything was over between us. Hair is the caressable plumage of love, a feature individual as the shape of one's chin or the size of one's fingers. If he had said: "I no longer like your mouth," it wouldn't have been more wounding. I once tucked a perfect curl of my hair, tied with a lavender ribbon, between the pages of a poetry book I was returning to a friend. The curl marked my favorite love poem, and I felt as if I were charging the book with my life force. I knew I was giving him a powerful talisman. Hair is sacred to lovers, but also to society.
In the late sixties, a white woman was nowhere if she didn't have straight hair. Straight hair suggested a non-ethnic (and therefore upper-class) bloodline; the cheerleaders all wore their blond hair straight. And among the rebels who yearned to be like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, it expressed a sincerity based on contempt for society, hand-me-down values, and the coiffed generation's ideals. However, I came into this world capped in black curly hair -deep-night black with real corkscrew curls -and you could no more straighten it than you could hold back the sea. But I tried. I used to iron my hair; get it temporarily denatured in a reverse permanent; or set it on jumbo orange-juice cans. In fact, most of my teen years were spent sleeping on rollers of one Inquisitional design or another. "Beauty sleep" was the oxymoron. What self-imposed tyranny! For short spells, my hair did look "tamed,” "tidy," "controlled." Society was exploding in all directions, but my hair was in place. Lack of control was scary, and suggested the lawlessness of murder, bank robbery, or having sex -all equally criminal for "nice girls" when I was sixteen.
Then, sweet miracle, one day many years later I walked into the Lexington Avenue salon of Richard Stein, whose pretty, vivacious styles I had seen on a number of fashionable women. He looked compassionately at my country-western hairdo, which had taken two hours under a hair dryer to achieve, and said indignantly on my behalf: “Why do you do this to yourself?" Then he turned the animal in my hair loose, shaping it into a long thick shag -the waterfall of curls it always yearned for -and for the first time in my life I had simple, wash-and-wear hair. The years of setting, drying, and vanity-rich fussing were over. So was a special kind of bondage to one rigid ideal of beauty. A symbolic freedom came from accepting my hair on its own terms, relishing its eccentricities instead of trying to disguise them. Now, once every three months or whenever I begin to feel like a sheepdog, Richard tames what he refers to as my "Queen of the Amazon" hair. He has often been the last person I would see before setting out on an expedition, or the first when I returned. This does not surprise him. Scissorwise and insightful, he knows well how symbolic hair is, particularly to women.
And especially for me, since my hair sometimes seems to have a life of its own. "Just look for a weather system of black hair," I say, "and you'll find me." A poetry student of mine (who was also a professional cartoonist) once did a series of drawings about a woman with my kind of hair. It was her hair that a beau introduced to his parents, her hair that chose from a menu, her hair that streamed out of a car window like Spanish moss. Recently, when I was having the house enlarged to accommodate a room that's combination bathroom and astronomical observatory (one telescope), a twinkling-eyed woman whose job it was to help design that sensory marvel, said: "I don't know what your taste is ...but I presume it's like your hair." Then she suggested a harem tent fluttering over the tub, its flight propelled by small strategically placed fans. Once, stricken by despair, I phoned a girlfriend and, when I calmed down enough to speak, sobbed out my woes. "Oh, boy trouble," she said in a tone of voice that meant Hell, we can deal with that. "I was afraid you'd got a bad haircut." When her daughter was born, she cradled the baby in her arms and swore: "I promise I'll never give you a hard time about how you wear your hair."
This is the crux of the matter. Mothers and daughters are always confronting each other on the battlefield of a daughter's hair. I know so many women whose mothers would greet them -sometimes before even saying hello -by pushing their hair straight back and exclaiming, "You'd look so much better with the hair off your face, dear!" They say this for years, regardless of how hairstyles change, and it's always accompanied by yanking the hair back severely, as if it should be held by an Ace bandage.
