Between the ages of five and ten my best friend was, compared to me, wealthy and sophisticated, fashionable, and fully aware of her superiority. But the worst of it was her beautiful, shiny, straight, long and, most importantly, manageable dark brown hair. Her hair looked good, smelled good, and was carefully tended by her doting mother. I, on the other hand, had hair that my mother referred to as “impossible.” The deeper problem was really that she thought I was impossible, but that’s a story for another day.
I’m going to talk about hair. I’m going to talk about girls’ and women’s hair because I have yet to read a fairy tale that mentions the prince’s hair, or the wizard’s hair, or the miller’s hair, etc. If you have heard of such a tale, please let me know. I know that boys today dye their hair and spend time styling it in a way that hasn’t been seen since, I don’t know, since the 18th century let’s say, for argument’s sake. But they aren’t really doing it for the girls in their lives, in my opinion. It’s more of a banner—an announcement and/or pronouncement for the benefit of other boys. Girls wear their hair as a banner, too, but it goes much deeper than that.
Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
("For Anne Gregory" by W. B. Yeats)
In the years since I parted ways with my gloriously-haired friend I have learned that I do, indeed, have unmanageable hair. The color was, once upon a time, quite lovely, though I didn’t know until it snowed over prematurely. My hair grows forward, has a cowlick in the back (think Dennis the Menace), and is impossibly thick yet fine. If my friend’s hair was a perfectly tended rose garden, mine was the thatch of crab grass best annihilated with noxious chemicals. Rapunzel, I was not. Nor was I a Rapunzel wannabe. Though I tried to be fairly presentable, I was grunge long before it was a trend. And yet, to my surprise, even though I think I know better than to reduce a woman’s essential being to the state of her hair, when I set out to write a new fairy tale, I find that I am obsessed with the hair of my female characters.
When I say I am obsessed with the hair of my female characters, I don’t necessarily mean that I write about hair obsessively. But I do get excited when I imagine their hair and work to remind myself that I shouldn’t make a big deal of it (because I don’t want to consciously promote stereotypes). The point is that I want to make a big deal out of their hair and have to force myself not to do so. What is really going on here?
On a certain wall in my house hangs a framed print of a painting by Terri Windling. It is called “The Green Woman” and it shows a youngish woman with eyes cast downward. She has beautifully structured bones and a graceful neck. But her most striking feature is her hair, which is all plant matter: saplings, vines, and leaves. This image of hair so alive—it is alive!—thrills me. And because nearly every shampoo commercial has a woman whose hair is “alive” (moves supranaturally?), I know I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
I recently watched Disney’s Aladdin for the first time in a long time. It has a special place in my heart since it was the very first video I ever purchased. I watched it for the first time with my first-born child. When I realized that my final-born child had never seen it, I was aghast. As we watched Aladdin, I paid particular attention to Princess Jasmine’s hair. Her hair is alive! It has a mind of its own. The ponytail really is a pony’s tail. And Disney’s version of Pocahontas has hair that responds to the elements, even when the princess does not. Can you name a Disney princess whose hair is not fully alive, responsive, with a charisma all its own? (And in the case of Disney’s Tangled, the heroine’s hair is an adjunct character.)
Hair, especially female hair, isn’t just dead keratinized protein kicked to the curb to make room for living cells, it is “a source of magic power or mana.” (The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, p 179)
A check of mythology and folklore reveals the following: hair is 1) vitality (Samson), 2) transformation (Sif), 3) deadly power (Medusa), 4) life (Nisus, King of Megara), 5) sacrifice (Berenice and Ptolemy), 6) connection (calming the Inuit Sea Goddess Sedna by combing her hair), and 7) life-affirming power (Luthien, in a folktale created by J.R.R. Tolkien). I have no doubt this list is incomplete, but I do like the number seven.
There are far more examples of the significance of hair: it is sacrificed in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and E. Nesbit’s Melisande. Hair figures prominently in every version (direct and derived) of Rapunzel, of which there are more than can be listed here, though Zel by Donna Jo Napoli is one of my favorites.
Ironically, while preparing this piece, a member of my family cut nine inches from her gorgeous ginger hair and donated it to the Canadian Cancer Society wig banks via Pantene’s “Beautiful Lengths” program. I’m very proud of her, but I sure do miss her hair. When did I become Mother Gothel? I must have skipped that memo.
Lest, dear reader, you believe this to have been a pointless exercise, I offer you this: self-proclaimed hair shaman Anthony Morrocco, “…after more than four decades of travel, research, and experimentation…”, developed the Morrocco Method natural hair care system. On whether or not one should blow dry hair, Morrocco advised the following:
If we compare our hair to the leaves on a tree, the sprigs on a bush or the petals on a flower, we can easily understand the sometimes fragile yet also resilient thing that our hair is. Petals, sprigs and leaves are strong enough to withstand weather such as pounding rain and windstorms…but apply concentrated blasts of hot air to any one of them and they will wither and NOT return to their original state. Dear friends, consider your hair to be the living thing it is…much like the flower petal and leaves you see in nature, and treat it as you would them.
The Hair Shaman meets the Green Woman. I sense a fairy tale coming on, through my roots.