Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Friend Hair

A Princess of Greatly Conflicted Hair

In the world of make believe, Melisande is a princess with extreme hair issues. Her hair is too long -- much too long and much too big. Poor girl: it was either that or endure the curse of baldness! Well, we all have our hair issues. In Traveling Mercies, contemporary writer and activist Anne Lamott describes her first - hand experience with extremely curly hair:

"Can you imagine the hopelessness of trying to live a spiritual life when you're secretly looking up at the skies not for illumination or direction but to gauge, miserably the odds of rain? Can you imagine how discouraging it was for me to live in fear of weather, of drizzle or downpour? . . . Obviously, when you really want this [spiritual] companionship and confidence but you're worried about your bangs shrinking up like fern fronds, you've got a problem on your hands."

Lamott recounts the liberating scene in Shawshank Redemption when Andy stands in the pouring rain with his arms outstretched. She confesses, " . . . if I were the prisoner being baptized by the torrential rain, half my mind would be on how much my bangs were going to shrink up after they dried." Ultimately Lamott concludes that "it would be an act of both triumph and surrender to give up trying to have straighter hair."

Sure you want to have the right priorities and keep your mind on higher things, but you also have to live down the prejudiced notions: "good children have shiny combed hair, while bad children, poor children, loser kids, have bushy hair"; the unkind remarks: "did you you stick your finger in a light socket"; even racist insults in Anne's case, because, though fair in color, the texture of her "crazy hair crown," tends toward wiry and kinky -- making it perfect for the cool dreads that she now wears. I admire her soul - searching explanation of making the switch to this new style:

"First of all, I felt it was presumptuous to appropriate a black style for my own liberation. But mostly when I thought about having dreadlocks, I felt afraid and disloyal. Dreadlocks would be a way of saying I was no longer going to play by the rules of mainstream white beauty. It meant that I was not longer going to even try and blend. It was a way of saying that I know what kind of hair I have, I know what it looks like, and I am going to stop trying to pretend it's different than that. That I was going to celebrate instead" (all quotations are from Traveling Mercies, 6 - 13, 229 - 37).

Anne Lamott

Alice Walker

Interestingly, both Anne Lamott and Alice Walker cite over-investment in haircare as an impediment to spiritual liberation. In Walker's terrific essay, "Oppressed Hair," she explains why accepting your hair on its own terms is crucial to a larger sense of self-acceptance and personal growth. She personifies her hair in the most delightful way: "I discovered my hair's willfulness, so like my own! I saw that my friend hair, given its own life, had a sense of humor. I discovered I liked it. . . . I would call up my friends around the country to report on its antics."

She describes her realization, practically an epiphany "that in my physical self there remained one last barrier to my spiritual liberation, at least in the present phase: my hair. Not my friend hair itself, for I quickly understood that it was innocent. It was the way I related to it that was the problem. I was always thinking about it. So much so that if my spirit had been a balloon eager to soar away and merge with the infinite, my hair would be the rock that anchored it to Earth. I realized that there was no hope of continuing my spiritual development, no hope of future growth of my soul, no hope of really being able to stare at the Universe and forget myself entirely in the staring (one of the purest joys!) if I still remained chained to thoughts about my hair" (emphasis added).

Well, it requires thoughtfulness and fortitude to break those chains! However, if there's anyone who can put the issue into perspective, it's these two admirable women: wise Alice Walker who asks if we can ever achieve equality as long as woman aspire to look another way than what they are: light instead of dark, tan instead of pale, blonde instead of brunette, straight instead of curly; and honest Anne Lamott who points out that surrender is not all bad: "giving into all those things we can't control," letting go of "balance and decorum," befriending our hair.

This excerpt is from my essay"Ad Hairenum"

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  1. Great discussion, Kitti. Thanks!

  2. Mumbi writes:
    "I want to call some of your writing 'Kitti Remedies' because it is as enjoyable to read as it is enjoyable to listen to one's favorite music . . . I am particularly referring to the 'Quotidian Kit.' I also enjoyed reading about 'hair.' It is interesting to realize that women the world over spend so much of their lives entrapped in a never ending task of 'hair maintenance.'

    It is true according to your blog that Anne Lamott considered surrender to mean liberation. Right now, that is how I feel but I must say that at the back of my mind I know that I sometimes wonder whether I could miss out on an opportunity because of the biases associated with the hairstyle I now wear. I think whoever created the word 'kinky' must have known my hair from long ago. No comb in this wide world can comb my natural hair. In Kenya, there is a small stunted plant called 'mahinga' that grew less than a foot in height. Its tiny branched out stems and tiny leaves were tightly packed together and spread about a foot wide. It was a nuisance around walkpaths. My late brother used to call my hair by the name of that plant.

    Perfection does not exist in this world and 'when a human being comes to a point that he / she is not unhappy about one thing or the other, that becomes the end of life here on Earth,' so we will always have something to complain about because people have set up values and standards of how things ought to be rather than accepting the way life is naturally."