Before I had chemotherapy, I had a volatile relationship with my hair. It was an intense, 34-year affair, with all the usual ups and downs, or rather, in this case, shorts and longs, not to mention straights and frizzies.
I grew up Jewish on the southern shore of Long Island, with reddish-brown locks inherited from my father’s Russian family. On my desk sits a photograph of my paternal grandmother: a bulky stern-looking woman with reams of black hair piled atop her head. Soft, curly tendrils cascade down her forehead, all but covering her right eye.
My fixation on hair goes as far back as I can remember. I used to drape a long bath towel over my head and let it cascade down my back. “This is my long hair,” I’d announce to my sister, while posing in front of our full-length mirror. My sister, a tomboy, wore her hair short; her dark ringlets curled up on her head like babies snuggled in fetal positions. But for me, a girlie-girl, only long would do. “Look – it’s all the way around the world.” Long hair made me feel secure, comforted. I’d spend hours laying across my bed, playing with my favorite doll, Tressy; a Barbie-type, 11-inch molded fantasy princess. At my whim, I could magically lengthen or shorten her hair by pressing a button on her tummy and turning a tiny “T”-shaped key into her back. That word – “Tressy,” turned into my favorite word, “tresses” – it rolled off my tongue and filled my ears with a mysterious, sensual allure.
When I was six and my sister, seven, I trusted her with a pair of scissors. We were visiting our grandparents. While the adults ate Danish and drank coffee and watched Lawrence Welk on TV, my sister and I snuck into the hall bathroom. My thick hair would look even longer, she explained, if she cut the top layer short, exposing the thinner, less frizzy hair beneath. I worried briefly about my father’s reaction, but my sister promised me that he’d never notice. “He doesn’t notice anything!”
“What did you do to your hair?” my father asked as we climbed into the back of our Plymouth station wagon. The next day my mother drove us to the nearest barber shop. I sat on a high seat holding my breath and watched a portly, balding man repair the damage –by cutting the rest of my long hair short, to match the top layer that my sister had so brutally clipped. My mother cried, and so did I. Without my long hair, I felt stripped of my power, my femininity, my strength. Every time I look at those pictures of myself with my short, pixie hair, I want to strangle my sister.
As my hair grew back, it was like getting back together with a best friend. I loved running my fingers through it, tracing the patterns of its curls, the way a blind person would read Braille. It whispered endearments to me: I was pretty, feminine. I twisted it into knots on top of my head, wore it in braids, tied it back with fancy scarves that I took from my mother’s top drawer.
But when I became a teenager, enmeshed in the world of Twiggy and long-limbed models with straight, obedient tresses, I began to change my mind. My wavy crown was anything but manageable. The hair veered outward when I wanted it to smoothly caress my face. My bangs curled and slithered up my forehead when I wanted them to cover my eyes. And so, I tried to change my beloved. To bring my hair more in line with current fashion, I ironed it. I wrapped it around large orange juice cans and sat under a hooded hair dryer for hours. I held down my bangs with scotch tape while waiting at the bus stop, tearing off the invisible shield just as the bus pulled into school.