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Friday, 9 February 2018

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

A couple of weeks ago I was idly flicking through my copy of the 'i' newspaper over breakfast, when my attention was caught by a short article written by a freelancer. I can't remember her name and I didn't keep the article, but this is the gist of it. The writer had just discovered how 'empowering' and 'liberating' it was to shave all her hair off. Silly trivial stuff. The 'i' clearly had an awkward little space at the bottom of a page and had tried to fill it from the discard pile.

Attention seekers - models, pop singers - often shave off their hair in order to reap the 'shock horror' tabloid headlines which will add two minutes' more recognition to their public profile. I did wonder, however, what it felt like to be a long-term sufferer of alopecia reading that article over a morning bowl of Rice Krispies. Even I, a short-term sufferer, felt rather queasy and, indeed, quite irritated by a spoilt little twenty five-year-old making self-regarding and superficial sweeping statements about an issue which for many people is quite upsetting. Despite being a robust and sanguine cancer-sufferer, I had found it quite unpleasant day after day, after the most recent bouts of chemotherapy, to keep clearing the plughole or sweeping the floor to remove thick clumps of hair.

My decision to have a hairdresser shave off the rest of my hair arose from such irritation and disgust. Despite the supportive presence of my daughter-in-law, I did not find the shaving experience 'empowering' or 'liberating'. Both at the time and since, I have found it difficult to look at myself in the mirror, especially when I have forgotten that I am hairless and just catch sight of that strange smooth sphere, with two ears sticking out like handles. I have never considered my ears to be particularly unsightly, but I do now.

Since then, I have made sure that my head is virtually never uncovered. I have a range of caps of one design or another. I even wear one at night, for being hairless means being cold. A few years ago I did have a friend who on losing her hair during chemotherapy, refused point blank to wear a cap, let alone a wig. She did not want to 'hide' behind her hair covering. People, she felt, should accept her for what she was. Brave for more than one reason - the north east of Scotland isn't that warm even in the height of summer. However, most of the women I meet in the chemotherapy ward these days wear their caps and and wigs, as I do myself. Several aspects of chemo are unpleasant; one might as well not add distress about one's appearance to them. Even today, only my husband and daughter-in-law have actually seen me without a head covering. All Skype calls to grandchildren are carried out with my head firmly bewigged.

So, what of my wig, then? Well, the wig is splendid, much better than my 'real' hair ever was. It is lighter in colour as I couldn't get an exact match, and far thicker and fuller. Indeed, I am seriously thinking of wearing that wig for the rest of my life for, like many women, I think my normal hair is awful. It is lank and flat and never holds its shape. It only takes a couple of raindrops or a puff of steam and any pretence of styling immediately collapses. And as for hats! Just two minutes of a hat, and my hair used to emerge clinging to my scalp for dear life - as well it might, given what was in store for it! Mind you, on the rare occasion I have worn a hat with my wig, I have soon discovered that divesting myself of my head covering, usually in a public place, has resulted in my taking off my hair as well. How mortifying can that be!

Hair means so much to us, particularly to women. My father and husband, both of whom had lost most of their hair by the time they were thirty, seem to have been quite unfazed by the experience. Not for them a Donald Trump comb over. For women however, it is different. This was explained very effectively by two alopecia sufferers who were given a slot on one of the news programmes recently. It had taken years for them to accept the inevitable and, eventually, to embrace it. Not for them the twenty five-year-old journalist's ersatz and unnecessary bravado.

Most women I know despair about their hair. It is either too straight or too curly, too silky or too wiry. It is either not blonde enough or too dark. Hairstyle provides a very satisfying battleground for teenagers and their parents. It certainly was for me. I didn't scandalise my parents by dying it lurid colours. No, my rebellion was to do with the length.

Coming from what once had been a Plymouth Brethren background, I was brought up to believe that a woman's crowning glory was her hair. My parents really did think, when I was a girl, that the Bible had ruled that women should not have their hair cut. All the female family members wore their hair in buns of one sort or another, including both my mother and grandmother. Our hair was never cut, but could be tidied up by running a lighted candle up and down a twisted hank to singe the ends. Bonkers! I used to be terrified.

But just think about it. There was God, not long after millions of ordinary people had slaughtered each other in concentration camps and refugees were still tramping across the length and breadth of Europe, categorically insisting that the really important issue in life was to do with the length of one's hair.

