How To Do (And Don't) Your Hair


I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 3 of 100.

Hair is totally weird. Just, objectively. It’s in the same category as Caucasian skin, crying emotional tears, and falling in love: evolutionarily baffling. Only humans have hair the way humans have hair; you can ask every biologist on earth what hair is all about, and none will have a definitive answer. 

At the end of the day, a human is nothing but a hunk of spongey flesh, addled with fat and increasingly vestigial muscles (thanks, internet!) and a big heavy brain that makes it do dumb things like go vegan or cry when our friends move to Los Angeles. We grow “hair" that is sort of normal and fur-like on our genitals and armpits, presumably to keep those parts safe or warm — or just to make women work harder to be considered beautiful. Male-bodied people have hair all over, and it’s curly and wiry and utilitarian, like ape hair. And then you get to our hairless necks and our hairless-er faces with their front-facing eyes and their oddly cartiledged noses; and above all that is this OTHER KIND OF HAIR that can get CRAZY LONG if you don’t cut it (!??!), and can come in all kinds of colors and textures, and around which multi-billion-dollar industries are built. Sorry, but: WHAT?

Here are other weird facts about human hair:

- Every strand of human hair can hold the weight of 3.5 ounces. That’s a banana, folks. ONE STRAND OF YOUR HAIR CAN HOLD AN ENTIRE BANANA.

- The average person has between 100,000 and 150,000 head hairs. THAT’S 100,000 TO 150,000 BANANAS, BUT WHO’S COUNTING?

- Hair is a tissue, and for reasons that can’t be explained by anyone who doesn’t worship Rapunzel as a minor god, it regenerates faster than any other tissue on the body. 

- Everyone sheds between 40 and 150 strands of hair a day. WHY. Is it because scalps hate plumbers? 

- Once, in the sixteenth century, a doctor swore that if your hair was disappearing, you could revive it back by making an ointment out of boiled slugs, olive oil, honey, saffron, soap, and cumin. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think one thing: Saffron is EXPENSIVE.

I could spend 80,000 words on the weirdness of hair (and plenty of people have), but this isn’t the space for that. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is: Why do we all get so emotional about something that’s so fucking weird?

I had my first bad haircut when I was nine. I wanted a bob, for Ramona-related reasons. Nine was the age where my diet of grilled cheese and grilled cheese began to catch up with me: for the first time, boys had started to explain to me that I was fat. (As one boy put it, “You’re too fat to marry. Those are the rules.” Hey, when you’ve got the facts, why dress ‘em up?) I thought a back-to-school haircut would distract from my fatness. This is never a thing, as I was about to learn. After the horrible bob — on which I blame the loss of all my friendships in third grade; since that definitely couldn't be blamed my newfound penchant for crying loudly throughout gym, or my public declaration that anyone who liked Goosebumps over Babysitter’s Club was an idiot — I vowed never to cut my hair again.

A lot of girls make resolutions like this. A lot of grown-ass women make resolutions like this. And I didn’t really cut my hair again until my senior year of college. 

In the interim, I did dye it (insert “dye-it diet" joke here, per the previous paragraph on fatness). In eighth grade, for promotion, I colored my brown hair with blue Manic Panic that my friend Ariel gave me for my birthday. Because my hair was dark, you couldn’t really see the blue; however, washing the Manic Panic out in the shower did tint my skin slightly so I looked like a chubby ghost. 

 Here is how my hair looked for winter formal sophomore year. COOL! (And yes, that is a bridesmaid's dress my mom wore in the 1960s that I found in the attic and thought was really "retro.")

Here is how my hair looked for winter formal sophomore year. COOL! (And yes, that is a bridesmaid's dress my mom wore in the 1960s that I found in the attic and thought was really "retro.")

Because I was still unacceptably fat, I wore black to the promotion dance. (A new quote from a new boy: “It’s not that you’re not a good person. I don’t know if you’re a good person. I just can’t date someone bigger than me. You get that.” This boy typed this to me apropos of nothing in an AIM message. I thought it was such a nice thing for someone to say, that I printed it out and put it in my diary.) On the plus side, with the blue skin, I looked like I was really into goth music.

Loving the possibility that people would think I did drugs without my ever having to actually do them, I invested in bleach and every color of Manic Panic they had at Hot Topic. I cycled through them ALL in high school, eventually landing on this muddy, sad rainbow. (I lost weight around the same time. It made hair change feel less risky. My health, though, was another story. I ate only Top Ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the entirety of sophomore year — when I ate at all.)

