That sweet-faced, smiling, waving boy-who-was-really-a-girl soon became one of my dearest friends. I learned that her father liked shorthaired women. As a result, her hair and the hair of her six sisters was kept closely cropped until they were sixteen. At age sixteen, they could choose their own hairstyles; but their father ridiculed them if the hair grew longer than their shoulders. To escape the ridicule, they kept their hair in any sort of style that could be argued as “short” or disguised as short until they moved out of their father’s house. Even then, years later, when I ran into one of the sisters, who in her thirties, married, the mother of two children, and the proprietress of her own business, this sister rejoiced that her husband had just given her permission to grow her hair as long as she wished. “I’m going to grow it down to here,” she exclaimed jubilantly, and indicated a point mid-way down her butt with a sharp chop of her hand.
When we were in our last years of high school, the “mullet” became popular. This basic sillouette of this hairstyle called for the hair to be cut short around the face, but to remain long behind the ears. Variations on this style, such as the shortness of the front, the length of the back, and the layering and chemical processing involved, indicated a variety of factors, such as social status, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. My friend had a mullet that was quite long in the back and full in the front, with a soft gradation between the two lengths and a permanent wave to maintain body. The permanent wave and soft gradation indicated that she was straight and feminine. The style allowed her to be both fashionable and to tell her father that her hair was not, in fact long. She pointed to my hair, now well past my shoulders, straight, and one length, for comparison on both points.
My hair, however, seemed to be something that she truly envied. Being envied was a new experience for me, and one that I savored rather sadistically. I thought back to kindergarten, when I was the shorthaired kid, when I envied a lovely little girl named Brandy, who sat next to me at our table. She had long, honey golden hair that was wavy just up to the point of being curly. She would wear the front pulled back into a ponytail held with a velvet ribbon. I remember her name because a song called “Brandy” was popular on the radio at the time, and I would pretend that it was about her. To this day, when someone mentions the liquor, I still think of her hair. In contrast, I was ugly and awkward and boyish. A decade later, my crush on Brandy and her curly golden locks did not give me any empathy for my friend. Instead, I luxuriated in her envy. By the standard to which we had both agreed, long hair made you pretty. My hair was, without any qualification, long. Therefore, I was prettier. I won.
Except, I was also envious of my friend. Maintaining my status of longhaired pretty, a concept that actually pre-dated our friendship, was a bit of a burden. The long hair required constant maintenance, particularly in the 1980s, the decade of big and perfect hair, in a city with high humidity that would cause hair to “fall”. Even if a girl kept her hair straight, as I did, she still had to blow it dry, set it in hot rollers, perk it up with a curling iron after it had been exposed to the humidity, brush it frequently throughout the day to maintain its luster, and experiment with a laboratory of conditioners and mousse to keep it full and shiny. This was not work for the lazy. In fact, if my friend’s father had a problem with his daughters actually growing hair, my father had a problem with the amount of time and effort that I put into mine.
Then, there was the emotional strain. I feared my hair would “fall” or go “flat.” I feared color and perms that would “fry” my hair forever. I dreaded scissors that would lop off too many months of growth. I also felt boring and unfashionable next to girls who looked much closer to the women on MTV or in magazines. My friend was one of these girls, and she always looked stylish and contemporary next to my ingénue fashion sense. I envied the girls who were not compelled to have long hair, who were so naturally pretty in the face that they could be liberated from long hair, or who simply seemed to be liberated from the idea of being pretty. So, while I had the hair length that made me, by our definition, “pretty,” I felt myself to be anything but pretty. The effort to be pretty exhausted me.
To be continued.