A cut above

A new book uncovers the complex relationships women have to their hair

This anthology of essays by women explores a surprising range of issues, including identity, relationships, vanity, femininity, aging and society.

"You can just say the word 'hair' to a woman, and she tells you the story of her life." (AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of publishing an anthology of essays about hair, Elizabeth Benedict made a startling discovery at home: a lock of her late mother’s hair, alongside an envelope with a lock of hair from one of her own first haircuts. “It occurred to me that hair is very precious,” she reflected. “The idea that you would save your hair for decades … Hair opens the door to a lot of conversations.”

Some of those conversations can be found in her new collection, Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession. Writers like Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley, philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein, and linguist Deborah Tannen use hair as a vehicle for explorations of identity, relationships, vanity, femininity, aging and society. “It’s true that there are many things in life that matter more than hair,” Benedict writes in her introduction, “But few that matter in quite these complicated, energizing and interconnected ways.”

Elizabeth Benedict has published an anthology of essays on the “seemingly frivolous” but deeply interesting topic of hair.

Women in the World: Why did you decide to put this book together?

Elizabeth Benedict: Two years ago, I published an anthology of daughters writing about their favorite gifts from their mothers [What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts that Mattered Most]. There was so much enthusiasm for that topic; people kept saying to me, we want to continue these conversations. I was going back and forth with [my publisher] Algonquin, trying to figure out how to talk about things that maybe seemed a little frivolous but were actually of very deep interest to women.

WITW: How did you select the contributors?

EB: I was mostly interested in good writers, good essayists. We wanted to make sure that we covered the obvious hair issues: Some of them had to do with chemotherapy, some had to do with religion, culture. I wanted people of different ethnicities, different races. And then I asked a few people that I knew just had great hair.

WITW: Hair, as you said, seems like a sort of frivolous topic, but these very deep themes emerge — these are essays about mortality, about sickness and health, about family. Were you surprised by the depth you got?

EB: Not exactly, but I was surprised by how intense the depth was. I knew that they were deep for some people in certain situations — like if you were losing your hair to chemo or if you were African-American, where hair is this huge, complex issue. There have been a lot of books written about African Americans and their hair.

I was surprised about all the family issues that came up, like the conflict between sisters, the conflict between parents and children. In Julia Fierro’s piece, she talks about this unbelievable conflict with her father. He wanted her hair to be a certain way, and it got back to his own immigrant roots — and when her child’s hair was cut, it brought up her conflict with her father and it went back three generations.

Rebecca Goldstein, pictured with U.S. President Barack Obama in September, contributed an essay titled 'The Rapunzel Complex'. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Rebecca Goldstein, pictured with U.S. President Barack Obama in September, contributed an essay titled ‘The Rapunzel Complex’. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

You can just say the word “hair” to a woman, and she tells you the story of her life. Rebecca Goldstein said, “I don’t think I can write the story of my life, but I can write the story of my hair.” Talking about your hair becomes a framework for talking about your vanity, your self-esteem, your relationships with your family, your mortality. It’s a little bit like gifts and mothers. I asked people to find a gift that would encapsulate their relationship with their mother. If I’d just said, “Write about your mother,” people would have had a nervous breakdown.

It seemed like there were two kinds of essays. Most people had very adversarial relationships with their hair. But then there were people who had very positive hair experiences, like Emma Keller, who seems very comfortable paying attention to her hair and enjoying her hair and celebrating it. On the other hand, there were a number of people I invited to be in the book — terrific writers — who had hair that looked like it was easy to take care of: hair that if you washed it, it just sort of dried and looked fine. I’m thinking of two people in particular, who thought about it for a long time and basically said, “I don’t have much to say.” If your hair has never given you any trouble, if you’ve never had huge fights with your mother about it, then you might not have a story to tell. But I think most people do.

WITW: Would you put your own hair experience in the more adversarial camp?

EB: I think I’ve been mildly obsessed with my hair. I don’t think I have a hugely adversarial relationship with it. My essay, actually, is about my decision to keep coloring my hair once it started to go gray, but once I wrote the essay — once the book was in production — I decided to go gray.

But it’s been hugely complicated, this going gray thing. Maybe I had an adversarial relationship with my hairdresser, who dyed my hair black. That’s why I decided to go gray — I was so sick of having to do all the things you have to do to get your hair from being black to being the color it was.

Suleika Jaouad, a writer who lives in New York, waits in a hospital for chemotherapy treatment as part of a clinical trial in an undated photo. After exhausting all other options Jaouad took part in a clinical trial that left her cancer free. (Shayla Harris/The New York TImes)

Cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad, seen here while undergoing chemotherapy, contributed an essay titled “Hair, Interrupted”. (Shayla Harris/The New York TImes)

WITW: I was wondering whether you got much of a response from men while you were working on this book—did you think about including them?

EB: We did think about it, but men aren’t that interested in talking about their hair. They might say, “Oh, I got a haircut,” or “Oh, I’m losing my hair,” but we realized it would not generate the same kind of enthusiasm, verging on confession, for men.

WITW: One idea that resonated with me was Deborah Tannen saying that women’s hair is always “marked”; for women — but not so much for men — there’s no such thing as a neutral hairstyle.

EB: It’s funny, she talks about going to this academic conference, and sitting and studying everyone’s hair. Since then, there have been articles about women being at conferences, being on panels and then getting emails about their hair, not about what they were saying. These are serious women, doing serious work, and their hair becomes the subject in very personal ways.

Deborah Tannen (Carol T. Powers/The New York Times)2

Deborah Tannen contributed an essay on “Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle over Hair”. (Carol T. Powers/The New York Times)

I have to say, I’m a little nervous about going out in public now, with this book attached to my name. I’m afraid my hair will become the subject. I hope people have something better to do; I hope that they respond to the book, to what’s in the pages.

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