I come from a line of perfect women: perfectly dressed, cordial, well spoken. An unbroken line of scheduling and doing and achieving. I remember my mother telling me, more than once, that the only thing that matters is that I be an intelligent, educated woman. I was squandering my potential if I was anything less. And that would be a shame, she said.
As a little girl, I remember watching her at her vanity, doing her hair. She would take an impossibly long time to get ready each morning: daubing on makeup out of shiny containers, plucking earrings off her jewelry stand—and curling her hair. As a young mother in the ’90s, she had a chin-length bob and bangs that she styled precisely at the end of her morning routine using a prickly curling brush, which looked like a plant from a Dr. Seuss book. Hair, to me, was the crowning glory. It’s the last thing you fix and put into place before you walk out the door, the thing that signifies that you’re really together.
My mother has never shown up underprepared in her life. She is a doctorate-holding professor, an only child, the first in her family to go to college. When I think of her as a mother, I picture the perfect calendar she kept for my brother and me as children: the times of our gymnastics classes and choir practices and basketball games all penned neatly into the squares, with dentist and doctors’ appointment cards taped in columns down the sides. Her mother was the same way.
I’ve never known how to live up to my maternal line, though I’ve burned up a lot of energy trying. Womanhood to me is the feeling of always striving. Striving even when there is no endpoint. I learned early on that to be a good woman—a strong woman—means scheduling, doing, achieving. You execute this series flawlessly and without any complaints. You survive in this world by showing up, pretty and prepared and perfect, hopefully more articulate than anyone else in the room—and always with done hair.
In the chapter of The Second Sex where Simone de Beauvoir makes her famous pronouncement that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, she further argues an essential part of this “becoming” involves practicing womanhood through an alter ego: a doll. De Beauvoir describes how it represents the female body, a passive object to be coddled:
The little girl coddles her doll and dresses her up as she dreams of being coddled and dressed up herself; inversely, she thinks of herself as a marvelous doll… she soon learns that in order to be pleasing she must be “pretty as a picture”… she puts on fancy clothes, she studies herself in a mirror, she compares herself with princesses and fairies.
Feminists have often identified hair grooming as the first lesson in gender socialization. Dolls are perfectly designed to aid girls in learning submission, letting them play-act the labor that will later be expected of them when it comes to appearances.
Naturally, the most famous example of this is Barbie. Ann duCille, who writes extensively about black Barbie in her 1996 book Skin Trade, recalls in the book her experiences researching: poking around in the aisles of Toys “R” Us looking for the latest black Barbie doll. In the book, she includes an impromptu interview she had with a black teenage girl, who confessed to duCille “in graphic detail” the many Barbie “murders and mutilations” she had committed over the years. “It’s the hair! It’s the hair!” the girl told duCille. “The hair, that hair; I want it. I want it!”
I don’t presume to understand the enormous pressure placed upon black women’s hair, the depth of its construction as other. DuCille points out that when the first black Shani dolls were introduced in 1991, Mattel literally refused to break its mold; the company was unwilling to redesign its existing doll forms. Shani had smooth hair just like Barbie.
In the book, duCille also speaks with Deborah Mitchell, one of two African American Mattel reps consulted to design Shani, who admits that the doll’s hair doesn’t reflect black women’s natural hair. But, Mitchell explains, the profitability of “the hair”—which is to say long, straight Barbie doll hair—couldn’t be underestimated. “We can’t change the fact that long, combable hair is still a key seller,” Mitchell said. “We added more texture. But little girls of all races love hair play.”
Mattel says that, above all, it’s in the business of manufacturing feminine desire. And so it makes sense that part of Shani’s attraction for young black girls, writes duCille, is her “fairy-princess good looks, the crowning touch of glory of which is long, straight hair.”
Certainly, standards have been set—indeed, an entire hierarchy constructed—for what constitutes “good hair” (which is also the name of a Chris Rock documentary on hair’s intersection with race, gender, and identity). So I feel I know what duCille’s young interviewee recognizes—the hair! The hair! It’s the ideal hair, to which all women are subject—although the ideal is far more complicated to attain for some than it is for others. It’s the perfect, consummate hair “embodied” in Barbie, which I’m apparently not alone in coveting.
My own hair conforms in some ways. It is, foremost, a white woman’s hair. But unlike my blonde brother Mitchel, I do not have Barbie hair. My family agrees it’s unmistakable whom I look like: my great aunt Marsha, the sister of my Jewish grandmother on my dad’s side. “What’s with your Aryan brother?” people used to joke to Mitchel and me.
Marsha had my olive skin, broad nose, and dark thick hair. “Hair you had to hold under water for so long just to get it wet,” my mother said. Hair that despite its thickness is admittedly straight, like the ideal. But hair that when you blow-dry it, fluffs up like a mad scientist’s and then must be re-straightened into submission.
