ON HAIR AND SELF (HATRED)
by Catherine Spinley
Ever since I could say the word “hair,” I had a troublesome relationship with it, or rather with my own head of it. Born with an abundance of straight, black hair, it later transformed into Shirley Temple-esque strawberry blond, thick ringlets that knotted together while I slept. Many epic battles took place between my mother and I over the detangling of my intricate mop of curls, a three-act performance which included real tears, ear-curdling screams and many unkind words exchanged by both parties. Subsequently, my mom kept my hair short, chin-length to be exact, to avoid these soul-crushing, hair-combing sessions. Surrounded by playmates with their long locks accented with bows and barrettes and braids, I was relegated to a smart bob as early as 1981.
Hair-wise, things only got worse as I approached my grammar school years. At some point in time, my mom, an extremely practical woman, decided the shorter my hair, the easier her life. Enter the Dorothy Hamill wedge, a short and feathered ‘do worn by women in the late seventies, but in true small town style, a look that didn’t become popular in my little shit-kicking town until the early eighties. Sometime around 1985, I was marched into the Lemon Tree with my curly bob and emerged with a wild hair halo, cut and styled so as to defy many established laws of physics. The problem was, I was a skinny little kid with an ambiguously short haircut, which made my gender a mystery to many. I endured a week-long stay with my grandmother in which all of her hearing and seeing-impaired friends continually referred to me as her “grandson.” I was absolutely LIVID with my mom and the questionable haircut choices she made on my behalf, all of which I informed her of the second I returned home. I howled and screeched enough for her to recognize there was a problem that needed to be fixed, logically with a prolonged grow out period. Instead, she went to the mall, bought me a bunch of girly, dangly earrings at Claire’s and declared the problem solved.
By third grade I was entering into my early feminist period. I angrily questioned why Men At Work signs existed and requested a subscription to Ms. Magazine for Christmas (that was a lie but wouldn’t that be cool? I recall I only received turtlenecks that year but that’s an entirely different essay.). No longer wanting to be associated with an aging figure skater, I decided what I needed was a bit more...punk. I convinced my parents to let the hairstylist shave one side of my head only AND THEY APPROVED which is an example of parental negligence at its finest, if you ask me. I’d like to say the cut was very Kate Lanphear but it was much more Flock of Seagulls. The minute the cape came off and the salon chair was turned around I knew I was fucked - both follicly and socially speaking. There are very few pictures from this period in my life but one does remain where I am wearing a Benetton statement tee emblazoned with some socially-conscious message about racism and baggy madras plaid shorts. You do with that information what you will.
As I hit puberty and grew out that style, my hair decided it wanted to resemble curly fries. I know this because once kids began taking Spanish classes I was nicknamed, “Papas Fritas.” It wasn’t the worst nickname I’d heard (I went to school with a kid whose name was Richard Head - no lie.), but it certainly reinforced this narrative I’d created about my freaky, ugly hair and, more specifically, that without silky, straight, long hair I was unattractive and lesser-than. My brother and father even called me “Annie” for an entire summer when my hair was particularly short and curly. I remember being unable to feel anger with either of them because I was a dead ringer for the little orphan, minus the Daddy Warbucks story line, of course.
I spent most of my teenage years getting up at an insanely early hour to wash and blowdry my hair straight, a ritual that took at least an hour only to have frizz and baby hairs reveal my hair’s true nature at some point of every day. In college my friends used my hair’s curl level as an unscientific BAC reading. If my hair was straight at a party, it was usually early in the evening and I was probably sober. As the night wore on and the drinks added up, the more likely I was to be dancing and sweating like a maniac with my thick curls forming just as the DJ began the 80s set. By the end of the night, cheap pizza in hand, my hair was curly like Felicity’s, a popular show during my college years, a show that began to make it acceptable for me to wear my curly hair out in public, a show that almost made me feel my curls were cool. I remember bumping into a guy in the middle of campus, who’d ghosted me months prior, but this time my hair curly, big, imposing; a real statement piece. Rendered speechless by the transformation, he made some sort of “we should hang out sometime” overture (refer to the aforementioned feminist leanings to guess what my response was), which was utterly puzzling. My curly hair had never been the highpoint of my appearance, but rather an unfortunate footnote: “She’s got a great personality and a nice rack - too bad about the hair. Looks like a head full of french fries, if you ask me.”
Although that was 20 years ago, I’ve only recently come to realize this whole hair thing represents a shameful self-loathing thing I’ve had going on since as far back as I can remember. But, hair has also become my armor, my partner in survival.
This became apparent when I took up running in my late twenties. Before every run I’d braid my hair, a ritual that helped calm my anxiety. Yes, I experienced severe performance anxiety before each run afraid I’d fail. I wasn’t good or fast enough to call myself a runner, my subconscious uttered as I made my way down my apartment stairs to the street below. After the first few strides, the sensation of my braid swishing back and forth across my back as I passed familiar landmarks; a right at the skateboard park, a left loop at the fountain in Battery Park, cross the highway at 14th street, was so comforting. It all sounds silly, I know. When I began training for the New York City marathon, my heavy braid of sweaty hair pulled on my scalp causing terrible headaches during long runs. The hair I’d been intermittently growing for five years and diligently trimming every six to eight weeks suddenly became my worst enemy. I chopped it off and although this time it was on my terms, it didn’t make the sense of loss I felt any easier. Instantly I felt I was a kid again surrounded by all the pretty girls and their long, silky strands, while my mop was messily pinned up; frizzy, sweaty, damaged and disheveled. The chaos was more than surface deep, it was a mirror for something deeper happening within. I spent months running a lot of miserable miles, which was congruent to how I felt in life. I ran that godforsaken marathon one week after a bout of bronchitis, the second I’d had that fall. Why train twice to run one marathon? I reasoned when I decided not to defer my entry until the following year. Me, my ugly hair and my heavy heart were finishing what we started.
Recently I arrived at the hair salon in desperate need of a haircut. To my surprise I told the stylist to cut it all off and to do so quickly before I changed my mind. When she was finished it looked beautiful, theoretically speaking, that is. Looking in the mirror, I had the exact haircut I’d requested yet I wanted to bow my head, cradle it in my hands and sob. There I was; my eyes, cheeks, nose - all angles in places I should be soft and all rounded and curved in places I should be defined. There was nowhere to hide. I knew I made the decision for a reason so I decided to embrace the dreadful anxiety that bubbled every time I looked in the mirror that day. I decided to sit with it and get very comfortable with it. I contemplated why I hitched a majority of my self-worth to my hair, my appearance and others opinions of both. Of course, as women our self-esteem and femininity is (many times) caught up in our looks and our hair and our weight. Of course I still struggle with my place in this world, my contribution to it and what I will someday leave behind in my wake. Of course I worry I am not enough, that I am weird and irrevocably damaged, that I made a wrong turn somewhere way back when, before I even realized there was a set direction, let alone a map.
Then I force myself to be quiet and breathe. Slowly. Deeply. Many Times. And many, many more times. And as I do, a new thought fills my head. Perhaps it’s high time to put down the weapon I’ve had pointed at myself for most of my life and just enjoy my own reflection.
So far, it’s working.
Catherine Spinley is a sometimes-writer and photographer based in New York. When not stalking other people’s dogs or yelling at people who refuse to walk up the left side of the escalator, she works in the beauty industry and practices yoga. You can read more from her at Worepaint.com.