By Anndee Hochman
“Ama, you should grow your hair long,” my 11-year-old daughter Sasha says, watching me in the fogged mirror over the sink, her round brush paused mid-stroke. I shake my head like a terrier, scattering warm droplets. Then I reach around her—it’s small, this bathroom—to the shelf where Elissa and I keep the tools of our pragmatic grooming routines: mint dental floss, paraben-free deodorant, contact lens solution, a tweezer to tug the occasional wayward hair from one another’s chins.
I rake my fingers through my short, damp hair, fluffing it with a dab of green gel—the bargain brand, $3.99 with my Acme supercard—to keep my curls standing at shiny attention for the next fifteen hours. Sasha continues to brush her own tupelo-honey tresses, like some Victorian heroine, 100 daily strokes in pursuit of radiance and contentment.
“If I grew my hair long, it would be a mess,” I say. “A fuzzy, tangled mess. C’mon, you’ve seen the pictures.”
I’m thinking of a photo snapped in the courtyard of Trumbull College my sophomore year. I’m wearing the khaki-colored sack I favored in those days to hide my body’s bulges—overalls cut loosely through the thighs and hips, cinched at each shoulder with a strap poked through a buttonhole and then double-knotted. My round cheeks are framed—no, more like swallowed—in a cloud of wild, coal-colored frizz. It looks like a long-haired animal, in shedding season, has draped itself miserably over my head.
I am not going back. I am not going back to Barry Leonard, Crimper, circa 1975, where Barry himself, rayon shirt unbuttoned nearly to his copper belt buckle, stands behind my chair, comb in one hand and mournful look in his limpid brown eyes. “Such hair. Such texture. Some day you will just let it be,” he says, lifting one thick, wavy section. Women in hot pants serve Chardonnay and brie to waiting customers; a white shag carpet hugs the walls. Pink lava lamps undulate on the reception desk.
My mother is paying Barry Leonard $25—a lot, at the time—to be one more adult telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, insisting that today’s stinging regret will, eventually, morph to gratitude. I really don’t care. I am 13 and I want straight hair like Cher, like Karen Carpenter, like Lise Abbott, the tallest and most stunning girl in my class. “Please just blow-dry it,” I say. I can see myself in the infinite mirrors, endless tunnel of shaggy-haired Anndees, all of them lock-jawed with impatience. My mother, complimentary wine in hand, fades toward the carpeted wall. Barry Leonard looks as if he might cry. The blow dryer roars, and he pulls a hank of my hair taut with the wire brush, lashing it over and under, over and under, with electric heat.
I stopped trying to straighten my hair at 16, around the time Josh and I began making out on the black leather couch in his father’s study. I’d like to say it happened in this order: I threw away the giant rollers, unplugged the blow dryer and, with a joyful, newly liberated spirit, attracted my first real boyfriend. But I think it was really the other way around: Josh gave me a stuffed koala bear, wrote cards in barely legible print saying I was pretty, and his sheepish affections buoyed my confidence enough to stop fighting my natural instincts—or, at least, the natural instincts of my hair. Josh managed to blaze a path through the tangle; his tongue found my earlobe, and he held my curls when we kissed.
Fast-forward eleven years. I live in Oregon, I kiss girls—including the one who will become my life partner—and, one impulsive afternoon, I ask Mary Newcomer at the 37th Street Salon to cut my hair short. Really short, I tell her, making a chop-chop motion around my ears. I watch as eight-inch squiggles, threaded with gray, tumble to the floor.
My mother, when she sees me a month later, will think I have done this because I’m a lesbian; short hair goes with the ripped jeans, second piercing in the left ear and requisite copy of Sinister Wisdom on the bookshelf. She’s worried: what next? A motorcycle? A labrys tattoo on my left hip? But she’ll be wrong. I’m not cutting off my hair in order to join the club. What I see in the mirror as wavy skeins fall from Mary’s shears is this: a woman who no longer needs to hide in a khaki sack or a helmet of hair.
Yes, that was me in Barry Leonard’s salon chair, crackling with want, cringing in self-mortification. Me, blistering my forehead with blow-dryers. Me, staggering through freshman year on a diet of coffee and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. That was me, at war with my hair, with myself, until—gradually, finally, blessedly—I grew up and made peace. Such hair. Such texture. Let her be.
Fast-forward once again. Sasha wants contact lenses and high-heeled sandals and permission to wear pink lipstick out of the house. She wants to look like the girls in the Justice clothing catalogue, willow-legged and flirty in their flounced skirts. We compromise and negotiate. We give in on lip gloss, stand firm on the strappy heels, promise contacts when she turns 13. She rolls her eyes. We raise our voices. And each Friday night, we lay our palms on her silken head and whisper: “Hayei asher ti-yih, vehayi b’rucha, b’asher ti-yih. Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.”
She can barely tolerate our murmured blessing—”Stop. You’re messing up my hair,” she hisses before we’re finished—and I know, in the end, we can do only what my mother did—fade toward the wall, witnesses as Sasha finds her way.
Back to the present, our steamy little bathroom. “If you grew your hair long,” Sasha muses, “you could put it in a high ponytail—look, Ama, like this—and tie it with a pink ribbon. It would be so cute. I want you to have long hair. Did you ever? I’m going to let mine grow, down to here, and then get it layered…Will you make me a ponytail? Really tight. It’s bumpy on top; I don’t want it bumpy on top. Make it so there aren’t any little strands sticking out? No, not like that! Why won’t that piece tuck in? I. HATE. MY. HAIR!”
“I know, sweetie.” But I’ve moved on, my one-minute beauty routine is wrapped up for the day. I poke earrings through my lobes, shrug a silver bracelet onto my wrist, grab socks from the basket in the corner. Sasha continues brushing her hair, alternately beaming and scowling at herself in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to tame the wild, electric strands.
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