Like my mother, I spend about 45 minutes a day tending to my hair—washing it, drying it, straightening it. There are many steps and I am finicky about all of them. They involve all kinds of equipment like a 410-degree ceramic straightener and Bumble and Bumble styling balm, which is only affordable when purchased secondhand off Amazon. I’ve spent time researching the benefits of ionic hairdryers and the best techniques for blow-drying hair without frying it, which involve doubling over and sometimes giving myself a head rush to get to the under layers first.
It wasn’t always like this. I used to be less prepared. I’d show up places with wet, uncombed hair. But I found an increasing desire for that fairytale hair, and I’ve developed my process over time. It feels as if, at every turn, a new product or step has appeared offering a solution to some new problem—thickness, dryness, dullness, frizz, flyaway, hair that’s straight but not straight enough.
Of course, the beauty industry is designed this way. There is a solution, a product, a technology for every problem. And everyone knows the great Western truth, one that goes all the way back to the Greeks: that the beautiful and the good are the same. Physical perfection is spiritual perfection. For the Greeks, beauty was how you approached the divine. Each time I add a new hair product, I can’t go back. It is forever folded into my perfectionist routine. And I think: what woman could go back, knowing that these products exist, knowing how to do these things, and that she is that much closer to the ideal?
The university shuttle stop was directly in front of my house, so I would time my routine such that I could stumble out the door and down to the street—often hairbrush and granola bar and phone and keys still in hand—with exactly 30 seconds to spare. I would race out, flushed, hair straightened and done, get on the bus and take my place in a line of women with shining perfect hair.
Sitting there, I felt both a deep guilt—guilt at knowing I am shallow, a feminist failure—but also as if I’d finally succeeded, fulfilling some feminine promise of all the women before me, one that none of us can articulate or even remember making. And I wonder what I will get for holding up my end of the bargain.
Five years ago, I went on a date with a guy who asked me out after I beat him at online Scrabble. Offline, things didn’t go especially well for us. He was arrogant and told me he descended from French royalty, which seemed like so dumb and obvious a lie that I considered if it could be true. Toward the end of our date, I found myself in the middle of a lecture. I was being educated about my political leanings, about how while communism was a great idea in theory, no one had really considered how terrible it would be in practice.
I had long, straight, unlayered hair then. It went halfway down my back and I would wear it down, parted in the middle.
I was getting bored and started making fun of my date, retorting that it was weird how Kapital could have three, 800-page volumes, yet in all those pages Marx never makes any practical considerations.
“You know why it wouldn’t work?” he said. “Because there’d be no incentive to make anything. So there wouldn’t be enough shampoo for your beautiful hair.”
I was so stunned and flattered and angry and ashamed that the argument stopped.
I believe I had a feminist childhood. I had the kind of upbringing where my mother gave me, at age nine, a book of 100 women who changed the world, and sent me to a middle school where we discussed the misogyny of The Little Mermaid. In my mother’s eyes, these were important lessons for me. Intelligence was the thing that would allow everything in my life to fall into place. She’d cultivated me to be the perfect millennial daughter: existing in a meritocratic world where looks didn’t matter so much because I could be anything I wanted if I were just smart enough. Like all parents, she contains contradictions.
Part of me loves her for telling such an exquisite lie. Not even a lie so much, but what she’d truly hoped would be true for me—a parental lie. I think about how much I’ve tried to let this shield me, to let it protect me from uncomfortable feelings. But with my 45-minute hair routine, I’ve only embraced her perfectionism—and her same contradictions. I wish her lie were true: that appearance didn’t matter, a nuisance held up against smarts. Or I wish I could care less about it—that I could hold to feminist principles, smash my blow dryer and somehow transcend the whole gendered mess. But even then, it wouldn’t be enough.
My head of hair is a perpetually living and dying thing: inconstant, uncontrollable, inescapably corporeal. It’s a promise that I am always a body—despite how hard I might wish to be just a mind.
Last Halloween, I wanted to dress up as Keri Russell’s character on The Americans, an FX show about two deep-cover KGB agents living as a married DC couple at the end of the Cold War. As a deadly operative, Russell’s character, Elizabeth, wears a lot of disguises. Nearly every episode she has a new wig, styled for the period, many of which have been critically praised by media. One article calls the wigs “the real stars” of the show, noting that they’ve developed “a following unto themselves.” One week, Elizabeth will be undercover as a nerdy bureaucrat with a short Murphy Brown wig and huge round glasses. The next, she’ll being trying to extract information from someone as a vampy stranger, wearing a red leather skirt, with long, flowing black hair and bangs.
What I find most fascinating about Elizabeth’s disguises is how convincingly they’re worn. Each wig is not only a disguise, simply to cover her “real” identity, but a full character she plays seamlessly (in fact, a character-within-a-character, since Russell first plays Elizabeth). This is, I suppose, what the show’s writers imagine to be the chameleonic skill of a high-level KGB agent: She should be able to walk into the White House undetected, as a fully believable American. Elizabeth never shows up underprepared.
