Hair: Berenice’s, Connie’s and Mine

Her Dream

I dreamed as in my bed I lay,
All night’s fathomless wisdom come,
That I had shorn my locks away
And laid them on Love’s lettered tomb:
But something bore them out of sight
In a great tumult of the air,
And after nailed upon the night
Berenice’s burning hair.

William Butler Yeats

If you find yourself in the woods some late evening away from the lights of cities and towns — a place where you can see the stars — look up at the big dipper. If you look to the dipper’s cup — and were to draw a diagonal line downwards — and then trace down from the stars in the handle to a constellation called Arcturus– Coma Berenice’s can be found there between those two spots. It lies in the third quadrant of the northern hemisphere (NQ3) and can be seen at latitudes between +90° and -70. Two hundred and fifty light years from earth its one of the star clusters nearest to earth, formerly the tail of Leo until it was renamed for the Egyptian Queen Berenice, wife of Ptolemy III.

The myth:

Berenice was married to Ptolemy III who went to battle against the Seleucids to avenge the killing of his sister, in 243 BC, during the Third Syrian War.

Terrified her husband would be killed, as an act of sacrifice and faith, the queen swore to Aphrodite that she would cut off her beautiful long hair if she spared him and brought him home safely.

Once her husband returned, Berence fulfilled her promise. Her shorn hair was placed in the temple, only to disappear the next day. To appease the fury of the king the court astronomer claimed Aphrodite was so pleased with Berenice’s offering that she had placed it in the sky, pointing to the group of stars that have since been known as Berenice’s Hair.

***

At my grandparent’s summer cottage there was an old children’s book of constellations — bright blue and yellow with sketches of the constellations on the inside covers. I remember reading how one set of stars “The Horse and Rider” was an ancient vision test – and I would squint up at the two small stars seeing if I could distinguish one from the other. It was there, I think, that I first read about Berenice’s hair.

I was born a blond girl child to a blond mother — my father, black irish with dark wavy hair and fair skin and blue eyes. My mother’s hair, in photographs of my childhood, is far below her shoulders. It was 1972 and my mother had long sheets of blond hair. She cut it when she separated from my father so that it just grazed the tops of her shoulders.

In childhood she kept my hair long — my two braids so ubiquitous that years later I would run into a grade school classmate in a record store in Uptown when we were twenty-one and he looked across the stacks of CD’s at me and said my name and I said his and he said “you look just the same except,” and he gestured as if pulling on two imaginary pigtails on either side of his head “no braids.” I can thank Princess Diana for the short hair I had from 1981 until 1989 when it reached the length where it has remained, with only slight variation, for almost 25 years. Image

From top left clockwise: me at four or so outside the motel where my father would come to stay; me with my best friend (still one of my best friends) on my 13th birthday; my brother and I in the summer of 1997 or so; Christmas dinner in 1995 (incidentally this picture was also taken the very night I met G for the first time though we wouldn’t date until 2003.)

Though I would say that my college years, and certainly my graduate school years brought me a clearer sense of self and mission — I was beginning to understand who I was (a writer) and what I valued (wild spaces) and was beginning to redefine my life, but … my hair. My hair never changed.Image

Top left: hiking Pattee Canyon 1999; Honeymoon 2006; Spring 2012 with Zoe; Fall 2013 at an apple orchard –heads bent together.

***

When my friend lost her hair a second time and was in the hospital for a brief stay I had just dyed my hair red for the first time in my life. She was the one, of the two of us, who has always had the guts to go uber-short, platinum blond, fiery red. In one of the pictures of us that I love the best she has short auburn hair — probably the color my hair is now — and her cheek is pressed against mine, head slightly tilted — she is looking up through her eyelashes a bit — almost smirking — I have a self-satisfied smile on my face — my hair spilling down to my waist. There in the hospital room she looked at my hair. Had me come closer into the light. She smiled, tired. “I like it” she said softly. “It’s only hair” I said stupidly, knowing it was so much more than just hair. In some ways I dyed my hair for her, even if she never explicitly knows it — and not in the way you might expect. Let me back up and tell you a different story.

