Lately I’ve been cutting my own hair. It’s a way to spend some quality time with myself in the bathroom without staring at my own face constantly. I imagine I can’t be alone in having spent, probably, several months of my life looking at my face in the mirror, wondering what people see and what is that spot and where’s that dark hair on my chin. Compared to this, cutting my hair is meditative—plus, it’s free. I pluck up a bit of hair and skate down it with the embroidery scissors (what else am I going to use them for?). I’m curly, so it doesn’t matter what I do; everything blends back into the mane the moment after I cut it.
At least, I tell myself it doesn’t matter. Hair is political, and curly hair is worse. I remember getting my hair cut sometime in my early twenties, when it was a similarly unruly mess, and the hairdresser telling me that sometime I would want a “more professional” hair cut. I had no idea what she was talking about. Slowly the meaning has dawned on me—she meant hair no one could reproach me for—but I never have gotten that professional cut. Nor have I ever learned to handle the tools I would need for such a cut: blow-dryer, curling iron, god knows what else.
Why does any of this matter? A few years ago, I’m sitting in a job interview, wearing a suit. There’s cat hair on my suit, though I have lint-rolled myself. I’m not wearing hose or tights because it’s warm and frankly I don’t have a pair without a ladder in them. (I regard the ladders as fetching, if you want to know the truth.) That’s mistake number 2. Mistake number 1 is my hair, which in the humidity of July is more pubic bush than shellacked professional wig. I get that its drift makes me look “artsy,” unserious somehow, but—if you’re shaking your head at me now, I understand—I never thought it mattered before.
Surely, among all the cat gifs, cities you must see in your twenties (I’m thirty-five, so thanks for that!), and posture dos & don’ts for women, someone has composed a peppy timeline of such realizations. You know what I mean: Around three, you realize you are a finite self; around 19, you realize your parents are just people; around 27 (or 47, if you’re a late bloomer), you realize you’re not a rock star. I have one to add: Somewhere in your thirties, you realize that really successful people are crazy. What I mean is that high-achieving types in any field live their field. They are that thing all the time. It is their fun, their work, their dream, their first love. To “relax,” they read the blogs of their field. “Work-life balance” means nothing to them, because work is life and life is work.
Dear reader, are you one of them? I know I am not. Now let me say, briefly, I am immensely grateful for what I have. People I admire talk to me, and I am able to do many things I want to do. I get to, for example, write this column. But I also gaze out of the window, and I do things that have nothing to do with my career(s). Normally, this would not matter, because as far as I know, you and I, reader, do not want to be Lady Gaga. However, in this merciless state of our economy, Gaga’s commitment to never ever wearing pants is (metaphorically) trickling downward. A case in point: I made mistake number 3 when I asked my interviewers about their research interests—the professional equivalent of asking about their hobbies. One after another, they told me they had none. They all worked constantly. If they had some time, they would like to cook, maybe even eat. I must have looked shell-shocked as I tried to keep a listening smile plastered on my face. But I doubt it mattered, because they already knew I wasn’t their woman: my hair told them so.
Now, in case I have given you the impression of a flaneur with fabulous hair, let me disabuse you of that. It was Mandy who first told me about the hair championships—Mandy, who later had her mahogany crop shorn and dyed into a blue-black asymmetrical faux-hawk at Vidal Sassoon. Mandy waxed poetic about the hair performance, in which Adam and Eve, dressed only in their flowing tresses, emerged from the earth and kicked off a creation story replete with literally angel-headed hipsters. I don’t know what hair competition Mandy modeled for, but search for “hair championships” and you come across a gallery of “day styles” Cyndi Lauper never dreamed of, with hyped-up 80s bangs and vibrant orange sprays. “Hair art” brings up even more outré images—women transformed into birds of paradise, a man with a hair gecko on his head, women with octopi, trees, donkeys on their heads, along with slightly more wearable looks like hair balloons and heaps of multicolored braids.
No, I’m a little more like Fitzgerald’s Bernice. Remember Bernice? She’s an oddity among Fitzgerald’s heartless beauties, a shifting girl caught midstream in her story. When she finally bobs her hair, as she’s been threatening in order to gain everyone’s interest, she loses her beaux but gains—who knows what: I don’t think Fitzgerald did. He packs her off to Eau Claire at the end of the story, swinging her wicked cousin’s scissored braids. But surely she went to New York instead and became—not a star—but a person.
One more hair story? In New York, sitting at Hummus Kitchen, I watched a waitress come in. She put on her apron and took down her hair—a russet river that tumbled down to her hips, or it would have if it ever hung still. Instead, the tail of it, brushed to a burnished sheen, told stories of every step she took.
Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.