It's as if a daughter were seen as the incarnation of the pure side of a mother's being. An important moment comes when a mother tells her daughter that she likes her hairdo, which often occurs late in life and signals an armistice of larger dimensions. There is something too sexy about out-of-control hair, or hair falling over the face. Something too competitive. Remember how Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction is always seen with psychotic blue eyes under a blond whitewater of hair. When long haired women have children, they frequently cut their hair short. Pleading convenience, they explain it merely as a practical move. But it is, I think, more symbolic. In various cultures and religions (among nuns and some Jewish, for instance) women are expected to cut their hair short so that they will no longer be attractive to men. A freshly bobbed new mother might be saying, in essence, I'm going to focus my life now on nurturing my family; I'm not available for flirtation. At the end of World War II, collaborators were de-sexed and shamed by having their hair chopped off in what was, essentially, a form of social circumcision. Mothers often wish a daughter to cut hers short when she reaches puberty, but fathers want a daughter to keep her hair long forever,. A friend tells me that when she turned fourteen her mother talked her into cutting her waist-length hair, much to the horror of her father who, in a melodramatic and ritual symbolic gesture, insisted that he alone be allowed to cut it.
Throughout history, hair has been considered not just ornamental but magical. In ancient Egypt, a widow would bury a lock of her hair with her husband as a charm and, possibly, as a vow that her love went with him. The goddess Isis used her hair as a rejuvenating fabric to bestow life on her dead lover, Osiris; and even the shadow of her hair, spread like the wings of an eagle, protected her child from harm. The constellation Bernice's hair -a pretty cascade of stars lying between Boötes and Leo -is said to be the hair of an Egyptian queen who lived in the third century B.C. and was married to her brother, Ptolemy III Euergetes. Soon after the wedding, Ptolemy III went off to war in Asia, and Bernice swore that if he returned alive and victorious she would sacrifice her hair to the gods. I don't think her motive was that the gods needed chignons, but the all-too-human belief that nothing good happens without the requisite amount of sacrifice or punishment. On Ptolemy's safe return, she offered up her long hair in the temple of Aphrodite near present-day Aswan. but the next day, mysteriously, the hair vanished. Soon the Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, Conon of Samos, alerted the king to a swarm of stars he had seen near the tail of the constellation Leo, and his conviction that they were the queen's hair, set in the heavens to commemorate Ptolemy's victory. What really happened to Bernice's hair, we will never know. (Perhaps Conon secretly had a crush on Bernice, and wanted at least to possess her hair, an intimate par of her.) But its discovery certainly was timely.
Although I haven't always been happy with my hair, I never thought of it as literally demonic. Now and then I might have hoped it would beguile, but I didn't suppose it was supernaturally evil, the devil's circuitry, the whips of hell. In more superstitious days, however, people associated horror with women's hair. During the Middle Ages, the unruly hair of “witches" was thought to control the weather. All manner of hail, hurricanes, or windstorms could be unleashed by a woman allowing her hair to fall wild. Of course there was always some woman somewhere who didn't give a fig for the reputed evil in her hair, and unbraided her long tresses to have a good wash. This was considered highly uncivic-minded, since, as everyone knew, a thunderstorm occurred solely because a woman somewhere was combing out her hair. In Corinthians 11:10, St. Paul warns that good Christian women should cover their heads because demons leap like sparks from female hair and enter the world to do mischief. The tradition of a woman covering her head in church originated with this belief, that any mild-mannered woman could poison the church building with her lice-like demons.
Pagan superstitions about hair ran riot during the Middle Ages. One example: bury a snippet of hair from a menstruating witch and it will become a snake. Reminiscent of the Medus myth, this one combines many suggestive images -witches, the temptation of Eve, the supposed filthiness of menstruation, the power that came from secretly possessing a lock of someone's hair. But there was also good magic associated with hair, especially when strands were braided and given as amulets. Lovers often exchange locks of hair, and knights rode to battle with a precious twist of their lady's sacred hair to keep them brave.
