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Hair Today

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 5/16/2001

Stuck for several hours in the waiting room of a car-repair shop last week, I found my attention being pulled away from the book I'd brought and toward the television, which was blaring Maury Povich's talk show. I sneered at first when I heard who Povich's guests were: five women preparing to cut off their extremely long hair for the first time in years. How silly, I thought.

I quit sneering when I learned these women were actually donating their hair to a good cause: Locks of Love, an organization that provides wigs and hairpieces to disadvantaged children suffering from alopecia areata or other medical conditions that cause hair loss ( Still, I felt queasy about the way this honorable donation was being framed--as an act all the more generous because it could jeopardize these women's attractiveness, hence their value as women.

Four of the five were participating over the protests of their husbands, who spoke longingly about how fun or special or erotic it was to be married to all that shiny, beautiful hair. One man, a military type, made me cringe as he described his wife as a "little Oriental girl" and gushed about how her "exotic" long hair had set her apart from the other women he'd known as a bachelor. Another man seemed utterly bewildered at the prospect of losing his wife's blond tresses: He'd first seen her standing at the bow of a ship, hair whipping luxuriously in the wind, and immediately fell in love, even though at the time he was on a date with another woman.

All the women came out onstage with fanfare, dancing to the music and proudly whipping their butt- or knee-length hair around from shoulder to shoulder, but one red-headed babe was a true exhibitionist: She strutted into the audience, jumped and gyrated, swung her hair backward and forward, essentially did a pole dance without benefit of a pole. The audience went wild. This woman was accompanied by a female friend who said she was sick of her pal's locks--causing a sensation in bars, getting stuck in car doors--and had been bugging her to get rid of the knee-length mop. Whether the tut-tutting friend was the redhead's lover or just a fellow heterosexual single gal, I could understand her attitude about all that hair--clearly it conferred a huge amount of attention-getting power upon its ridiculously gregarious owner. And it's very hard to be a friend, or lover, to someone who's constantly looking to see who's looking at her.

I kept trying to ignore the television and read, but I kept getting sucked in. The show reminded me of my love-hate relationship with my own hair. As a teenager and young adult, my hair--through never waist-length--was dark and shiny and wavy and a near-constant object of comment. I suppose I was proud of it; in times of low confidence, I simultaneously hid behind it and clung to its predictable ability to turn male heads. But I also began to tire of the constant suspicion that

it was the main reason some guy was interested in me. As I departed adolescence, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter until, at some point in my mid-20s, I was about a step shy of a buzz cut. I didn't turn as many heads--I remember going to Italy for a few weeks and feeling both relieved and slightly annoyed at being ignored by all the men who wolf-whistled or gawked at my long-haired kid sister--but in general I felt wonderfully liberated, like I'd emerged from behind a veil.

The Povich show also reminded me of a cousin of mine, a long-haired Indian beauty who'd been pursued relentlessly for months by the man who eventually became her husband. Years later, the guy got into trouble twice with women complaining he'd sexually harassed them. Both alleged victims wore their hair very long, and my cousin-in-law was eventually diagnosed by his shrink as having a hair obsession, a fetish. I haven't spoken to my cousin in years, but last time I checked she was still trying to figure out whether her husband truly loved her or just her hair.

Perhaps it would have done them good, as a couple, to go on The Maury Povich Show. Although there was something utterly ridiculous and offensive in the way the show was structured--premised on the subtle threat that these women would become undesirable without their long tresses--I couldn't help but be moved when the stylist came in, wrapped each woman's hair in a ponytail, and had her partner chop it off with a big pair of scissors. Several of the women were weeping uncontrollably. The men all seemed devastated.

But then the women went backstage and re-emerged in beautiful new outfits, with stunning short haircuts. The husbands were uniformly blown away. Every single one of the women looked far better. Their faces glowed. Even those who'd been weeping, who looked like they might regret their decision, were caught up in the moment. They looked--and I'm certain they all felt--transformed and empowered and unburdened. I hope they can retain those feelings when faced with all those men who'll accost them and whine, "What did you do to your hair?"

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