If the gods were whirling around looking for a luxurious head of hair worthy of chronicling, if they were going to point a finger down from Mount Olympus and boom out, “You! Tell the other mortals the story of your mane and sing of it,” it’s safe to say I would not be a contender. My hair is ordinary, even a little pitiful. But for all its lack of glamour, my hair has lived and struggled, and lo, gods, whether you like it or not, I will sing of it.
Ages 0-7: My hair and I are at peace. Unless a hairbrush is coming close enough to attack, I never think about it.
Age 7: Allison Pykett gets a Dorothy Hamill haircut. Dorothy Hamill is an Olympic figure skater whose hair is cut in a famous short wedge, and Allison is my best friend. Allison’s hair is thick, blond and luxurious, just the right texture to create that wedge. When Allison walks into Mrs. Langbein’s class with her new do, Mrs. Langbein leads the class in a round of applause. Applause! Can this be real? I wouldn’t say no to a round of applause, so I get my mom to agree to take me for a Dorothy Hamill of my own that very day. The hairstylist informs us that my hair is too thin for a Dorothy Hamill, but we can instead do a pixie cut. I have a bad feeling about whatever a pixie cut is but we proceed. When the stylist finishes and whirls me around to look, I burst into the opposite of applause. And when we get home, my Dad thrusts a dagger into my heart, exclaiming, “Well! How’s my second son!” My wailing increases and sustains. My mom decides to keep me home the next day, and we shop for barrettes with bows, a ruffly dress and some new sandals to drive home the point that I’m still a girl. I bounce back, but I learn that the gods do not distribute hair blessings equally. Life and hair are not fair. Noted.
Ages 7-11: On television, I identify with and root for the brunettes. Their struggles are my struggles, their successes are my successes. Janet from Three’s Company is the sensible one, constantly overlooked for the blond, sexy, doofy Chrissy. Gilligan’s Island isn’t much comfort, either, since Mary Ann is cute, but Ginger is dead sexy. I hang my hopes on Wonder Woman and Kelly from Charlie’s Angels.
Age 11: I cut bangs.
Ages 11-Death: I have bangs.
Age 12: First perm.
Age 15: I learn about hydrogen peroxide. We have some in the house! I slowly lighten my hair from mousy brown to gold. We are also in the era of the tanning booth. I flip nature the bird on both counts.
Age 17: I dye my hair burgundy with my friend Alisa Wedemeyer. My mom is furious, and locks herself in her room to cry. What the hell? Is this not my own head?
Ages 22-23: If long hair is pretty, super long hair must be super pretty. I grow my hair to my waist and dye it black, imagining that I look like an exotic fairy. A blunt cousin at a family gathering laughs and says I look like Morticia Addams. Pfff. What does she know? This hairstyle, however, coincides with my longest romantic dry streak. Hmmm.
Ages 24-30: My hair and I pass these years in harmony. My default style is shoulder-length with bangs and my natural color, but I work as an actress, so there are detours taken for roles. There’s a wild perm with highlights, for example, which I dye black after the play so I can feel like a post-makeover Cher in Moonstruck. My recent ex-boyfriend who dumped me is really into this hairdo, so we sleep together unconstructively many times. Then I get a pixie cut and start seeing somebody else.
Age 30: I decide to go platinum blond. I go to a salon and am transformed instead into Ginger Spice. I drive to another salon where they make me a dull medium blond. I drive home and look at magazines, gazing wistfully at my old posse, the brunettes. I drive to a drugstore and buy a box of dark brown dye, go home and turn back into my normal self. Expenditure to have had nothing ultimately change: $180.
Age 34: I meet the man who will become my husband on a yoga retreat in Hawaii. He lives in Australia and I live in Seattle, and after the retreat we spend a couple of months on the phone until I fly out to Sydney to be with him. Right before I leave, I get a terrible haircut. I tell the stylist I want my hair a little shorter in back and longer in the front, and she says, “Do you want it high and tight?” I don’t know what that means, but her tone is so confident about it that I say yes. It turns out that no, no, fuck no, I don’t want it high and tight, but it’s too late. I fly out to Australia with my stupid hair but Dave loves me anyway, so he moves to America, we get married and have two babies. One time we drive past the salon where I got the dumb haircut in question, and I point it out to him. The salon’s name is Derby. Dave says, “That’s what you get for getting your hair cut in a salon named after a hat.”
Age 43: I get sick. I have a mysterious, morphing illness that lasts for more than seven months, keeping me bed bound for six of them. I can’t take care of our two small sons, can’t do anything. Dave takes care of all of us. My respiratory system is the first battleground, and then my adrenals get in on it. My immune system goes down and my lymphatic system goes insane. Everything that touches my neck makes me nauseated, so I grab some little kid scissors and chop off my hair, willy-nilly. I look wretched but I’m long past caring; I’m just trying to lessen my agony. The illness rages on. I can’t keep food down, I lose 15 pounds in three weeks, and eventually can’t keep liquids down, either. I gaze longingly at my third-floor bedroom window, imagine slipping out of it. The thought of my sons nixes that idea. I go into the hospital for 12 days, they get me stabilized and I start to recover. I remain a medical mystery — nobody really understands why all of this happened — but who cares? I’m coming back.
Age 43.75: It’s spring and I’m getting well. I can play with my children, I can walk in the sunshine, I can eat. My home haircut is looking pretty cute as it grows out, amazingly, but I don’t care. I’m not paying attention. I’m thrilled to be alive and participating in the world, and my senses are wildly heightened. The pure breeze knocks me out. When you’re trapped inside, nothing moves unless you move it. Here in the world, everything perpetually quivers and shifts — grass, trees, plants, clothes, hair — and I can’t get enough. Most of all, my heart feels about 15-feet wide with the return of my children to my arms. Life is good, so good. I kiss the earth.
Age 44: In a delayed response to the stress of the illness, nearly half of my hair falls out. I don’t have tons to begin with, so this is dire. Yes, my life has been returned to me, so yes, still grateful, but I care about what’s happening to my hair now, oh yes I do. The doctor says that this is to be expected, and she assures me that my hair should come back in about six months. I can take vitamins, but this is how it’s going to be for a while. I feel well but I look sick, and I don’t want to look sick. I want to look pretty, I want to look sexy. This is bullshit. Every time I have to leave the house, I look in the mirror, cry, apply concealer and attempt to rally. It’s demoralizing. And so I enter into the most hair-fixated era of my life thus far. I buy every thickening shampoo on the market. I buy salves, serums and tons of vitamins. I buy scarves, and experiment with how to wear them in the most hip, least babushka way possible. My bangs — my unspeakably precious bangs! — have been reduced to one wispy clump, and I worry them endlessly around my forehead, trying to fan them out into a serviceable presence. I come up with a look; I fold a silk scarf into a wide ribbon, and tie it flapper/hippie-style around my head like a low crown, which maximizes my compromised bangs and doesn’t look half bad. I find a shop on Etsy that sells wide silk headbands like I’ve rigged up with my scarf, and I buy five. I can do this. I can ride this out. My attention shifts off of my head and back out into the world as the strands slowly return.
Age 44.75: Spring again. My hair has come back as promised. By last Christmas, I had a quorum atop my head once more. But this new hair is different. My hair has been stick-straight since birth, except when I fought back with technology, but now it’s got a little curl to it, as well as a more lavish scattering of gray. I’m mystified and entertained by my new curls but the gray, well, I saw that coming. Ultimately, I approve. I’ve been living. Life is fierce and it has the right to leave a mark. I don’t want to look the same. I’m not the same.