When I was seven, my father died. My mother, older sister and I moved from a grand home into one room in a boardinghouse, where we took our meals in a communal dining room and slept together in a big double bed. In the back was a wild garden—this was South Africa in the 1940s—with wild cats. On my return from school, I spent my lonely afternoons trying to catch them, until one day I captured a strangely docile specimen. I hid it in the closet, hoping Mother wouldn’t find it. Of course, she found not only the cat but also the ringworm I had caught from it and which I now had all over my body, including on my scalp.
Mother was obliged to summon a hairdresser, who ushered me into the boardinghouse’s sickly green bathroom. He cut off my thick blonde hair, which I’d worn proudly in two plaits down my back, cropping it close to my head with an awful crunching sound, so that Mother could administer a medicine that burned my scalp. Then, at my request, the hairdresser lifted me up to look in the mirror. I was confronted by a dreadful apparition: a pale face surrounded by hair sticking up like straw all over my head. I ran to the big bed, dove under the sheets and refused to come out. When my mother begged me, all I could cry was, “Too ugly! Too ugly!”
The hair grew back, of course, and I doggedly kept it long into the years when a shorter cut might have been more flattering. That ended only recently, when I wrote a novel based on the life of a French aristocrat who escapes during the Revolution, crossing the rough Atlantic in a small sailing ship. Burdened by long hair in cramped quarters, she takes out the scissors and gives herself a haircut, then throws her locks overboard, glorying in her freedom.
I realized that I had written the scene because it enabled me to revise, at least in fantasy, what had happened in my childhood. My heroine, bravely taking her destiny into her own hands, replaced the image of the child, cropped and humiliated. For the first time, I could face the hairdresser myself and allow him to give me a short, practical cut—becoming, I hope, to my 60-odd years.
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Kourafas/Shutterstock.coms
Want MORE? Read Hair Confession #3: The Salon Soap Opera
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!