I had a cat I loved more than anything. Colvin. She lived with me in Boulder. I took her when she was eight to Missoula — where she caught birds and brought them into the unscreened windows. When G and I began dating and he was going through his custody situation with W — I allowed my mother to keep my cat who she had been taking care of while I found a pet-friendly place (and, she had fallen in love with her and wasn’t really willing to let her go). I made that choice consciously as a sacrifice of my own. That sounds ludicrous, I guess — that I would liken giving up my beloved cat to G’s own heartbreak each time W would leave.

Equally ludicrous, I guess, to dye your hair as both a tribute and a sacrifice.

*** When I look at the pictures of my head bent down to Zoe’s I want to sob for the loss of it — the loss of the color that is exactly the color hers is. I think then about how many times i heard how much I looked like my mother; I think about how bewildered and mute my mother is now about my hair — so much so that she won’t speak a word to me about it. As if in changing the color of my hair I have edited her out, somehow. I’ve already told my friend who does my hair that I want to work back towards blond — which brings me to Connie Britton’s hair: In my obsession about finding a way back to blond I stumbled across this fantastic article — an excerpt

But Connie Britton’s Hair is not from the world of Venus and Mars, and it really could care less about what it is doing to the men who may come across it. The Hair asks us to think about a heavy ponytail at forty. Let’s not dismiss this as a joke, or as the same question as Botox or artificially plumped lips. If Botox is always about youth obsession, Connie Britton’s Hair is not always–or even ever–an attempt to look like Lyla Garrity or Hayden Panietierre. It might actually be about the specific pleasure of forty-ness.

It requires me to think about my own relationship to my hair –because I do wear it extraordinarily long for a woman my age (40). There’s no denying that at one point in my life I wore my hair long because of the cultural weight of beauty — and that I also lived with the world’s response to the cultural artifact of ‘long blond hair’ — but now that I am 40 and no longer blond — what does that long hair mean, if anything?

I’m not in the world enough anymore (as ridiculous as that sounds) to know how my hair color might affect the way people perceive me — I still forget I’m not the color I’ve always been and so, when I catch my reflection in the mirror there are times when I stop and study it.

Is this me or am I hiding from the me I’ve always been. Or, is it, after all, only hair.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on hair.

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9 responses

  1. What a beautiful post. I love your red hair. I’ve often wanted to dye my hair red, but it’s pretty thin and brittle these days, so I’m afraid of damaging it beyond repair.

    I’m stuck right now about what to do with my hair. I once read in an old fashion magazine that in Brazil, women keep their hair long until they turn 40. Then they cut their hair into a chic bob. I think about that advice every day, lately. My hair now too long, too ombré-y with the long roots from long ago highlights and I am just stuck. I did that typical mom move of cutting my hair short when I had the twins (“It will be so much easier!”) and the truth is? Shorter hair is MUCH harder to style and I looked AWFUL with my short cut.

    This leaves me without an answer. Your hair is gorgeous in all its incarnations, though. You have Good Hair.

    • I, of course, think your hair is beautiful. Isn’t it funny how much we put into our hair? I couldn’t really articulate what I was trying to about culture and expectation, and the power we ourselves ascribe to symbols like, for instance, our hair. I know so many thoughtful, smart, powerful women who think of themselves as so much more than just their appearance… And yet especially as we enter middle-age start thinking about it more again.

      Maybe if we lived in a culture that valued aging beauty more?

      My mother, of course, always believed that one should cut their hair at a certain age… That was just what you did to be appropriate.

      Woops!

      Xoxo. I been thinking of you!

      Pam

  2. A wonderful post, such extraordinary photos. Your hair is beautiful, and it is your matrilineal link so it is important. I am a very dark brunette, greying rapidly, so madly dyeing every few months. My hair was my crowning glory, long, thick and black. Now, with the white hairs multiplying daily I too am experimenting with red. Red is power, red is wild, but it’s a hard place to live permanently. I am happy to visit once in a while. Someone once told me ‘your hair is your history’, cut your hair and see what happens. It will always grow back.

