The Girl with the Funny Hair

Hair comes and goes. Yet we think it is who we are. 
April 9, 2021
Photo by iprogressman/Getty Images

When I was in high school, my nickname was “Girl with the Funny Hair.”

I kid you not. An older boy I really liked, three grades ahead of me, once literally referred to me as that.

Some busy-body in concert choir had reported my crush to him.

“What, *that* girl? In 9thgrade? The girl with the funny hair?”

I know he said this because it was reported back to me with an air of triumph that only a 9thgrade schadenfreud-ridden-demi-yenta could convey.

But truthfully, even by that early age, my hair had been troubling for awhile.

It troubled my mother, who frowned at it, and was constantly telling me to brush it. ( I forgive her, her own hair was nothing like mine; she simply did not know.)

It amused my older sister Jackie, an annoyingly perfect Brooke Shields look-alike, with the silkiest stick-straight mane you ever saw.

“Sarz.” she’d howl. “ What is up with that clump?” She’d affectionately tweak the clump of not-curly- but-not-straight frizz that I hoped might pass for bangs.

As a teen there were a number of things that I felt marked me as Other, but most of them lurked just beneath my awareness, invisible to others. Hair, disastrously, was something everyone could see.

Only two years prior, in 7thgrade English class, another boy, one of the cool boys, announced, apropos of nothing, that my hair was “nasty”. I blinked at him. “ What.” he said, shrugging. “It is.”

In the liberal reform Jewish community of L.A.’s west side that I grew up in, wild curly hair was not considered a sign of beauty—it was considered the exact opposite of that.

“You know they make heavy duty blow-driers and round brushes right? You know you could save up for Brazilian hair straighters?”

Having beauty-status in those days explicitly meant having straight hair.

Nobody came out and said “ because you seem less Jewish that way.”

Nobody came out and said that. It just lingered, like perfume in the air.

Later, in Germany, I’d meet Israeli’s, who took one look at my hair and learned my name, and laughed “ Oh my G-d” they’d say. “ Could you possibly GET any more Jewish?”

But Germans in Germany, total strangers, came up to me and touched my hair, with an air of awe. In Germany, someone I barely knew once told me, awkwardly “ I have dreams about your hair.”

Now, in 2021, curls are “having a moment.”

For those of you old enough to remember, curls were not having any moments in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Hair, to be considered “good” needed to be parted down the middle in two silky drapes. White girl hair was good hair. That was it. Hair needed to be smooth. Hair needed to be symmetrical. Hair needed to behave. Hair could not have texture. Hair needed to be tamed into submission. Hair needed to feel smooth, not brittle and poofy like a brillo-pad. Gwenyth Paltrow famously said in an interview “I feel like unless my hair is stick-straight I have absolutely zero sex appeal.”

Because it was the backwards 90’s, and teachers said inappropriate thingd to underage students all the time, I had one high school teacher (male) who pulled me aside and whispered  “One day, your hair is going to be legendary. One day, I guarantee you, your hair is going to drive men wild.” This comment left me equal parts creeped out and also deeply hopeful.

The older I got, the more people started swooning over the thing I had been told made me “nasty” and “funny”.

When I cut it chin length in college, my voice teacher hissed at me  “What. Did. You. Do. You. RUINED yourself.” In Berlin, as a baby opera singer, I cut it shorter and a male friend said “Well, you won’t have to worry about people hitting on you now.”

My beloved Brooklyn-born Grandma Rae, who once wanted to be a beautician, used to end almost every phone call with me with the words“ I love you. Remember, don’t cut your hair.” (I assumed she meant, sweetheart, that hair is literally the only thing you have going for you. Don’t mess that up.)

It’s so odd. When you have long hair, hair that strangers adoringly tell you “ deserve it’s own Instagram page” hair that literally makes it impossible to go incognito anywhere, hair that—inprobably, after a lifetime of being teased for– people suddenly appear to passionately love, sometimes in a way that’s honestly weird, they feel entitled to your hair. They get angry at you—angry! In an era when there is so much to be angry about!– when you cut it, as if you have somehow desecrated a public landmark. As if you cut down a statue that was there for all to enjoy. How COULD you?

And still, three days ago I cut my hair, accidentally went shorter then I intended, and sobbed—sobbed—all the way home from the hair salon. Poor Max, who gently said all the right things, I love you both ways, you are always beautiful to me, etc.

Somehow, I was immediately back in grade 7, and grade 9, and all those other times that hair marked me as bad or less then or inadequate or just generally unable to fit in.

And not to get all annoying-Instagram -inspiration-y-sunshine on you: but it’s weird how we identify with things that are utterly transient.

Hair comes and goes. Yet we think it is who we are.

How endearingly quaint, how sweetly, adorably misguided are we humans to identify with something that is so un-solid.

So, vive change. Vive new chapters. Vive not being 13 anymore. Vive learning to love every stage and phase for its own unique beauty, and maybe even our whole self, too.

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