This is me this past weekend, celebrating my summer self. Gloriously, the season is shifting inside my head — the loosening and breathing and unconscious release of the anxious, trouble-borrowing, multitasking clench which I realize only in retrospect is my school-year norm. And the shift is outside my head too. Literally, right on top.
Because this summer I am embracing my naturally curly hair, including (for the first time ever) the right way to take care of it, on a program I’ve just started. No more sulfates. No more straighteners. No more small, sleek, or meek. It’s literally not in my nature. And I like to think the whole world gets shifted just a little farther to the good end of the scale when, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser put it, one woman tells the truth about herself. (OK, she actually wrote that if one woman told the truth about herself, the world would split open, but one fake apocalypse prediction per season is enough, don’t y’all think?)
I prefer to think of curly hair as the human equivalent of one of these lovely creatures, just out in force in my garden this week….
Because peonies are kind of a good spiritual prompter, too, to think about the nature of life, what it asks of us and gives us the chance to do. You can’t preserve them. They don’t last. Abandoned peonies withering and dying on their bushes in the hot sun always just look sad. So the thing to do is to cut them and put them in every room of your house and give them to every friend you have. Abundance — give without stinting, joyously, because you can. And the peonies themselves seem to love it, lasting longer in a vase than they do outside.
Similarly, accepting curly hair basically means accepting the joyous mess of human life, including one’s own joyous, imperfect, abundant body, as it is, not only as you wish it were. And as we all know, this is a…. process at the best of times.
My adult hair hasn’t always been curly. As little girls, my sister and I had hair like this….
…but by age 8 or 9 my hair had thickened to a shoulder-length, largely-straight bob after an unfortunate Dorothy Hamill cut at age 7 or so.** (My mother still loyally swears “that haircut was cute!”) And as my sister and I navigated the choppy (ahem, fluffy) waters of 1980s Alabama hair, we went from curly to side-winged to straightened to alarming highlighting procedures like SunGlitz (in which hair, and what felt like chunks of scalp, were hooked with a crochet needle through a plastic cap and then painted with cold bleach — I can feel it even now!!!) and spray-on SunIn to hot rollers and back to straightened. And I do mean straightened. Because when we hit high school in the town across the river, where a certain Ralph-Lauren-beat-up-old-boat-shoes-and-button-downs, vaguely-equestrian, high-WASP, rich-but-not-tacky, straight-blunt-cut-hair aesthetic was the norm, we realized pretty quickly that anything at all that stood up, stood out, or stood for something was embarrassingly socially suspect in this world, where good grades were rewarded but the strongest allowable expression of emotion was drinking yourself into insensibility every weekend. The sneering words of condemnation, unspoken, were: too much. Too intense. And, in the case of curly hair, too “ethnic.” After all, who have the high-WASPS traditionally excluded from their country clubs? Jews. Italians. Greeks. And any Hispanics or African-Americans except those who stand poised, smiling, behind the buffet tables on tennis-tournament weekends, ready to serve.
College and graduate school was one long battle with hair that got thicker and wavier. North Carolina is not that far north of Alabama as a hair climate zone. Finally, around the time of my Ph.D qualifying exams — during which my stress and anxiety reached such a pitch that I broke down crying in the middle of the orals and had to be rescued from the ladies’ room by two female members of my committee — my hair sprang into curly life and refused to straighten. It just literally would not. And so more or less, I’ve let it be curly since then, despite an ill-advised bout of straightening this winter that fried the hell out of it and patterns of shampooing that went on far too long. (Why do we think we have to scrub and strip our hair the way we scrub a bathtub — and with the same ingredients? I’m not kidding. Compare the ingredients list on a bottle of shampoo and of dish detergent.)
The political and social and environmental and financial positives of curly-hair acceptance are everywhere, rich with meaning. Dumping my accumulated shampoos and hairbrushes and curling irons and straightening gels into the trash and surveying the one big bottle of conditioner left in my shower, I realized how much simpler life was about to get — and how much less money I was going to be spending. (Somewhere, a beauty-industry executive is weeping. Good.) Here, as everywhere, good consumer sense is asking just what you’re being sold — and by whom. And if you look at the beauty industry, you see how much of it is built on attempts to achieve the WASP ideal: paler skin, straighter hair, what becomes and still is a cinematic cliche of beauty.
This cliche has other historical roots, too: in 18th and 19th-century England and America (think Byron, who concealed the true amount of writing and revision from his friends for this reason), the “gentleman” ideal was one of effortlessness, casual, skilled but just sloppy enough around the edges, beautiful and a little tousled without trying too hard. (Although Byron, and his friends, did prize his curly hair — so Greek-statue, don’t you know…) This ideal also accounts for a considerable moral vacancy at the heart of traditional WASPdom, I think – an emphasis on toning down emotions, keeping up appearances, and hiding unpleasant truths, particularly those spoken by women and girls, because nothing must be allowed to ruffle that gentlemanly carapace. If you never try very hard to do anything, and never let anything touch you very deeply, you become a gorgeous Ralph Lauren-dressed shell, mentally shrugging your tennis-toned shoulders: “after all, what can I do?” And you give up, little by little, your one wild and precious life.
All this stuff is connected, y’all. It’s political. In our world, just about anything is political, and positively so, if we want it to be. I’m not talking about “political” only as in who you vote for, although that’s part of it. I’m talking about “political” as in what is good for all of us — encouraging the healthy flourishing of individual lives, the nurturing of worth and dignity and right relationships with the people and plants and animals around us — and what is bad for all of us — whatever would subject living beings and the living earth to another person or a government or a corporation for the meanest and weakest of human reasons: pride, arrogance, insecurity, and greed. When we tell women (and particularly girls) that what is “beautiful” is what literally bends their bodies’ natural fibers out of shape and weakens them, what literally makes them sleeker and smaller and thus reduces the amount of space they occupy, what literally erases the individuality that nature gave them, like Mr. Brocklehurst inveighing against Helen Burns’s curly hair in Jane Eyre — well, then we are doing damage that spreads farther and bites deeper than we can see. And is connected to a lot of other types of damage too.
I have said this before, but we’ve got to get better in this society at giving our women and girls real models of strength — righteous strength. I think of Boudicca, Celtic warrior queen, roaring, hair streaming down her back, as she did her level best to slay the living shit out of the Romans who had raped her daughters and forced her to watch. All those women of the Old Testament: Deborah the wise lawgiver and Judith, who beheads the general who would destroy her home. (My favorite painting by the great Renaissance woman artist Artemisia Gentileschi is here.) Indian goddesses with many arms and fertile, rich bodies, all that old equation of women with earth that is still nevertheless useful. Nothing comes from nothing, from the nullified and the minimized and the tidied-away and the silenced and the tamed-down. It’s so damn hard to become a woman of substance, health and life and vitality and common sense and wisdom and self-acceptance — but as more and more of us know, it’s not impossible.
A lifelong-clarinettist friend of mine, learning to play klezmer music, reports her pleasant surprise at having found a mode of music that celebrates dampness in the reed, fullness and roundness of tone — all the things she was always trained to fight. I thought of curly hair immediately, and imagined her happily playing at one of the outdoor klezmer dances that spring up here in the summers: those round notes spiraling up to the stars, all those happy humid bodies, dancing.
** Researching this link, I learned there is now such a thing as a Dorothy Hamill Fantasy Camp. Come on, fellow former little girls of the 70s and 80s! Who’s with me?