    • Hi Megan, thanks so much for coming here…

      I never forgot what you said about your prime minister and the power associated with the color of her hair.

      Do you feel different with red hair? Do you think people perceive you differently?

      I often think that if I had real strength I would just shave my hair…To be completely shorn of it seems like such a humbling experience and yet I don’t have it in me.

  3. “The cultural artifact of long, blonde hair” – when I was a little girl, I don’t remember what age, I determined that if I ever met a fairy godmother who offered me three wishes, the first wish would be for blonde hair and blue eyes. I could see, even at five and six, the way men stared at my blonde, blue-eyed playmates, so rare and so fetishized in Andean Latin America. At some point I consciously rejected that envy and decided to be proud of my dark hair, eyes, complexion; it was a nationalistic thing for me at the time.

    In adolescence, I fell under the spell again as I fetishized boys with long blonde hair – I grew out of that eventually too (I fell in love with and married a man with no hair on the top of his head).

    I remember that even your “clicker” avatar that Mel created way back in the day featured long blonde hair, the first thing that struck me in the images you posted of yourself.

    How we wear our hair does seem powerfully linked to how we view ourselves, and very linked to how we see ourselves in a particular moment in time. How we “read” hair has everything to do with cultural norms and expectations for women at different stages of life… but as you show, also everything to do with how we see ourselves in our mothers, in our daughters, those links and connections, mirrors and shadows.

    I had an awful time cutting my daughter’s hair, which I did when she asked me to, but I deeply resented the pressure my MIL had been putting on me for ages to cut it. MIL even framed it once as a “safety issue” – a potential abductor could grab my daughter by her long hair and drag her away… I was so furious when she pulled out this argument. I admit I cried a little when I cut her waist-length hair to her shoulders, but she loved it.

  4. Have you seen Chris Rock’s doc called Good Hair? You should watch it and you’ll have insight into the fresh hell that is a black woman’s hair. It’s such a big deal in our community. I have spent countless hours of my life in a hair salon. Since I was about 9. The entire days it would swallow up. I never had “good” hair and it was my mother’s mission in life to get it to grow. Those Cosby girls? Boy did I ever envy their hair. Oh, to have pony tails and pigtails and to wear bobbles in my hair! I would wear tights on my head and pretend I had long, blonde hair. I’ve had my head burned, sweated and tortured for about mmmm 40 years in the name of hair. Girl, don’t even get me started……..

  5. Okay I’m started…..people are constantly telling me what I should do with my hair – what did you do to your hair – it was short last time – or it was long last time. I like your hair with no bangs, your face is so pretty. Sorry I liked the braids better. And when got it braided with extensions at 19, the entire white Western hemisphere went insane and wanted to know about my hair. (Thanks Bo Derek!) Complete strangers would want to touch my hair. And they did. In grocery store lines, at bus stops, at parties. PLEASE NOTE MY CAUCASIAN FRIENDS – NEVER TOUCH A BLACK WOMAN’S HAIR – EVER! Don’t ask why. Just don’t. I don’t run my hair through your head, so don’t presume you can do it to mine. Even as a grown woman, strange men want to know about my hair. It’s crazy. I grew up believing that if somehow my hair was long and silky, then somehow my life would be easier. And then I became an actress and found out it was true. Or conversely I run into the natural hair sister brigade and then our hair becomes a political statement. Sigh. Sorry for hijacking your comment section.

  6. I’m very late to commenting on this post, but just wanted to say that I love your long hair, BUT I definitely think you should do whatever you damn well please with it. Dye it, cut it, leave it long and flowing… I will say that I cut my hair last spring so that I would be forced to not always wear it in a ponytail. I LOVED my short cut for a while, but now I am longing (no pun intended) for the ability to put my hair back in a ponytail. I feel more feminine with long hair. I’m now awkwardly growing my short cut out and aiming for at least shoulder-length hair. These days I spend way too much time thinking about my silly hair—the length of it and the copious grey hairs! Ugh.

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