When my hair started shedding three summers ago, my mother was the first to notice. I had just gotten back to school for the fall semester when she called, letting the conversation run its course before casually slashing my heart in her accented English: Your hair eez theening. What deed you eat today? What had been repressed suspicion snapped into certainty as I felt the back of my head — thinning indeed.
We don’t fully appreciate our beauty until, to use an old feminist metaphor, it has bloomed and faded. But I can’t pretend I wasn’t aware of my gift while I had it. The sighs of barbers and grunts of delousers served as periodic reminders that my head housed a wondrous thicket. My curls were also a favorite household punch line. My mother used to refer to them collectively as “The Mop,” prompting me each time to bend down, flip my head over, and mop the kitchen floor, cackling when scolded.
There’s a scene in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit show Fleabag where the titular lead’s type-A sister, Claire, gets a bad haircut. “I look like a pencil,” Claire says, not incorrectly, glaring out from between asymmetrical locks. When hairdresser Anthony dismisses their demand for compensation (“hair isn’t everything”), Fleabag tosses back the most rousing polemic to ever grace millennial screens:
Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t, so we could actually think about something else occasionally, but it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything, Anthony.
Hip hip! thought I and Anthony’s crew of gape-mouthed female customers. Fleabag was right, of course. The market for wigs and extensions is booming. Lax regulations in countries like Myanmar, China and India make it possible for hair traders to exploit women in poverty for their tresses, paying them single-digit sums while turning thousands of dollars in profit. Strong hair has been used throughout literary history to signify power (Samson, Lilith), fertility (Sif), and beauty (Rapunzel, Rudaba, Rihanna). Monks and nuns keep theirs hidden as ascetic practice; Paris Hilton lets hers cascade to sell us unicorn mist.
Modern Jewesses have our own hairy icons. Whereas it was once trendy for American Jewish women to keep their hair straight as a lulav at all times, assimilation and the natural hair movement have made big curls not only acceptable, but desirable. We have girl boss comediennes like Jenny Slate and Ilana Glazer to thank for jerking across stages with panache, flaunting their manes and transforming them into emblems of wit and daring.
Representation like that is enough to make any wanna-be baddie glue her roots down, but the stakes become higher for the mixed-race among us. Depending on its mood and audience, my hair has both obscured and betrayed my half-Persian background, like when an Iraqi Uber driver, gesturing to my head in his rear-view mirror, inquired whether I was Middle Eastern on our way to the train station, the novelty of recognition causing me to achieve climax. Others have, voluntarily and with varying degrees of irony, dubbed me “sorta PoC,” “not that exotic,” and “whitey,” their ambivalence about my racial identity mirroring my own.
My first brush with hair loss happened long before that dorm room conversation with my mother, when a patch of my right eyebrow disappeared in 10th grade. I’d spend snatches of time at school carefully concealing the bald spot with a tuft of hair, announcing, when it disobeyed, that I was MISSING HALF MY EYEBROW to preempt classmates noticing on their own and pelting me with Chipotle leftovers.
I wasn’t the only one affected by the shedding. Several weeks into sleepaway camp that summer, my counselor took me aside for a family call — a luxury only allowed if someone got engaged or hospitalized. I accepted the phone with an important nod, gravely stroking my five hairlets as my sister shared that she had organized psalm groups because our mother believed me to be nearing the end.
I’m not sure what made the eyebrow come back. Maybe it was those psalms, maybe it was the garlic cloves my great-aunts rubbed my face with, maybe I accidentally consumed sufficient B vitamins or slept two nights through. But the remission, of course, proved only temporary.
When the issue migrated to my scalp, I joined Facebook support groups in hopes of finding a secret cure. Instead, my newsfeed became a catalogue of desperation. Women whose hair had whittled down to wisps posted before and after photos with captions detailing body-altering traumatic events, eroded self-esteem, and blasé dermatologists. In comment threads, we swapped diagnoses, encouragement and solutions: essential oils and snake oils, topical medicines and vitamin supplements, haircuts, wigs, laser light treatments, and transplants. After four months of dunking my head in peppermint-jojoba cocktails and feverishly Googling the cheapest way to inject blood from my arm into my scalp, it was time for a break.
While commiserating with similarly afflicted Daughters of the Diaspora, I’ve wondered whether we wouldn’t all be better off back in time, in our old countries, away from the stresses of 21st century late-stage capitalism, from the ravages of tiny house YouTube binges and early-onset androgenetic alopecia. Still, even then hair wouldn’t cease to be of concern. Karl Marx himself was apparently obsessed with it, much as his shag might invite the impression that he had higher preoccupations. When it comes to hair, we are all ensnared.
So? Did grocery trips featuring too many dense ponytails force me into my parents’ basement indefinitely? Cue Fleabag again.
Following her sister’s sermon, Claire demands to be shown the reference she had brought in for her appointment. When Anthony plucks the photo out of the trash bin, we see that the style depicted is a strand-for-strand replica of the one sitting on Claire’s head. “If you want to change your life, change your life,” Anthony tells his accosters, deflating their righteousness. “It’s not gonna happen in here.”
Reader, I changed my life. The power I thought my hair gave me? In my hands all along. In the organ called my epidermis.
Here’s what I did: I became a leading expert in retinol and collagen and snail slime. I ordered toner and serum and a silicone facial scrubber. I ordered cotton pads and moisturizer. I dumped my Clean & Clear exfoliating face wash and bought one made of kale that came in a glass bottle for the price of 36 dollars, then accidentally left it at my brother’s house in Maryland. I bought body lotion for the winter. I almost bought zinc-oxide sunscreen for the summer. I finally popped the ballooning blackhead in my left ear that made it hard to sleep on my side. I squawked up from the ashes and used them to make a facemask.
“Your hair was hotness 1.0,” a wise friend once said. “What’s hotness 2.0?”
I can now confidently answer: I am not my hair, but I am most definitely this skin. I know your hotness 2.0 is out there, too, waiting to be discovered.