Our identities are found hidden in the roots of our hair, woven into our plaits, speaking through curls and straight edges. Our poignant relationship with hair is as archaic as the bible; between the pages of which we find Delilah’s betrayal of Samson. Samson’s hair not only declared him a Nazarite, but was the sacred origin of his strength; his hair gave him the strength of God. Hair has also been used to challenge tradition, and as a symbol of revolution. Flappers in the 1920s cropped their hair short to rebel against conventional notions of femininity, and similarly in the late 60s and 70s the rise of the afro marked out activists of the black power movement. Prescribed notions of beauty were formulated within a tight square box, but from this box sprung tightly coiled springs and ideologies, shattering its glass walls. Our relationship with hair isn’t all peaches and cream though as Britney reminded us in 2007 when she shaved her head, disavowing her femininity. Hair often bears the brunt of our inner turmoil, the symbol of hair cutting is used in many films such as Mulan, G.I. Jane and The Accused. Hair has certainly surpassed the meagre biological ambitions of a secondary structure protein; it bleeds the pain we feel internally, shouts our protests and denies tradition.
There is a particular quality of light that always reminds me of being in Mrs Morgan’s classroom at age 6. It’s that silvery mid-afternoon light that reveals all the specs of dust floating through the air like ennui which is only palpable once you begin to daydream. Sometimes a strand of hair would float through the air, like one of those barely tangible worms of vitreous gel that float in your eye, that evade direct examination and disappear when you try to chase them with your vision. In my Year 2 classroom, you would always find a boy called Liam sat behind a girl. Not because he was a flirt, but because he had a compulsion. He would pull threads of hair from the girl’s fleece, and place them in his mouth before swallowing. None of the girls minded, we simply sat there patiently as he traced imperceptible shapes on our back. Secretly, I was always a little sad when he didn’t sit behind me; I would watch him pull blonde wisps of hair like pampas grass from their fleeces, and a little smile would play across whoever’s lips he was sat behind. Children put things in their mouths to learn their texture and taste. To know them intimately. I couldn’t help but wonder with childish solipsism, what about me? What’s wrong with my hair?
There might be reason behind the madness of eating hair: according to Dr. Kevin Kennedy, a child psychologist, babies twirl and pull hair as a self soothing behaviour, but as they age, this behaviour develops into eating it too. There is something innately comforting about hair. We reach for it when we’re in the middle of a presentation and find ourselves undeniably lost for words. We twirl our hair around our finger as we reel in our date for a kiss. We fluff, preen and fiddle with it as though we are birds in a pond, obsessed by the beauty or flaws in our reflection. Hair is something we are all obsessed with to some extent; we all have our hairy hang-ups. I like to think I’m past mine now, but though I admire the girl who stood at Reading station in summer wearing a dress with her hairy legs out, I’m not quite there yet.
My obsession with hair began with a dolly I do not remember the name of. She was my favourite, so her name was probably Rosie, like my best friend when I was three (I even wanted my soon-to-be sibling to be called Rosie regardless of gender). I would wheel her around in her pram, change her outfits and make tea for her out of mud and water from the pond. Even though she was my favourite, she was all wrong. Blonde hair. Wrong. Fringe. Wrong. When I was certain no one was around, I took a pair of woefully inept blue nail scissors to her flaxen fringe and chopped it off without mercy. I remember being shocked by the ugly stubble that was the prelude to her luscious locks after I lopped off her fringe. I had expected that her hair would be long and flowing, unaware that once something is gone it leaves an absence rather than simply never having existed. My Mum recalls that when questioned I replied plainly that ‘It would grow back’, clearly painfully unaware of the physical limitations of my inanimate best friend. Safe to say, poor Rosie and her bristly forehead were abandoned and other dolls favoured after that amateur haircut.
After the harsh realisation that making everyone (even a dolly, let alone a breathing person) look like me wasn’t as easy as I had once thought it, I resolved to make myself like others. When I joined primary school, everyone had a fringe, girls, boys, even the teachers. The whole world had a fringe and I felt it was deeply unfair that I was the sole person missing out. I had begged Mum to cut me one, to which the answer was a definitive no. I however, was resolved, I would have a fringe and that was that. I returned to my trusty tool, the pair of nail scissors I used to mutilate Rosie, and hid them in the palm of my hand so they were not visible should I run into Mum in the corridor. The best place to perform the haircut? Behind the couch in the dark of course! While I was in the process of what I believed to be my greatest work of defiance yet, I had not realised that all I had found crouched in the darkness behind that couch was a misshapen sort of conformity. A conformity with jagged edges and awkward angles. Having been alerted by the unnatural absence of sound in the house my mother entered the living room and was shocked to watch me emerge from behind the couch with my somewhat questionable new hairstyle, a hunk of hair in one hand and that blue handled weapon in the other.
