Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to the Ethel community. Log in to get the best user experience, save your favorite articles and quotes, and follow our authors.
Don't have an Online Account? Subscribe here

Why We Can't Stop Obsessing About Our Hair

Like it or not, hair is part of our identity.

Comment Icon
Close up of comb brushing blonde hair
Viktoria Stutz/Gallery Stock
Comment Icon

Think back to any moment in your life, whether last month or decades ago. If you’re a woman, you probably know just how you were wearing your hair: whether it was long or short, light or dark, curly or straight, up or down. Many of us could organize a memoir through our hairstyles over the years and the effort (or not) it took to maintain them.        

This isn’t because we’re superficial but because, like it or not, our hair is part of our identity. Unlike other aspects of our identity, however, such as our height, weight, intelligence, and avocation, we can change our hairstyles quickly, effecting an instant transformation with a pair of scissors, a curling iron or a henna rinse. Or all three!

When a woman in the movies goes on the lam, she usually applies a bottle of dye at the sink of a rest-stop bathroom, and—presto!—new person. So, while our hair is part of our identity, it’s a temporary part. We think about our hair a lot because we can always change it. And our continuing wish to be physically attractive (in every era and at every age!) means we dwell upon our hair. Even when it isn’t top of mind, one look in the mirror and — there it is — top of head!

And when it comes to hair, we usually feel others have it better. The grass is always greener, or shinier, next door. In high school, girls with straight hair would admire my waves, while I wanted a sheet of hair to fall down my back like theirs. In college, I watched in bewilderment as Maura with the long straight hair tried to give body to her limp bangs. Limp bangs were what I craved.

In 1969, I went to the Woodstock festival with burn marks on my arm from the iron. Yes, I actually laid my head down on the ironing board, with the iron on the “wool” setting! In the years that followed, there were occasional attempts at chemical straightening. There were bouts with the blow dryer, and touch-ups with the straightening iron. Everything worked … temporarily, and only when the air was dry. I once asked my husband, “How do you like my hair best? Curly or straight?” The question was fraught. If he said “straight,” he’d be disparaging my natural look; if he said “curly,” he’d be dismissing the hours I took making it straight! He paused. Then with diplomatic genius (send him to the Middle East!), he said, “I like that you can wear it both ways.”

About a dozen years ago, keratin became widely available; my stylist calls it “the most important beauty product of the last 20 years.” It was the answer to my dreams. Every four or five months I would get a two-hour treatment at the salon, after which I did not style my hair at all: my hair would always be soft and straight. I cut my hair short, and a friend said, “You should have been wearing your hair like that all your life.”

I stopped thinking much about my hair. Then came COVID-19, and the keratin grew out. And I began to appreciate my waves.        

My 4-year-old granddaughter, who has a bend to her hair, told me solemnly, “I’ve always wanted straight hair.” The “always” killed me. So did the sentiment. I try to be curl-positive around her, scrunching my hair when wet, explaining, “so it will dry curly.” She takes it all in. And popular culture may be helping her accept her hair. 

Although curls have been said to be making a comeback at least once a decade since 1970, today curls do seem to reign. Never have I seen so many models and actresses with curly or wavy hair! Dead-straight hair (as in Rosamund Pike’s hairdo in I Care a Lot) is starting to look just … dead. After a mere 60 years or so, curls have finally recaptured the crown.        

Beyond being a personal source of frustration or (rarely) satisfaction, hair has sometimes signaled a person’s political or cultural views. During the English Civil War, Puritans wore their hair closely cropped and were derisively called “Roundheads.”

This was in contrast to the royalist Cavaliers, who wore their hair in ringlets past their shoulders. During the 1960s, when college boys came home with long hair, their parents knew it signaled hippie beliefs and occasionally held down their sons to cut their hair.        

Today, one’s hair does not express one’s politics nor signify one’s profession. Sixty years ago, only “Beatnik chicks” wore their hair long and loose and to the waist. Today, the woman with that hair might be a corporate executive. The guy in a man bun might be a tax attorney.        

But hair can still bond us to each other. In the ’90s, in the Black community, women with unprocessed hair recognized each other with a smile and a nod. Going natural signaled authenticity. Now there are many ways to signal Black pride, from weaves to locks to buzz cuts to cornrows. This January, in a significant readjustment of its policy, the Army issued a new set of guidelines, allowing Black female soldiers much greater flexibility in how they wear their hair.              

Other people who have bonded through their hair are the “silver foxes”: attractive women who have let their hair go gray or white naturally. My friend Kathy started to go white at age 40; today, her shining, chin-length bob is not only convenient to maintain but signals an assurance, the confidence that she doesn’t need artifice to look good. When I walk in New York with her, I see other women with white hair and good clothes giving my friend “the look”: one of approval, commonality, sisterhood.         

I can’t join that sisterhood because I’m married to a much younger man and mustn’t be mistaken for his mother! But my cousin Jackie has joined the sorority. I recently saw her in person for the first time in a year. She’d stopped coloring her hair during the pandemic; her black hair now contains thick bands of silver. “It’s gorgeous,” I told her, sincerely. My hair would never do that: it would be a uniform, mousy gray.         

She said: "I'd give anything for hair like yours."

Editor's Picks
Find money-making endeavors that are personally satisfying.
, July 18, 2024
Here are the ones that top the list.
, July 18, 2024
It's incredibly welcoming, especially for older women travelers.
, July 18, 2024