Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

For Yourself Alone: Hair as Metaphor

Oct 02, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


    One of life’s innumerable ironies is that hair–mere dead follicles–has the power to shape destiny. One of the myriad ways I learned this lesson was through my beloved childhood books. The porridge-loving Goldilocks, whose name derived from her brightly colored tresses, trapezed through the woods, feasting on free food, reveling in adventure; meanwhile, I endured endless hours of math. In the Grimm Brothers’ tale, a prince stood under a tower and cried out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair/That I may ascend that golden stair.” With the aid of his makeshift ladder, the royal rode off with his lady love to his kingdom. The cast of Disney leading ladies took a wrecking ball to my self-esteem. How could I measure up to pixelated princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora who never had a bad hair? When I wake up, my hair looks like I had been in a serious scrimmage; then there’s Sleeping Beauty, who, after a century long slumber, retained flawless locks. The underlying message of the folk and fairy tale was those blessed with crowning glories were destined to a life of love, luxury, and a happily ever after. The concept gained credibility at sleep-over parties. Nancy, the proud owner of Lady Godiva locks, doled out who had the privilege of styling it into braids. As brush-wielding hopefuls never encircled me, I understood that my mousy-brown, body-free strands were never going to be looked upon with covetous eyes. If only…

      As a child of the 1950s, thanks to a masterful commercial campaign and an effective home dye, a new Nordic look reigned. Prior to that period, hair color was dependent on DNA. Only seven percent of American women altered what nature had doled out-and those were ladies ostracized by proper matrons. Clairol’s campaign slogan, “Blondes have more fun,” became a national catchphrase, and dyed hair transformed from declassee to de rigeur. The promise of fun proved a siren call to legions of ladies who ranged from housewife to femme fatales: Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and Dolly Parton. Toys capitalized on the phenomena. The best-selling edition of America’s plastic princess was Totally Hair Barbie whose strands reached her ankles. The doll came with scrunchie, clips, ties, comb, and deep styling gel.

      The marketing maven behind the caption was advertising guru, Shirley Polykoff, who also came up with the line, “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” While Hamlet pondered, “To be or not to be?” Shirley’s 1955 Clairol phrase was, “Does she…Or Doesn’t She?” Ad executives initially vetoed the slogan as too sexually suggestive.  Shirley did-and had done so since age fifteen. She confessed her coloring was a “discreet mixture” of Clairol’s Fresh Honey and Innocent Ivory.  Letters to her ad agency supported Clairol’s claim, “I used to have to run after the bus. I became a blonde and now it stops at my feet.”  My mother, Gilda, (birth name Golda), chronically unhappy due to manic depression, a miserable marriage, and a feast or famine lifestyle, jumped on the blonde bandwagon. Fun remained elusive. If only…

     Not content with doing away with her natural brown, my mother also reconstructed its texture. Her hairdresser teased her baby-fine wisps into the sky-scraping beehive, held into place with endless sprays of chemical laden Aqua Net. The impetus behind the gravity defying up-do were the editors of Modern Beauty Shop magazine who had tasked stylist Margaret Heldt to conjure a look to replace the traditional pageboy, the flip, and the French twist. Margaret’s creation provided an edgy rebuttal to the bouffant of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Although embraced by many celebrities, the trend is mainly associated with singer Dusty Springfield whose signature statement was a platinum beehive, further adorned with ringlets. (Maybe it was the look that the son of a preacher man fancied). Protective over her design, Margaret told her clients, “I don’t care what your husband does from the neck down, but I don’t want them to touch you from the neck up.”  Although the over-the-top creation has gone the way of the rotary phone, Marge Simpson still rocks a blue beehive. What spared me from having my mother arrange for mine was my single digit age.

     Evolving hairstyles prove a potent sociological mirror. In the 1930s, Shirley Temple had fifty-six perfect ringlets that boinged as she sang “The Good Ship Lollipop.”  During the 1970s, the preferred style for teenagers was long glossy hair parted down the middle. Cher rocked the look and tossed what nature gave her as she harmonized with Sonny. She gyrated on stage, lionized by husband and fans.

    The ultimate do of the decade belonged to Farrah Fawcett. The feathered, flowing creation inspired a generation of women and bewitched a generation of men. The poster of her rocking a red bathing suit sold twelve million copies and led to her role in the television series, Charlie’s Angels. In a galaxy far away, Princess Leia of Star Wars wore two coiled buns on either side of her head. After the release of 10, legions jumped on the bandwagon to have their own cornrows, a la Bo Derek. Her hairdresser took twelve hours to achieve the dozens of golden braids.

