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So…: It's Just Hair

"Are you ready?" the stylist asked my son, Jamin, before snipping off ten-inch ponytails to donate to Locks for Love. He was. Me? It was more than a hair swatch; those tails represented years of teasing and my son's identification as a long-haired boy. My grandma says he has the face of an angel and teamed with thick curly hair and a prepubescent body, he's been yelled at to "Get out" of the men's bathroom. Once he had a first grade reading buddy that refused to refer to Jamin as a 'he' because, "No way could there be a boy with hair like that."

He was aloof to other people's problems, "It's just hair." It made perfect sense to him, "Why shouldn't I grow it, cut it and give it to someone who can't grow his or her own?" As he measured it with a ruler, he asked if I wanted to cut mine too. I donated my hair three years ago and it's long enough to do it again.

"Of course," I said.

I recently transitioned from the classroom to the administrative building or "the dark side" as some refer to it. After the announcement, a colleague turned to me and said, "Are you going to cut your hair and start wearing business suits?"

"No, why?"

"Look around the district office. Do you see any women in administration that look like you?"

I didn't. I saw women in the halls with bobs and trendy short cuts with pant suits in grey, brown and black. And vests. Vests in velvet, corduroy, and quilted patterns. Like corsets but on the outside. Don't get me wrong, it is totally working for them, but as someone who has recently come to terms with how to be feminine and powerful at the same time, I wasn't ready to change out my hemp skirts and flowing tops.

Then a friend shared a conversation with a co-worker who reportedly said, "I hope Heather plans to cut her hair soon. She's married with three kids; she's not out looking. No woman close to 40 should have long hair. It looks ridiculous."

Why do I have to consider a pageboy with bangs now that I'm working in a professional environment? How is it possible at thirty-five I'm losing my hairstyle options because it might be perceived that I'm trying to look too young or hot? Is there something unacceptable about natural traces of gray in a set of braids?

The pixie haircut is what they called it when I was in middle and highschool and I was forever called, "cute." Like Tinkerbell cute or Mary Lou Retton cute. For a decade I kept it short and then I had kids. I no longer budgeted money or energy to get my hair cut.

Looking in the mirror one day when my son was two I thought, "Gee, I must be growing out my hair now." With attention to my diet and pre-natal vitamins, it grew quickly. To my shoulders. Past my shoulders. And then one morning in the mirror my brown locks covered my rib cage and I posed like Eve in the Garden of Eden. It was thick and glossy and I didn't have to do a thing besides wash it and comb it out. I loved my chestnut mane.

So did my nursing daughter. She never connected to a security blanket or stuffed animal, but when she was hurt or sad, she wrapped herself in two bundles of my hair like protective, skinny arms. As she grew, she had wispy blond hair that sprouted a centimeter a year. During her toddler years, she reminded me of Charlie Brown. Wrapping her head with scarves she would say, "I'm going to have beautiful, long hair like my mommy." Ever the optimist, I knew that would be—in a word—unattainable. I hated the Disney princesses even more for the way they flaunted it in her face.

Men notice it too. Sometimes they tweak my long braids and wiggle my ponytail like we are in second grade. They pretend to rest their hand on my back like it's tired, but I wonder if they are satisfying their urge to touch. Touch something they don't have (certainly is true of breasts). Ultimately I knew something was up because men stopped calling me "cute". When I mentioned it to my husband he agreed.

"We are crazy about long hair."

I remember reading an article in the doctor's office when I was pregnant about why men preferred longer hairstyles to shorter ones. The author supposed it had evolutionary roots traced back to a time when a woman with a head of healthy, strong hair was easily identifiable as a good breeder. "We are visual," my husband reminds me so I guess that the heterosexual ones may also imagine every seven seconds or so how cascading hair works like a natural feather in the bedroom when one is…well, you know.

Am I caving to some cultural shaping by men—consciously or not—that I am more beautiful and sexually relevant with long hair? I'm not sure, If I was, I wouldn't be writing about it. Right now my top reasons for keeping it long are simplicity and habit. The practice of washing, towel drying, and combing takes 15 minutes as opposed to this other practice called 'styling.' I have a style too: it's called simple. I also have this habit of gathering my hair up over my shoulder and bringing it to my nose because I can smell where I've been. Which probably isn't that different from Molly Shannon's signature act of hooking her fingers in her armpits and then smelling them, now that I think about it. Huh. Still, I like it when I can smell my friend's Indian cooking or my daughter 's Play doh hands or the aroma at my hypnotherapist's office or my husband and the freshly baked gluten free bread he's pulling out of the oven.

There are some downsides to long hair, of course. My pediatrician told me I had to be careful to check that my long hairs didn't wind up in my son's diaper. They actually have a term for this: a penis tourniquet. Ouch. In bed, my husband sleeps on my hair and I can't get up to go to the bathroom without groaning and shoving and cussing to "Get off my goddamn hair." Which isn't always pleasant. Neither is rolling my hair up in the car window or shutting it in a door. In a self defense class I learned that attackers target women with long hair because they can use it as a handle or a leash to move their victim quickly to a secluded area. I'm anti that.

So I look to my role model, Jamin, with his adorable dutch boy cut and chant "It's just hair" and vow to keep it long for now and whatever hair I wear, I will wear it well. I'll take small pleasure in knowing that I don't fit the unspoken dress code at work and that I am a billboard for the message "Wear your hair however you want at any age." Right now my hair smells like coffee beans from the cafe where I sit sniffing it and writing…happily.

column added on 2008-04-27 :: ::

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Heather Cori
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Heather Cori believes in dreams, onomatopoeias, avocadoes, children and other gifts she doesn't understand yet. She has been published in a number of publications, including Mothering, Literary Mama and The Sun and is a staff writer for Northwest Baby and Child. Crocus in Early Dirt was her first self-published work chronicling her one-woman letter writing campaign. In Washington, she lives with a designer, meteorologist, artist and Fancy Nancy (also known as her husband Kurt, and their three children: Jamin, Maya and Ahna).

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