I have a recurrent nightmare: My shoulder-length curly locks are gone. I look like Zero Mostel on a bad hair day. Then I wake up, race to the mirror and thank god it was only a dream. You see, my relationship with my hair is more than follicle deep. I suffer from tonsurephobia—fear of having my hair cut.
It goes back to my first haircut. I was 2 1/2 with a halo of platinum curls that made little old ladies coo with delight. Imagine, if you will, an infant Harpo Marx! My mother took me to a shop, picked me up and sat me on what appeared to be a child-sized painted pony. I gamely held onto the reins and slipped my tiny feet into the stirrups, unaware that this was all a ploy. That's when a barber in a white smock came at me with scissors. I was terrified as pieces of myself fluttered to the floor. Did it hurt? Physically, no. Mentally? I was being flayed alive!
It didn't help that I was given a certificate and a cellophane envelope containing my golden curls. I felt betrayed. Humiliated. I didn't want a certificate. I wanted revenge. Childhood, being what it is, provided few opportunities to take control of things. While playmates often had hair down to there, worn in coveted braids and ponytails, mine was kept at what Mom deemed a "manageable" length, just below my ears. When puberty set in and the soft curls turned to a kinky Jewfro, I was subjected to chemical straightening that smelled like rotten eggs. If given a choice, as forms of torture go, I would've opted for waterboarding.
In high school, when Cher was all the rage with her poker face and matching locks, I took matters into my own hands, so to speak. Rather than submit to the ordeal of a beauty salon, I fired up Mom's Procter & Gamble steam iron and pressed my hair flat on an ironing board. The results? Well, let's just say I never did it again.
When I went off to college, two wonderful things happened. Make that three. I discovered sex and drugs, and I never cut my hair again. I wasn't alone. Everyone let their hair do its thing—the wilder, the better. Hair was a political statement. It telegraphed your position on the war, civil rights and sleeping with strangers (who, btw, had great hair). Mine fell wildly below my braless breasts. At last, I had the long braids I had coveted as a child. I would sooner cut off my hand than cut my hair.
Flash-forward: I'm in my 40s. The "Hell, no, we won't go!" generation is mortgaged up to their eyeballs, working in real estate and sending their kids to pricey private schools. Except for a few diehards in the film and music industry, most guys have traded in their ponytails for expensively coiffed short hair. My female friends sport boyish short highlighted hair (mainly to cover the gray) popularized by Sharon Stone or use a flat iron to achieve a mane as sleek as glass. Me? I'm still letting the sun shine in, letting my freak flag fly, and I'm thrilled when someone asks, "Are you Brazilian?"
Flash-forward again: I'm in my 60s. I have a wonderful stylist who "understands" my hair, which I wear shoulder-length and longer. Sadly, it isn't so curly anymore. It actually falls limp as a washrag and my stylist would love to do something, but I insist on just a trim. I only see her twice a year. Hair grows a half inch a month. You do the math.
I don't know if it was due to boredom, rebellion or senility, but the last time I saw my stylist, I said, "Go for it. Do whatever you want." Snip. Snip. Snip. Little pieces of myself fell to the floor. We chatted amicably, as if this wasn't a blindfolded high dive. At no time did I express any limitations or preferences. On purpose, she turned me away from the mirror. I'd live with the result or wear a babushka over my head for the next 12 months.
"You're going to like this," she said, revolving the chair so I faced the mirror.
She was right. I loved it. What I saw was a familiar face from my past. That curly-headed child I had been. By cutting my hair shorter to frame my face, those long-lost curls reappeared. I had been so afraid that having shorter hair would turn me into someone else. But, miraculously, it brought me back to myself.