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Hair Say: Why an otherwise normal mom refuses to be "locked" into one color


Published April 3, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Steve Hogan

This morning, when I dropped my 6-year-old off at school, I was a blonde. This afternoon, waiting to pick her up, I’m fingering locks that are decidedly brunette. My daughter had cried for days when I first bleached my hair, begging me to go back to red, my “real” color. In fact my hair is not naturally red, blond or brunette, but has been all of them — and more.

I am not claiming any of these colors are reflective of my “true” self. Instead, I’ve been treating my head as something of a performance space for the last two decades, and in this hirsuit pursuit have tried to figure out what my hair could teach me — not just about myself, but about society’s notions of “true” and “natural,” and its simultaneous embrace of, and revulsion at, the fake.

Along the way I’ve learned some of the social rules of hair, mostly by breaking them. These rules are tangled up in gender, race, class and desire. Breaking them can result in a figurative hairball, a messy bit of organic matter you have to deal with even if you don’t want to.

The first rule of hair is that when we alter it we are simultaneously required to act as if it were natural. This is why radically changing hair color every few months, as I do, is seen as a breach of good conduct. So is dying your hair colors that are obviously unnatural. When I went pink, for example, people told me that it did not look good with my skin tone — as if any skin tone is complemented by fluorescent pink hair.

I don’t think this advice is given in the spirit of a makeover, but rather as an expression of discomfort over the obvious fakeness of my hair. I inspire similar reactions when I bleach my hair and then let the roots grow in to achieve what I call the “slutty Andy Warhol” look. This seems to bother people, as if bleached blond was the naturally occurring color and made false by my perversely dark roots.

The second rule of hair is that its size is in inverse proportion to class. In other words, big hair is not a look for the elite. This is not to say that many rich women don’t have big hair, but those women are moneyed, which is not the same as upper class. I discovered this rule when I tried to look like Peter Frampton. I permed my then-long hair to achieve what I thought was a very groovy rocker kind of look. Everyone else thought I just looked trashy — especially my boyfriend, who suggested shaving my head, immediately.

The first two rules of hair led me to understand the third: It is misunderstood. No matter what you think you’re saying with your hair, most people will not understand. Partly this is the burden of being a visionary, but mostly it is because our hair is never really as good as we want it to be. Right now, for instance, I think I’ve achieved a layered, “Charlie’s Angels” sort of look, but my girlfriend thinks I should shave my head, immediately. When I do shave it, by the way, I look like a 12-year-old boy.

Which brings me to rule number four: Hair must be dyed or otherwise altered to achieve youth, not age. We all strive to be preternaturally young. Gray is a color reserved for the very old, the hopelessly shabby or the defiantly “organic.” Gray is the color for women who “let themselves go.” In this society it is “unnatural” to embrace signs of aging, and those who do so are regarded as pitiable.

This means that most women — white women, anyway — go lighter rather than darker, since white children generally have lighter hair than adults. And, of course, blond is the color most associated not only with innocent childhood but also with “sexy” adult women. Think both Macaulay Culkin and Madonna here. Or think Lolita. That sexiness and childishness come together in golden highlights points out one of the most obvious reasons we dye our hair: to be erotically enticing by looking “pure” and “young.”

This blond must look “natural,” however. When I dye my hair a convincing golden hue, people tell me I look younger, even prettier. But when I obviously bleach my hair, I am a slut. The last time I bleached it, even with my short, unisex locks and dark-framed glasses, I found myself turning down date invitations from a large, bearded man who rode a Harley.

This segues to the fifth rule of hair: For women, facial and other body hair is taboo, even if lightened. I have never shaved the hair under my arms. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because bare armpits always remind me of the skin on a chicken — all bumpy and oddly colored. When I first committed this hairesy, in the 1970s, it made me feel sophisticated, as if I were “too European” for my suburban high school. I would stick my nose in the air whenever I saw girls shaving after swim practice.

Now that women in Europe — even Eastern Europe — shave, though, I just feel weird. I am without a doubt the only female at my gym with hairy pits. And I doubt that the women in the locker room are thinking I’m too continental for Burlington.

The last rule can hardly be called a rule, but it is nonetheless true: Hair is full of contradictions, and so are we. I shave my legs but not my pits. I color my hair like Marilyn Monroe’s, but cut it close to my scalp. My role model is a female friend who sports a full beard — a “hairetic” if ever there was one. But recently she noticed some gray hairs and decided to pluck them — going gray is apparently less acceptable to her than being a bearded lady. Go figure.

In other words, the rules of hair are meant to be broken. Your ends, though, should never be split. Which is why, after two decades of chemical intervention, I am considering “natural” as my next performance. It won’t be easy, though, because I suspect that what is under all those layers of deceit is mousy brown with some significant streaks of gray. And I’ll admit it: That color frightens me most of all.