Honor Moore: Beautiful, Beautiful
An Essay About Hair, Its Glory, Its Fate
There is heat at the back of my neck, a spot of heat that gets hotter and hotter. I take the combs out, swirl my hair up, stick the combs in, wear my hair up until my nape cools down. After years of this, I came to understand why women of a certain age cut their hair short, why even the most revolutionary of 19th-century feminists acquiesced to the requirements of modesty and wore their hair up. It’s hormones! I have been told that the dance of my hands twisting and lifting my thick curtain of hair is an act of kinetic sculpture. Once when I was in my late forties, a student hit on me: “I couldn’t take my eyes off of you, how you kept putting your hair up and taking it down.” The kinetic sculpture has by now become a comedy, hair up, hair down, hair up, hair down. And the combs—what a collection I have! Made in Paris of plastic by Medusa’s Heirlooms, the size of a calling card, ivory, malachite, zebra-striped or azure, with teeth that hold… But my subject is my hair, the greatest gift bestowed on me by my ancestors, my gene pool, my biology.
She rode a white horse and she bathed in milk. Her skin was as pale as mine and her hair as dark. It fell to the ground. On that horse she was headed somewhere with her beauty, was how I read the image: somewhere else. Her hair was what gave her the beauty that would get her anywhere she wanted to go, out of the suffocating palace, away from the noise, the dirt, the school on the narrow Jersey City avenue, the classroom where none of the books had ladies like Godiva in them, let alone white horses ridden by women. It was in a book that I first saw her, so graceful in her milk bath, outside her window moon and stars that were silver and gold, actual silver and gold gilt on the page. I can’t decide whether to Google Lady Godiva or not. Why would I want to learn that she was a revolutionary who wore her hair that way for a cause, or that her hair wasn’t as long as all that, or that she didn’t bathe in milk, or that she died young. She was Anglo Saxon, I read, wife of a nobleman. Legend has it that she protested her husband’s taxation of his tenant farmers; he would abolish the tax, he said, if she rode through the town naked. She agreed on the condition that the populace be confined to their homes so that no one would see her; a man named Tom (the first “peeping Tom”) drilled a hole in his window shutters, and when he looked at her he was struck blind. Lady Godiva was widowed fairly young but lived into old age, a devout hermit. (Notice the noun, not usually applied to a woman). No one has ever been able to find her grave.
I was maybe five years old, standing in front of a mirrored door in my grandmother’s house in the green hills of New Jersey. It was a very big house with large high-ceilinged bedrooms, so you could be in your room and feel really alone, even though there were people downstairs, or two rooms away. Sometimes, my mother came there with us, but more often she didn’t, placing her many children for the weekend at our grandmother’s, a vacation for her. Without her voice in my ear or her eyes seeing me, I can stand alone and freely look at myself. Finally I have the hair I want. It’s just past my shoulders but sure to grow farther down my back.
My mother had short hair then, but in her wedding pictures, her black hair is long, shiny, turned under at the ends, in what was called a pageboy. “Your mother should cut her hair,” said Gagy, whose real name was Aagot; she was Norwegian and often took care of us. My mother had just disappeared into another room. “Why?” “ When you’re older, you should not have hair that long.” “But Gagy, your hair is long.” “But I never wear it down.” Which was true. I never saw her wear her hair down, just up, 1940s-style, gathered into coils on either side of her face. I decide I will not give in like my mother has and cut my hair short, or even wear it up like Gagy does. I will wear it down and long for as long as I want.
I don’t remember how I looked so much as how my hair felt as I ran my hands through it. Soft, long, straight. I do remember it was lighter brown then, the way brown can look in a washed-out 1950s Kodachrome. Within weeks of that moment at the mirror, my mother took me to a hotel in New York to have my hair cut. She and I had already argued; we were standing just inside a walk-in closet at my grandmother’s when she said, “It’s time for you to get a haircut.” We did not fight again at the hairdresser, but I am sure I wanted to cry.