      For those who were follicle challenged, desperate measures were required to be considered dazzling, desirable. Since the flat iron and chemical straightening techniques had not yet been invented, what could frizzy-haired friends do but innovate? A clothing iron served to flatten errant waves. There was collateral damage. Instead of hickeys, my neck bore burn marks. What counteracted my Wind Song perfume was a singed scent from fried follicles. Enter game plan # 2. I removed the top and bottom of a TAB can, (the precursor to diet Coke). Next, I created the tightest ponytail possible, one that made smiling an impossibility. The final step was to wrap hair around the can, secured by bobby pins. Although I achieved a straight style, it was ode to lack-luster, limp locks. With a touch of humidity, voilà-I could have passed for Mrs. Bozo the Clown. The silver lining: I was able to busy myself splitting my split-ends in math.

    With the beach babe aesthetic of Pamela Anderson in full swing, I longed for lighter locks; however, going to the ocean was not an option in my Torontonian hometown. The promise of blonde beauty presented itself in a bottle that bore the label Sun- In, available in the local drugstore. My friend, Aviva, and I lay in her backyard, where we anointed our bodies with baby-oil and our heads with the bottle that we hoped held the genie of beauty. When we went in for some lemon-aide, her grandmother looked at Aviva, and spat out, “Kurveh.” I was not sure of the Yiddish word,  but by her tone, I knew it was not complimentary. When I saw my own hair, it called out, Raggedy-Anne. I longed to join my old doll in the attic while I waited out my orange-red streaks.

    In the 1980s, big hair and a thin body was in-I had both, just in a visa versa order. For some reason-over which memory draws a veil-I went for a kinky perm. I could blame my decision on booze had I not been a teetotaler. My first hint that I should have followed the example of the gingerbread boy and “run, run, as fast as I can,” was when the hairdresser’s eyes met mine in the mirror and he asked, “Are you sure?”  I ended up with a style that made me a dead ringer for a modern Medusa. As soon as I arrived home, I lunged for my rotary and begged a random hairdresser if she could reverse the horror. The kiss of death response, “It is called a perm as in short for permanent. You will just have to wait it out.” Instead of looking like a prime-time sex symbol, I bore more than a passing resemblance to Cousin It.

      Not until the advent of Joan Baez were women rescued from sleeping with rollers or sitting under a plastic cap attached to a black hose that made one feel as if she were in the Sahara Desert. Radical Angela Davis’ towering Afro-that bedazzled or intimidated-proclaimed: Black is beautiful. Piggybacking on her political statement, my friends and I had a code: Red is Beautiful. The phrase was in reference to the blessing our periods had not been compromised, thus saving us from the mine-laden path of unwed teen mothers. An unwanted child would have destroyed our mothers’ dreams that we wed a dashing doctor, a Jewish Mr. Darcy.

       Yesterday, Facebook presented a startling visual: a flag made of human hair. The post was in reference to Mahsa Amini, the twenty-two-year-old who had died in the custody of Iran’s morality police, days after her arrest for failing to pass muster with the country’s modesty laws. In response, infuriated women protested by publicly burning their hijabs and chopping off their hair. One of the women, Mariam, spoke out, “It’s a statement that doesn’t need explaining. You can’t control me and you can’t define me with my hair.”

      After undergoing straightening and a perm, one would have figured I would have left well enough alone-wishful thinking. In 1986, I had departed my Canadian winter wonderland for San Diego, California. Images of ocean, beaches, and palm dreams danced in my head. The reality was I worked as a high school teacher in National City, California, (near the Mexican border), where I left home at 6:45 AM and returned at 4:00 PM. Upon stepping foot in my door, I had to switch from teacher mode to mama mode. The weekends were laden with errands. Into this mix, my mother came to live with me. The hope was a change of environment would stave off her depression; in addition, my daughter would have a grandmother. One day, when I came home, my mother was waiting with a box of Clairol. She convinced me to dye my hair blonde. Not one of my finest moments. Firstly, the color was one never found in nature. Within a few weeks, I sported dark roots, and I had neither the time nor the patience for maintenance. To my great consternation, when I tried to return to my natural color my strands refused to divest themselves of their bleached, brassy hue. Recently, with the passage of time and the lessening of vanity, I told my hairdresser that I wanted to return to my natural shade. She explained the only way for my natural color to return was to let the color grow out through periodical trims. She concluded with, “You will just have to wait it out.” At least I did not go the path of experimentation with every hue of the color wheel.