But her hair play also represents, to me, a kind of freedom. She becomes her own kind of doll. Though she coddles it and dresses it up, emulating the ideal, she then uses it solely for her own purposes, turning it on her admirers. She is perfect, and she is lethal for it. All her labor is reclaimed as hers alone. In her endless wigs, Elizabeth is all women and no women. There’s a power in her playfulness that I want.
Of course, prior to The Americans, Keri Russell was most famous for her role on the WB show Felicity. Russell played the series’ titular character, Felicity Porter, a college freshman at New York University. In the show’s first season, Russell wore her own voluminous Botticelli curls, which apparently warranted mention in the show’s initial positive reviews. But at the beginning of its second season, Felicity cut off all her hair, a plot twist met with near-universal scorn. Critics called the new style ugly, an “Italian boy do.” Then-WB President Susanne Daniels said the haircut had “diluted” Felicity as an icon. In 2010, TV Guide included the haircut on their list of “25 Biggest TV Blunders,” speculating that it was the reason why the show’s ratings dropped shortly thereafter.
I was a Felicity fan in middle school and remember watching the “hair episode” when it aired in October 1999. Felicity cuts her hair in the final scene, after ending a bad relationship. The haircut is meant to be empowering, an act of strength to break with the past.
Russell, then 23, refused to wear a wig or extensions despite the controversy. “That long hair is how I was identified,” she told the Post-Gazette. Cutting it, she said, “was a good thing for me as a person as well.”
This Halloween, I dressed up as Lena Dunham, star of HBO’s Girls. Dunham, who’s been outspoken in defending her nudity on Girls, made headlines when she dyed her hair platinum blonde and got a short, blunt cut. I initially bought the seven-dollar blonde bob wig for last year’s Kerri Russell costume and then couldn’t ignore the Dunham resemblance.
I’d never worn a wig before and was unsure how to stuff my hair into it. But I bought a 99-cent hair net, too, which corralled all my hair—now shoulder-length—shockingly well. Running around at bars in a cheap wig wasn’t exactly the empowering experience I’d been fantasizing about, but it did make me feel slightly more unbounded. It made me remember that I can shed hair at will.
I can be prepared, unprepared. All women and no women. Bodies, different bodies, and still the same mind.
During the time I was listening to WNYC’s Serial podcast series, I had dreams about Hae Min Lee. On the podcast—a runaway hit with five-million listeners—host Sarah Koenig investigates Hae’s 1999 murder. Hae was a high school senior. She was strangled, and then found in a park, where someone noticed a bit of her black hair poking out of a shallow grave. This is exactly how Koenig describes it: He’d noticed a bit of her black hair poking out of a shallow grave. Then she pauses before explaining what manual strangulation is.
Koenig spends 12 hour-long episodes investigating the circumstances of Hae’s murder—casting doubt on the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Sayed. But that bit of hair is almost the only specific physical detail we’re given about Hae. We’re told she was Korean, beautiful, responsible, a field hockey and lacrosse player. We’re told she had a level of self-confidence unusual for a teenager; she encouraged her boyfriend at the time to believe in his own worth. I listened to the rest of the episodes imagining her black hair, which fell just below her shoulders at the time of her death.
Several times I’ve dreamt that I’m the one who comes upon her grave. In the dream, it’s in a field behind the Ohio truck stop where I used to pull all-nighters in college. I see the hair spread out on a pile of dry leaves and I go over to it.
I know there is a fair amount of narcissistic projection here. Of course, I never knew Hae personally, and I feel guilty that my subconscious keeps reanimating her for its own purposes. I’ve made her body into a symbol. Freudian dream theory would hold she is some dead part of me, calling out for resurrection. Though I’m not sure exactly what’s behind these dreams, I know it has something to do with the repeated descriptions of her as “un-shy,” assertive, and always genuine.
Near the end of Serial’s run, a video of Hae taken on the day of her death resurfaces. She had given an interview to a local news station about how she juggled playing three sports, a part-time job, and her schoolwork. Footage shows her bounding across her school gym with a lacrosse stick, her loose hair flying up behind her. She is prepared. She is completely self-possessed. And this, in my mind, is somehow linked to that hair. In Koenig’s telling of it, it’s as if that loose, black hair is all that’s left of her after she’s dead.
In one dream, I drag her up. I need to know that there’s more than just the hair. I need the body—the person—beneath it. I grab the end of her hair and yank her out of her grave, standing her upright. I am surprised by my own strength, my own capacity for violence, by the feeling of long, silky hair gripped in my hands, and the weight of the body attached to it.
She’s alive. I tell her it was all a mistake—she was supposed to be here, deserved to be. “I’ll keep dragging you up by the hair,” I say. She nods, and we walk toward the highway together.