I believed my hair was how I might claim beauty, and beauty was freedom I would make for myself, not artifice designed by others. My mother with her short hair had betrayed her beauty; she was always smiling in those photographs with the pageboy and now she hardly smiled at all. I wanted to laugh and dream and run free, hair streaming behind me. When the cut was over, I had bangs; my hair was short and somehow darker. It stopped just below my ears, and all the softness was gone, along with the honey color I had seen that day in front of the mirror. Now there would be no beauty: I had hard corners.
When I was ten, I got glasses, horn-rims that my mother chose in the spirit of my straight-across bangs and hard-cornered haircut. I was commuting from where we lived in Jersey City to school in Greenwich Village. It was 1955, two years before On the Road, but already, at age ten, I had my first pair of black tights. I can’t remember if I also wore a black turtleneck, but I had seen people on Bleecker Street who wore black and had very long hair. After the Russians launched sputnik, they would be called beatniks. I was dressing for the coming era, its advent abruptly interrupted when we moved to Indianapolis two years later. Even madras had not quite arrived in that part of the Midwest; it was still the era of sweater sets, saddle shoes, circle pins, and short curly hairdo’s. My hair is very thick but also very fine, which meant that it did not easily hold the wave I set it for in pin curls. I should get a “permanent,” my mother decided, her solution to my feelings of displacement. I was in seventh grade.
I am trying to resist various metaphors, one of which has my hair as Guatemala and my mother the neo-imperialist secretary of state John Foster Dulles. It works pretty well: I did not have self-determination; she did not believe I knew what was good for me. What I didn’t say was that I knew what was good for her. If she would only grow her hair out again, she would understand everything about me and look beautiful again.
By the time I got to high school, the hair-strafing permanent, which had failed to improve my social life, had grown out. The fashion was to wear your hair even shorter than mine was, in something called a “bubble” or, depending on I don’t know what, a “ducktail.” A “bubble” required curlers, which were, by 1960, called “rollers.” I think of my Hoosier classmate Nancy Peters, whose bubble fluffed into a perfect oval and whose hair was the same color as mine. Betsy Buck, who was blonde, had the perfect ducktail: short hair curving around the skull toward the back of the head, swirling up at her nape and resolving an inch or so higher in a graceful point upward. If I had a bubble like Nancy Peters, I too would be a cheerleader, I reasoned—“popular” and therefore flirted with, dated, and invited to pledge all the good clubs. To become popular, I gave up my secret dream of beauty. I cut my hair and every time I washed it, I rolled a strand over each curler and stuck it through with a plastic stick. When I left for school at 7:30 am, my hair was curly, but by the time I got to class, it had always “fallen.” In my smiling graduation photograph, my hair is very short and straight and pulled back with a headband that leaves a tiny fringe of bang to soften the expanse of my forehead.
I should say that my mother’s hair was naturally wavy, so it wasn’t as if she actually understood my straight fine hair; in any case, by 1959, her hair was very short, she was pregnant with her eighth child and blessedly distracted from my hair except for an occasional skirmish in the downstairs bathroom. “Get your hair out of your face, sweetie,” she would declare, taking a lock between her fingers and guiding it behind my ear; “there, much prettier!” I would refuse and refuse. I didn’t want to be pretty; pretty was ordinary, I wanted to be beautiful and unusual. I wanted to be myself. The battle would escalate, at least once ending with her slapping me, hard, across the face.
But I have left out an important part of this narrative, which is that my sister, four years younger than I, was always allowed to grow her hair, at least after that square-corners visit to the hairdresser. Why? At first, it was because she was still a “little girl.” She wore her hair in pigtails, always. In memory it seems that her hair is not as thick as mine, therefore more easily confined to pigtails. But I would not have wanted to wear braids; my face is round, and I thought they made me look fat. My sister didn’t worry about looking fat since she was smaller boned therefore thinner than I was; also, the proportions of her face were different from mine and her eyes bigger, so braids suited her. My best friend at the Greenwich Village school was half Icelandic and wore her hair in long thick blond braids, which I admired but did not envy. I believe now that I thought my mother favored my sister; why else would she let her grow her hair? Once when my sister and I discussed my stormy relationship with my mother, she told me that she had observed how I was treated, and had done everything she could to avoid getting caught in the line of my mother’s fire. She never over-ate and kept her hair out of her face.