But hair symbolized more than romance; it can also serve as a political placard. Each generation, needing to feel a sense of identity, sets itself apart through hairstyle. Because there are only so many things one can do with one's hair to shock society, styles seem to reappear after a decade or so. Those who lived through love-ins and antiwar rallies probably find it as strange as I do to see construction workers now wearing ponytails and headbands or a policeman with long sideburns. Or a corporate man in a conservative suit wearing a ponytail. It makes me do a double take: the look is hippie, but the politics and philosophy are different. History, myth, and literature are filled with dramas in which hair plays a central role. Most often it symbolizes strength, as in the story of Samson and Delilah; or sexuality, as in the fairy tale about Rapunzel; or selfless love, as in the famous short story by O. Henry; or fetish magic, as in American Indian lore; or a religious portent, as in the Aztec myth from which Cortes profited -that a god would appear from afar and be recognizable by his blond hair. I won't argue that hair brought down the monarchy in eighteenth-century France, but it may have helped to focus society's rage. At Marie Antoinette's court, both men and women were said to use barrels of flour to whiten their elaborate wigs. Reputedly, this waste so outraged the common people, who were starving for want of bread, that they cut their own hair short in protest and, ultimately, condemned royal hair and heads to the guillotine.
Merely thinking about the eighteenth century's huge, cloud-like wigs and the matted, rarely washing hair beneath makes my skin crawl. I like to wash my hair every day, unless I'm far from running water. At times, I go on expeditions into perfect wilderness. Then I braid my hair, leaving my fluffy bangs loose. Yet my hair sometimes disturbs male scientists enough they feel obliged to comment on it. For example, when I was making arrangements for a recent trip to the Brazilian rain forest, the project director took a hard look at me and said, "You'll have to do something with your hair." "I can pull it back," I assured him, trying not to smile. Most people understand the concept of long hair -that it can be braided, put in a ponytail, or in other ways subdued for hot weather or dense foliage. But he instinctively remarked on it, as others in his position sometimes have, because long hair is suggestive. It implies excess, extravagance, rampant sensuality -literally, a lack of restraint. Expedition work tends to be unisex, and it's tough to work efficiently if there are man/woman distractions and complications. So people are often fearful of accentuating gender differences by wearing sexy clothes and loose hair, of setting free the "demons" of temptation.
The same seems to be true on the electronic frontier. These past years, which much hoopla, four of network television's anchorwomen bobbed their hair. What I find fascinating is all the ruckus it caused. Deborah Norville, then of the Today show, said: "My hair was never my own on television." After her 20/20 interview with Boris Yeltsin, Barbara Walters received compliments, but she was amazed to find that some were just about her new haircut. There is a tacit assumption in the media that long hair looks vampy, not authoritative or sincere, and that changing the length of hair changes the sexual message. It also changes the sexual message at home. "Now I have a whole new life," Diane Sawyer, of PrimeTime Live, said to Newsweek, "I do a year doing investigative reporting, and you call about my hair!" Her husband is reported to have complained that he went to bed with a sex symbol and "woke up with Peter Pan."
Human lovers aren't the only ones fixated on hair. Other primates devote a lot of time to mutual nitpicking and grooming -not just for cleanliness but as a way to weave relationships. Most mammals adore mutual preening. Perhaps that's why we can fuss with a loved one's hair for hours in a state of hypnotic rapture. Hair care is a task one rarely performs alone. We require others to tend our hair at beauty salons. We obsessively prepare our hair for our loved ones. Yet hair is not the most vital part of us. It shimmers and moves, but it composed of dead cells. We may harvest it from time to time, carve or color it, but it will grow again and return to its weedy ways. In this, it echoes the sheer disarray of nature. People so often complain that their hair to is "wild," that they "can't do anything with it," that it's nothing but "split ends" and "strays," that it's hopelessly "fly-away." Perhaps we fear that, like ourselves, and like our feelings of love, despite our constant efforts, it will always be just a little bit out of control.
Diane Ackerman is the author of A Natural History of the Senses, Twilight of the Tenderfoot, On Extended Wings, The Moon by Whale Light, and five collections of poems, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, Wife of Light, Lady Faustua, Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem, and Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems. She has received the Academy of American Poets’ Peter I.B. Lavan Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.