Cape Town – When I was at school, there was a girl who had shiny, straight, black hair.
I wanted her hair more than almost anything.
Mine was (and is) an unmanageable mess – a wavy, frizzy, bumpy, boring brown mass of hair. Short or long, it has kinks and cowslicks and crinkles, and a tendency to go to dreadlocks if I neglect to brush it with great fierceness at least twice a day.
Female relatives told me that when I was older, I would be grateful for my hair, that there were lots of people in the world who wanted curly hair. I have given the matter several decades of consideration and have concluded that they were completely and utterly wrong (though I know they meant well).
I have over the years developed a sort of grudging admiration for my hair, which I think of as a small hairy creature which sits on my head and does what it wants, no matter how much money I spend on it (and I have spent a lot).
My sister has smoother, much nicer hair. But if you look closely you will see that she has threads of dark, wiry, coarse hair there in the finer blonde: we call it yak hair. Mine is almost all yak. Somewhere in the mists of time, there must have been an exotic addition to our family gene pool. We fancy the idea of Spanish sailor washing up on the shores of Cornwall and charming the pants off a Cornish maiden.
Thoughts of hair came up this week while driving my son to have his hair cut. His hair is strong and vigorous and abundant like mine, but it is wavy rather than curly or frizzy. There’s a cowslick which has been beaten into submission with skilful cutting. I put it to him that he was lucky not have got the yak hair. He agreed. He was happy with his hair he said… except he’d quite like it if it was black.
Now, he has enviable hair. So why does he want it different? Why do we all hate our hair? Why is hair so very important that there is such a thing as a Bad Hair Day?
The answer may lie in celebrity culture and women’s magazines and the power of advertising. The desire for straight, shiny hair certainly has roots in the effects of racism – white people have straight hair, so it must be desirable seems to be the simplified version of the theme. Perhaps also, straight hair is shiny. And human beings have always liked shiny things. I wonder too if there is something primal about hair: we see it as an extension of ourselves. Certainly, it is a powerful part of the first impression we make on other people.
It’s taken me a long time but I do know know why I don’t like my hair. It’s because it is so at odds with who I am. It looks fuzzy and undefined and woolly and I don’t like at all to be taken at first glance for any of those things. Those who know me will tell you I am definite and sharp-clever and very un-woolly.
I still wish I had shiny, defined hair with a sharp edge – but there it is: lots and lots of yak hair, living its own springy life in spite of me. Age has not brought acceptance – but it has brought self-knowledge and a determination not to let my Bad Hair Life get the better of me.
I take consolation in the fact that no one else likes their hair either. And hairdressers too must eat. My cloud of hair has a silver lining.
This was first published on IOL Lifestyle