A President’s Wife
I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a Radcliffe freshman, in the fall of 1963, the era of Jackie Kennedy. With not much effort, I could make my hair, just short of shoulder length, look like the First Lady’s, though in order to look more hip than she, I pierced my ears. By the end of freshman year, I wore contact lenses and had mastered her bouffant. That summer at a wedding, I wore a sleeveless turquoise raw silk dress. “Who’s the one who looks like Jackie Kennedy?” someone asked.
When the president died, I let my hair grow. It seemed that everything changed then, including my mother’s claim to authority over my hair. Or at least that’s what I’m tempted to say. I have a passport photograph taken the summer after my junior year, and my hair is distinctly just below my shoulders, which is where it stayed, more or less until I became a client of a hairdresser in New York City named George Michael, whose specialty was long hair. I had moved to Manhattan in 1969, and there is a photograph of me from 1972 in a dark blue velvet vintage dress, dancing. My hair is honey-colored in the light and almost to my waist, the longest it ever was.
For decades, I grew my hair and had it cut twice a year to all one length, no layering. I had a friend who declared that look my “trademark” and cautioned me from ever changing it. She herself began to color her hair in her twenties and rarely had the same hairdo or hair color for more than two years in a row. Why did I think she knew more about my hair than I did? Shocking, really, that I allowed another woman to take my mother’s place as the authority on my hair. One day in my forties, I decided my hair made me look like a girl, and that I wanted to look like a woman. I went to a hairdresser named John Sahag, known as the “revolutionist of dry cutting.” He was originally from Lebanon, I learned later, but had trained in Paris, and he cut the hair of movie stars and models; a greyhound napped at the corner of his tranquil Madison Avenue salon. I told him that I wanted to keep my hair long, but… “You want something a little different,” he said. He suggested a piece cut shorter in the front and “a little layering,” and assigned me a stylist named Mayumi, whose black hair fell down her back all the way to her knees. That day, she layered my hair, cutting it to a bit below shoulder length, with shorter pieces in the front—a stealth version of bangs that gave me a few wisps around my face. Layering is a form of thinning, so my hair became less heavy, easier to dry and take care of. It also has a little wave, and weirdly, while straight in the front, it is, underneath a thin, straight top layer, very curly in the back.
“I am almost 60, and my hair still stubbornly refuses to go gray,” my mother’s mother wrote to a long-time friend. When I came across that line, I was barely 50, had no gray whatsoever and had never dyed my hair. At first, wisps at the left side of my hairline began to turn; no matter, I told myself, I was on my way to being the next Susan Sontag. A black-haired friend had other ideas. “Soon you’ll have to make a decision,” she said to me one day. “Go see the colorist at Frederick Fekkai.” “Maybe,” I said, the familiar wave of stubbornness rising. Ten years later, my hair is still mostly dark, graying along the entire perimeter of my front hairline. Extending a bit into the body of my hair, gray only slightly streaks the darkness, but gracefully, like foam along the edges of a big ocean wave. I get my hair cut twice a year, still by Mayumi at John Sahag, though John died in 2005. “Do I have any gray back there?” I always ask as she lifts and snips, lifts and snips. “No, no! Not yet.” She now wears her hair to midback and has let it go gray; elegant silvery streaks through an expanse of Japanese black.
