A new book that's getting a lot of press (making waves, so to speak) is the anthology, "Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession," edited by novelist Elizabeth Benedict.
What strikes me most about the book is that the majority of the women are clearly proud to be older, wiser and finally content with their "God-given" hair, after years of discontent. The frizzy-haired among them no longer yearn for straight hair; the straight-haired, for wavy or curly; the brunettes, for blonde. The glorious 'dos of Audrey Hepburn, Botticelli's Venus, Joan Jett, Jackie Onassis, Rapunzel, etc., no longer inspire the green-eyed monster.
I, on the other hand, still wish my naturally wavy hair were either stick-straight or Shirley Temple-curly. I don't spend every minute of every day wishing for different hair. But I do spend some minutes of too many days doing so. To quote one writer in the book, Deborah Jiang-Stein, Hair is "more than just a physical state. It's identity."
I'm pretty content with the identity I've worked long and hard to make for myself: published writer; devoted mom; loving significant-other; loyal friend. But I'm not always content with the identity that's broadcasted by my brown-with-blonde-highlights, mild waves. My hair is pretty ordinary, all told. Sure, I could wear a wig on days when I want to be perceived as extraordinary or "other," but that would be cheating. Besides, wigs seldom look real, and how comfortable can they be?
My friend Jeanne, with her high cheekbones and lean body, looks like a fashion model. Her long, straight, platinum hair clinches the look. I don't want to be Jeanne, or a fashion model (fashion doesn't especially interest me, and I love food way too much). But I'd like to experience (if only briefly) what it's like to be perceived by the mainstream as a "perfect woman." Or maybe I'm just jealous because Jeanne always looks good, while I have to fuss with my hair each morning in order not to have a truly "bad hair day."
My dissatisfaction with my hair started when I was a teenager. Some nights, I slept with Scotch Tape tightly glued to my hair hoping to create semi-permanent curls. Other times, I draped my hair over an ironing board and ironed it straight, ignoring the smell of sizzling hair. And sometimes I drenched my hair with stinky, messy home permanent kits.
In my 20s and 30s, I wore a glamorous Louise Brooks bob that I blew dry for 20 minutes each morning, ridding myself of every iota of waviness. When I became a parent, I no longer had 20 minutes to spare. Out went the blow dryer; in came the waves.
My friend Mindy and I are members of Facebook's "Wavy Hair Community," a forum in which women obsessed with their naturally wavy hair share links and advice on hair products, salons and styling techniques. Our collective hope is that we'll all end up with "perfect" waves (however one defines perfect).
Whenever Mindy and I meet in person, we gush, "Your waves are fabulous today!" Of course, I don't believe mine are ever fabulous. And, I'm envious of Mindy, whose waves, it seems to me, are fuller than mine.
I'm also envious of my friend Lucy, whose hair naturally tightens into corkscrews. Lucy, at 53, is adorable. I wonder what it's like to appear to others as perennially cute and bubbly, with a bouncing head full of ringlets?
The other day, I had lunch with Emma, a new friend. We got onto the subject of hair. She said, smiling, "A Hollywood friend of mine, a hairstylist to the stars, told it to me straight—'Your hair is 'meh'; it's not your crowning glory. Just get on with your life.'" Emma's eyes shone. "Her words were liberating. Immediately, I stopped hoping for perfection."
I stared at her, knowing I wouldn't have responded so well.
Does all this hair envy mean I'm not a feminist and not a good role model for my 13-year-old daughter? Her waist-length thick curtain of straight black hair inspires compliments from strangers. And yet, she wishes she were a wavy blonde. She ignores me when I remind her how much everyone else adores her hair. Have I transferred my hair envy onto her? Or, despite our age differences, and the fact that we see ourselves as strong and independent, are we both simply unable to resist the influence of a culture that insists female beauty is Britney Spears and Beyoncé with hair extensions and 24/7 on-call stylists?
We all know envy is destructive. Fortunately, I'm not consumed by it. Sometimes, much of the time, I like the woman in the mirror, hair included. I like my simple waves that fall to my shoulders, and the blending of my brown with the add-on blonde.
So how did all those women in the anthology find the strength to throw off their hair shackles? Or did they? Perhaps they, too, although surely older and wiser, still have moments of dissatisfaction and hair envy, just as I do.