I do not remember how my hair looked, or if I felt better when I went back to school with a lop-sided fringe, but I know that I would have been treated the exact same as I always had been; with an odd sort of suspicion. Cutting my fringe was like licking a battery, made all the more delicious because I shouldn’t have been doing it, but it left a sour taste in my mouth and a sadness in my stomach. I undoubtedly felt the same kind of success tainted with a feeling of absence that I had felt after attacking Rosie’s fringe. Whenever I went to the bathroom in primary, I would always take the time to slick back the halo of frizz that framed my face with water in order to become like the other girls with effortlessly sleek hair. I only really began to appreciate my hair when I considered what it would be like to be without it.
Before coming to university, my flatmate Betty had been to Turkey, where the sea salt had worked its magic, teasing her hair into jubilant curls that sang songs of the sea, just as Baudelaire’s muse’s hair sang of ‘sweltering Africa and languorous Asia’. Her big, curly hair was what she woke up to in the morning, and what laid across her pillow as she slept. It was a part of her identity. So when overnight at university, the life that was once in her hair died in her sleep, she was shocked. This was something she obsessed over, she didn’t know what to do with these now-straight locks, which she had often yearned for throughout her life. She didn’t understand this hair that looked as though it belonged to someone else. Didn’t know how to make it respond to her touch, and she had to re-learn her body in some small way. The change lay somewhere in between realising you have a new mole on your face and discovering that in the night your little finger grew legs, removed itself from the rest of your hand and danced off into the night, in search of its own destiny. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for this change, and Betty mulled over the possibilities for it in the mirror, picking through strands of hair in search of one curly segment. Maybe it was stress? Perhaps it could be the hard water you get in cities? Or illness? Maybe her hair just didn’t like Southampton. One thing was for sure, it was no longer singing its responses. Her hairdresser fiddled with her hair, running her fingers through it in search of an answer. The fingers pleaded, ‘talk to me’, but the hair remained stubbornly silent. At the roots, a muffled whisper began to rise. The straight era was put down to a period of glandular fever, and the hair told the tale of six months of illness. The new hair was beginning to curl, but people still only recognised her as someone with straight hair. She had to constantly validate herself as a person with curly hair, by showing them photos of her hair before, so that her identity was consistent with the world’s view of her. She says now that she took her hair for granted, she didn’t appreciate its inconsistencies of line and reason, and now instead of reaching for her straighteners, the first thing her fingers find after washing her hair is her curling mousse in an attempt to coax her hair into play.
In recent years we have seen a resurgence in traditional stories about hair, with the 2015 film Room which plays on the story of Samson. The mother, after seven years of captivity is liberated but sinks into a deep depression. In order to help her, her son cuts off his hair, donating it to her in an emotive gesture that reminds us of the power we place in our hair. Similarly in Tangled, the modern Disney adaptation of Rapunzel, hair carries magical healing powers, which are rendered inept when it is cut. While Baudelaire’s muse has ‘memories sleeping in that thick head of hair’, mine do not sleep; the memories that bury themselves in the whorls of my hair tell stories of days when the wind fought with it, knots are saturated with dance music and sweaty nights of perpetual re-fastening, and my ringlets remind my mother of years long ago, my gurgling laughs and her Maroon 5 cassette.
I think of Liam sometimes, and wonder about the hair that has wrapped itself in knots in his stomach. I have decided that it is better my hair is not wrapped up with the sleek locks of my classmates. My hair would have tickled the sides of Liam’s stomach intolerably, and the sculpture of hair that he was carefully gestating would have been removed. So for art’s sake, it’s better that he never chose my hair; its spirals were too structurally sound. I no longer fight my hair, I let it do what it wants, which isn’t to say it behaves; just the other day I had a single errant grey hair standing proudly upright like an unwanted erection. My love affair with my hair has been a long and torrid one. It follows the narrative of a conventional romantic comedy: boy meets girl, they hate each other, eventually learn to love each other for their flaws, and finally fall madly in love. It’s true, I’ve learnt to love my hair for all its flaws, and I’ve learnt never to try and tame it, because ultimately, my hair is just like I am: unruly, wilful and fiery.