Now, in the 1950s, little girls wore their hair in bobs, usually with a big floppy bow to one side. Not me. I was condemned to plaits - the only girl in both primary and secondary school to be inflicted with them. They came down nearly to my waist and made excellent bell ropes for tugging on and not just by my brothers. Bullies not only sniggered at the old-fashioned styling, but routinely yanked at these plaits in playgrounds and corridors. How I pleaded with my mother to have my hair cut, but to no avail. God had decreed.

So it was, that at sixteen, just when all the other girls at school were trying to grow their hair into long 1960s curtains, off I went to the hairdresser's with my friends and came back with a very trendy bob. It transformed my appearance, boosted my confidence and completely changed the way other girls treated me. My mother, astonishingly, and it has to be said, apologetically, accepted my unilateral action. Her only concern was my father, who actually just capitulated with a few nominal grumbles about the beauty of long hair. Neither of them could have denied how much better I looked. A major rebellion which had terrified me for days in advance, just fizzled out.

Yet, that little anecdote does illustrate how very important the way we wear our hair is to our self esteem and our image of ourselves. No longer the dowdy old-fashioned butt of incessant teasing, I was released into that wonderful experience of being just the same as everyone else. Which is, after all, what most teenagers want.

Because of the importance of hair in our culture, for a woman to lose her hair can often be seen as a loss of femininity. 'Old maids', as my generation was brought up to call them, were often laughed at for their thinning hair. Just think of The Witches, Roald Dahl's popular novel for children. Remember the horror when the witches are revealed to the main character, removing their wigs and displaying their horrible bald heads. My granddaughter found The Witches terrifying.

The opposite is also true, of course. Western fairy tales have often featured heroines, usually princesses, with long flowing locks. Rapunzel is a case in point. 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!' just wouldn't work otherwise. Disney versions of these fairy tales have only strengthened the concept of long hair as a symbol of desirable femininity. There is scarcely a school girl or twenty-year-old who doesn't have long hair. Yet very long hair can be impractical. Having eligible and ineligible princes attempting to climb up it must have been particularly excruciating for poor passive Rapunzel. Her authoritarian father had clearly no idea how painful it must have been - or perhaps he just didn't care.

Other cultures do not seem to have quite as many hang ups as we do about hair. Several of my ex-colleagues in Uganda had their hair cut very close to the scalp, and very elegant it looked too. That is how the President's wife wore her hair, and it was required of pupils in most schools. Shorn heads are traditional among many African women and very practical, though it is interesting that 'natural' African hair is coming back into fashion, what used to be known as an 'Afro' hairstyle. Fewer women these days, it is said, are 'relaxing' their hair to make it straight like western hair, and consequently easier to manage. When I lived in Uganda I had to be sure not to buy 'relaxing' shampoos by mistake. My naturally lank straight-as-a-die hair would not have survived such treatment.

Whereas many West African women enjoy wearing the most wonderfully elaborate scarves, tied in a myriad of imaginative ways, many East African women have tended to focus on the hairstyle itself. I was astonished in Uganda by the creativity and variety of my friends' hair styles. Whereas we western women wore the same old hairstyle day after day, our African colleagues seemed to change their styles on a weekly and sometimes what seemed like a daily, basis. Many East African women also wore wigs, usually straight ones. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian author, has spoken interestingly about African women's inventiveness and pride in their hair. 

This flexibility in changing one's hairstyle, however, had its drawbacks, for Stuart and me. As westerners, we were used to using hairstyle as a clue to identity. However, many is the time in both Uganda and Malawi when I have walked into a room and completely failed to recognise the colleagues with whom I was working just the day before. Factor wig wearing into the equation and no wonder we never recognised anyone!

One of my closest friends in Uganda was Christine, our office manager. One day she would have close cropped hair, another day she would have cornrows and yet another day she would have long extensions. Some of these styles took two or three hours of excruciating manipulation by the hairdresser to set in place. Our repeated failure to recognise Christine became an ongoing and affectionately shared office joke.

Well, I never was intended to be a Rapunzel: too impatient for life in a tower, though a recent injury to my foot has meant that I am spending longer in our third floor flat than any sensible person would choose. My teenage rebellion meant that I long ago put paid to random princes taking short cuts by way of my hair. My rejection of princesshood, however, has possibly gone too far. Nobody wants to completely lose their hair, whatever a hapless juvenile journalist might think and not even when one no longer believes that it is one's God-given crowning glory. Splendid though my wig might be, thank goodness that my real hair in all its lankness, straightness and shapelessness will eventually grow back.





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