For as long as I can remember my mother was obsessed with the hair of her four daughters.
For my identical twin sisters that obsession seems to have infiltrated their hair follicles, and gone straight into their brains like a yet-to-be diagnosed brain disease. Even in their sixth decade, they are still obsessed with their hair.
They live 500 miles apart and have for years, but until recently, when one of them let her hair go completely white, they were always colouring, cutting, wondering how the other cut it, suggesting they needed to cut it, wanting to colour it, wishing they hadn’t used THAT colour. Sometimes because they are identical twins, they got the same haircut on the same day, unknowingly. Sometimes, even now, when they greet after months and months apart, one of them is likely to say, “What’s with your hair?”
The one who has let her hair go completely white is, I think, emulating my mother whose thick, black, wavy hair turned into a beautiful silver-white sheen in her elder years.
I am the only person who had strawberry blonde/red hair in a family that consisted of six black-haired people. I think I got the ginger gene from my dad’s side. My paternal grandfather had light auburn hair.
I’m just going to say it, and it took a lot of therapy to be able to proudly utter this: I had, and on some days still have, beautiful hair. I didn’t think about it and wouldn’t have described it that way back then but I used to have the kind of hair colour where middle aged and senior women would come up to me at a bus stop in my twenties to admire my hair, to comment on the golden-copper light of it in the spring sunshine. I’m not making this up.
That reaction was surprising to me, and nice. It was both of those things because at home it was always, “Gayle, what are you doing to do with your hair? It’s just hanging there!”
Well, guess what? Fifty years later, it’s still just hanging there, thick and coloured to try and match my former natural colour. I comb it once in the morning and that’s it, done, and that’s how I like it.
What is hair is supposed to do?, I wondered, especially after the fail of hairstyles through the decades. Can you even spit out the word “perm” (left) without inducing a bit of a PTSD reaction?
Then there was my absolute favourite statement, favourite for its astounding level of unconsciousness on how not to speak to a girl child, as in, “I like you better with long hair!” And this was after I’d finally caved in and agreed to a shorter haircut. Crazy making!
When I was a teenager I’d get so mad whenever my mother even dared get that look in her eye, eyeing me up, and I knew she was about to mention my hair because by then I’d figured out that she had some weird hair fetish in general, but only female hair, the hair of females that she had birthed.
I never could quite figure out why it made me so angry, and I hadn’t really thought about it too much in the past decade until I heard about this book: Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession. It turns out that when it comes to daughters and their hair, my mother was in good company. If only I’d known I wasn’t alone back then. We could have started a support group. And the issue, of course, is that another human being is focused in a critical way on a personal characteristic of ours and most importantly, that personal characteristic in the big scheme of who we are as a person, seems rather innocuous.
There is an entire chapter written by Deborah Tanner, Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle Over Hair. In one of the stories, a woman describes how after she appeared on television standing behind the president of the United States in a bill-signing ceremony, and her mother’s comment later was, “I could see you didn’t have time to cut your bangs.”
The author goes on to acknowledge that any choice a woman makes around hair (and other personal choices) is “marked”, that is, it says something about her. This is not true for men. (Well, before man buns it wasn’t true).
Hair, said Tanner is a secondary sex characteristic. Our mothers were desperate for us to be the best reflections of themselves (not ourselves) that we could be, because inevitably THEY felt they were being judged by how WE looked.
I find that really sad but it explains a lot.
Repeat after me. You are not your mother. You are not your daughter. And have a happy upcoming Mother’s Day.
Got any hairy stories about hair? I’d love to hear whether you had the same type of experience in your house growing up.