    Perhaps my preoccupation was preordained as society had always placed hair under a spotlight. In the Old Testament, when Delilah cut Samson’s hair, he lost his legendary strength. The explicit reason was because Samson had broken his covenant with God to never shear his locks. My English teacher interpretation is when Delilah betrayed him his spirit and strength departed. Marie Antoinette’s powdered pompadour may also have contributed to the French Revolution. The style, known as a “pouf,” was a towering creation that consisted of cloth, gauze, and wire. Each piece bore an elaborate, miniature still life that centered around a theme such as a garden replete with flowers, windmill, and brook. The disgruntled masses were inflamed that their queen sported a style held in place with flour, a precious commodity for the hungry masses. The situation led to the belief that Marie Antoinette’s response to the populace’s plea that they had no bread, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" “Let them eat cake.” To prepare her for the guillotine, Citizen Sanson, the Terror’s chief executioner, cut off her hair that was white-not from flour, but rather from her agony.

    In the Seinfeld episode, “The Fix Up,” George, fixated on his blind date’s hair, asked Jerry, “Is it flowing? I like flowing, cascading hair. Thick lustrous hair is very important to me.” Similarly, in “The Beard,” Kramer set George up with a woman who turned out-to his horror-was bald. The irony: George was seriously follicle challenged. The 1960s production of Hair captured the obsession, “Gimme head with hair/Long beautiful hair/Shining, gleaming/Streaming, flaxen, waxen…”

       The impetus behind this essay occurred when, upon looking into the mirror, I realized that my hair represented my life’s visual diary. At the roots is my mousy brown color, followed by brassy blonde, strands free of the tyranny of the flat iron. I finally have come to the epiphany: natural is beautiful.

     Yest a new wrinkle recently arose with the advent of gray. My dilemma: should I or shouldn’t I? Do I dye the pigment-free strands that proclaim social security? Do I leave them in pride of place as my gray badge of courage? Do I aim for the silver-fox look? Do I bow my head to the gag gift of Father Time? Perhaps the best approach is to listen to the high priestess Shirley Polykoff, who coined the caption, “Hate that gray? Wash it away!” Or is it best to be a Lucy who held on to her bright red hue?

       I am still on the fence as whether to be a gray panther, but there is one factor of which I am certain. Had I not wasted so much time and so many tears on what was on top of my head, and concentrated on what was under it, I could have accomplished far more. Maybe I would have penned the great Canadian/American novel, had more university degrees after my name, had an armor-plated self-esteem.

     A recurring Facebook post is: What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self? If I could time travel and meet my younger, fresh-faced self, I would shake her shoulders and beg, “Just. Don’t.” To narrow it down, I would elaborate, “Do not be a slave to society’s concept of beauty. Every hue of flower is magnificent in its own way.” As Dr. Seuss put it, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”  And, if younger self could take even more warnings, I would tell her not to wait at the harbor hoping for the arrival of the Good Ship Lollipop.

    The despotism of beauty is the theme of Rod Sterling’s 1964 Twilight Zone episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” In the future, dystopian world its citizens undergo “The Transformation,” an operation where they must choose the face and figure of a socially desirable model. Marilyn Cuberle, (played by actress Collin Wilcox, who had achieved fame as Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird,) a literature-loving teen, balks. She stated, “When everyone is beautiful, no one will be, because without ugliness, there can be no beauty.” Nevertheless, as the powers of be brook no opposition, (The transformation makes them Stepfordian,) post-op, the newly air-brushed-and brain-washed- Marilyn preens in front of a mirror. Turning to her carbon-copy best friend, she gushes, “And the best thing of all, Val, is I look just like you.”

     However, perhaps I should give myself a pass-something I issue to others, rather than myself. Behind my monomania was a mindset that stretched from the Old Testament Samson to the eighteenth-century Marie Antoinette, to the 1970s icon, Farrah Fawcett. The twentieth century Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, in his poem, “For Anne Gregory” explained how hair is the barometer of feminine beauty. In the first stanza a young man told his lady love that he is smitten by her yellow hair. She counters that he should see her internal, rather than external, worth. His closing sentence speaks volumes, “Only God, my dear/Could love you for yourself alone/And not your yellow hair.”