She is a filmmaker, younger than I am by about 30 years, African-American, near-celebrity, gay, very gifted, up-to-the-minute chic. We are sitting at breakfast at an artists colony when she suggests I shave away a patch of hair above my right ear. This will render me asymmetrical, she explains, and therefore cool, even as cool, she implies, as she is. This out of nowhere: I’m flummoxed. Why would I make such a change? Even when it’s dirty or I’ve resorted to a bedhead look, hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive a compliment on my never-colored, near-black, long thick hair. But she has rendered me speechless, bereft of my usual certainty. “Why?” “You’ll like it. A change. Something new!” As if at my age I’d want something that ilk of new! “I don’t want anything new,” I retort, unable to keep myself from sounding defensive. “You can always let it grow back,” she replies. Why does she insist? “I don’t think so,” I say. “Go ahead,” she says. “Don’t be scared.” Scared? Am I scared? I am never scared! “I’m not SCARED,” I reply. “It will grow back,” she says, with an even smile, as if I, the queen of hair, of the endlessly growing mop of silken locks, doesn’t understand that hair grows. “It will always grow back,” she repeats.
On one recent night before sleep, I streamed a video, a movie set in France during the first World War. At the end of the film, a girl of about seven meets her father for the first time. It is 1918, just at the end of the fighting; he is British, a soldier, and he and the girl’s French mother had been lovers. He had not known of this child, but now he does know and is coming to meet her. He approaches a small country cottage, a grassy path, everything green. The little girl is coming toward him, the father’s point of view. Her hair is light brown, honey-colored in the light, flowing long down her back.
A week later, I had the following dream. A man I know who is not a haircutter is snipping away at the short gray hair of the now dead great poet whose early work inspired me when I began to write poems. She is sitting calmly, which makes me extremely anxious, especially when I see that beneath her hair is a shaved patch, the very shaved patch I visualized when the young woman at the artists’ colony made her recommendation. It’s clear to me in the dream that the man is attempting to cut away the poet’s power, and that he doesn’t notice the shaved patch. I am aware I have chosen a different path than my great mentor. My power resides in the length and thickness of my hair, and I will never give it up.
Mayumi still cuts my hair—the daughter she was pregnant with when we met is now out of college—but every week, the day I teach my first class, a man named Mike Riz blows dry my hair. I like thinking that I am of a matrilineage of women who, at a certain age, turn the care of their hair over to others. My mother died at 50 so who knows if she would have been one of us, but my father’s mother had her hair permed, curled and rinsed blue, and my maternal grandmother, the one whose hair stayed brown into her sixties, kept it dyed that color until she went into a nursing home at 85. My immediate predecessors are two aunts, my mother’s and father’s sisters, who lived near each other and shared only a love of gardening, but ran into each other at the hairdresser once a week. Have I turned into an old lady? I choose to think not. I continue to want the compliments I’ve received all my life, even from young women decades younger than I whose locks flow down their backs, who have not a thread of gray. Last night, when I put on my fur hat, one of my students said I looked “imperial.”
Two years ago, Mike Riz disappeared, and in the spirit of capitalism, no one at his salon would tell me where he went. The 18 months it took to find him were a trial, but when I found him at his own eponymous salon, our reunion was sweet. “Ah! Honor!” he said and gave me a big hug, and then his card and cellphone number so we would never again be parted. Like John Sahag, he is Lebanese, and just yesterday, as he worked, hair dryer in one hand, brush in another, he rehearsed the answers to questions for his citizenship exam: What is the separation of powers? Who is the governor of New York? He never knew Congress had two houses! As he blew me dry, he said again how he had missed my hair all those months we were separated, and then he did what he always does at the surprising moment when my hair is all dry: he lifts and pulls it away from my head, twisting the brush this way and that, lifting and brushing so that it falls back in waves, then with his hands massaging my scalp upward, the hair again falling and settling. Every time he blows my hair dry, he does this. And every time he does it, we laugh. “Beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful.”
“Beautiful, Beautiful” is from Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession, ed. Elizabeth Benedict, Algonquin Books, Sept. 2015.