 Here is the COOL rainbow I wore to my FUCKING SENIOR PROM. BECAUSE I WAS COOL.

Here is the COOL rainbow I wore to my FUCKING SENIOR PROM. BECAUSE I WAS COOL.

I cut it all off after Mandy Moore’s How To Deal came out my senior year. I had some weight loss-fueled confidence. I decided to get this haircut done at a Great Clips — the $7 haircut place in the strip mall by my house. I showed the woman my picture of Mandy Moore and she cut my hair like I was a boy being punished by his mother for going through a grunge phase. Zero people thought it looked good. I cried and vowed never to cut my hair again.

 Here's my "How To Deal"-era haircut. I thought I could look JUST LIKE MANDY MOORE. COOL.

Here's my "How To Deal"-era haircut. I thought I could look JUST LIKE MANDY MOORE. COOL.

And that lasted for about seven years, when I met a boy who told me that while he thought my dyed hair looked fine, he could see the roots underneath and he thought that I looked beautiful “with just what was there naturally.” Powerfully moved, I went to the salon and spent the going rate of a small fortune to get all my hair cut off. The stylist was really sad to cut my hair off. “You have such beautiful long hair; maybe we shouldn’t cut it all off?” she said. But I had been empowered by a handsome boy, and so I could not be deterred.

He dumped me about a week later. I hated my hair. I was a Pinterest-fueled cautionary tale.

 A boy told me that this would look "beautiful," and then he broke up with me. COOL COOL COOL.

A boy told me that this would look "beautiful," and then he broke up with me. COOL COOL COOL.

I let my hair grow, and grow, and grow. In New Orleans, this was irritating. My hair was to humidity what Diet Coke is to Mentos. No matter how much I wrestled it and flattened it and filled it with flowery products, it fizzed and exploded into something as unmanageable as it was uncomfortable. I did get very good at braiding. Today’s chart is about braiding, actually. I think everyone with hair should know how to French braid. It’s the only way I know to whip into shape something that causes humans — women in particular — so much strife.

My last summer in New Orleans, I decided to go in and ask for an undercut. I just wanted less hair. And the stylist told me — I wish I was kidding, I really do — that my face just “wasn’t going to look good with that style,” and that she’d do an asymmetrical cut instead, and by the way, she knew some “good diet tips.” 

I was in literal shock. This was two decades after my first traumatic haircut, and I had spent those two decades trying to divorce my hair from my weight. There is no reason that a woman’s hair and her body should be discussed in tandem. And actually, you know what? There’s no reason those things need to be discussed AT ALL.

Because hair is dead, and because it perches there on our heads for everyone to see, it feels like something we have control over. We learn that we are going to be judged for how we look, no matter what we do, so we cling to our hair. I can’t make my body different — not really; I’m kinda stuck with this skin and these wrinkles and the way I smell. But my hair? THAT I can change. That's my steering wheel.

I bring this up now because last week I spent half of my bank account and my entire Saturday to get my hair chopped off and shaved and then chemically treated until all the color drained out of it. My scalp burned and I felt forced into uncomfortable conversation with a shy new stylist while I sat for six hours in a foreign chair. After it was all over, I loved my hair. I looked like someone totally new. I felt powerful.

But after I got home and posted pictures of myself all over the internet and gathered compliments, I started to feel a teensy bit icky. That feeling amplified when I get on OK Cupid and found that since I’d changed my picture to feature my blonde hair, I had started getting eight times as many messages as I’d received as a brunette.

Look: We have to deal with our hair. Luke stands in the bathroom and blasts music on his phone while he wields clippers haphazardly at his scalp once every four weeks. I wanted a bob because my (naturally blonde) sister just got one and it looked cool. I date two women who have hair so cool that I daydream about it. I’m not saying that I regret my haircut — or any of my haircuts. We all make decisions about what we wear every day, too. There’s no way around it: we look at each other, and we look at ourselves; we judge each other, and we judge ourselves. 

I come back to this: Hair is WEIRD. It is SO WEIRD! Did you know that South Pacific Islanders believed for generations that brushing the ground with a man’s hair ensured a bountiful yam crop? And that this is the origin story of bungee jumping? Did you know that the mullet hairstyle goes all the way back to The Iliad? Did you know that human hair contains gold? IT’S WEIRD.

And humans are weird. Occasionally, this is the perspective I need to release myself from the pain that comes from overthinking my hair or my clothes or my body. We didn’t choose to end up entangled (pun intended) in this crazy species. But here we are. 

And hey: when in doubt, braid.