Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession

Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession

by Elizabeth Benedict


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Ask a woman about her hair, and she just might tell you the story of her life. Ask a whole bunch of women about their hair, and you could get a history of the world. Surprising, insightful, frequently funny, and always forthright, the essays in Me, My Hair, and I are reflections and revelations about every aspect of women’s lives from family, race, religion, and motherhood to culture, health, politics, and sexuality.

They take place in African American kitchens, at Hindu Bengali weddings, and inside Hasidic Jewish homes. The conversation is intimate and global at once. Layered into these reminiscences are tributes to influences throughout history: Jackie Kennedy, Lena Horne, Farrah Fawcett, the Grateful Dead, and Botticelli’s Venus.

The long and the short of it is that our hair is our glory—and our nemesis, our history, our self-esteem, our joy, our mortality. Every woman knows that many things in life matter more than hair, but few bring as much pleasure as a really great hairdo.

"A terrific read for those of us who obsess about our hair. Or those who live with those of us who do. A collection that’s, I dare say, a cut above the rest.” —Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616204112
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 09/29/2015
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 527,716
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Benedict is a graduate of Barnard College and the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost and the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing. She is the editor of the anthologies What My Mother Gave Me, a New York Times bestseller, and Mentors, Muses & Monsters, and has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, and the Huffington Post, the Rumpus, and Tin House. Two of her essays have been selected for Best American Essays collections. She has taught widely and works as a writing coach and editor. 

Read an Excerpt


Ask a woman about her hair, and she just might tell you the story of her life.

Ask a whole bunch of women, and if Me, My Hair, and I is any indication, you could get a history of the world: reflections and revelations about family, race, religion, ritual, culture, politics, celebrity, what goes on in African American kitchens and at Hindu Bengali weddings in Calcutta, alongside stories about the influence of Jackie Kennedy, Angela Davis, Lena Horne, Madonna, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Temple, Sandra Dee, Joan Baez, Farrah Fawcett, Kelly McGillis, Judith Butler, the Grateful Dead, and Botticelli’s Venus.

What’s abundantly clear in all these personal stories is that hair matters. Many other facts of life matter too, oftentimes more than hair (illness, poverty, war, famine, flood, and sometimes shoes and makeup), but hair can be counted on to matter just about every day, at least to a high percentage of women--and to more than a few men, at least back in the day. The Beatles’ long hair, when it first shimmied and shook on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, in time to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” changed the course of social history. Way before that, the Old Testament’s Samson believed that his hair, seven braids’ worth, was the source of his strength, and his enemies hired the temptress Delilah to cut if off.

As I read and reflect on these essays, I’m struck by just how much hair matters to so many of us, and by the tangled intricacies of why. Why so much? And why with this intensity?

“A woman’s hair is her glory,” Maya Angelou explains in Good Hair, Chris Rock’s documentary about African American women and their hair. But long before it has a chance to acquire glory in our lives, it demands attention and care. It’s an early life lesson in basic grooming, a public window into the private household. In social science terms, hair is a signifier. One of the earliest signals it transmits, when we’re kids, is whether we are being looked after properly. A child’s unkempt hair invites scrutiny, condemnation, and, if it’s really a mess day after day, maybe a visit from Child Protective Services. As girls grow up and learn to groom their own hair, they learn to take care of themselves. When they have daughters, they groom them too, and so the cycle continues. Along the way, we learn that the hair choices we make for ourselves and others reveal who we are, the worlds we live in, and how we want to be perceived.

For women, hair is an entire library of information, about status, class, self-image, desire, sexuality, values, and even mental health. For many of the years I lived in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, I remember frequently seeing a woman with gnarled, matted hair that stood a foot off her scalp. She was protesting--I think it was nuclear war--on the sidewalk outside the White House. While I shared her views on nuclear war, the state of her hair told me that she was not entirely well. I can summon her face vividly, but I know the reason I always noticed her was the house of hair atop her head.

Hair matters because it’s always around, framing our faces, growing in, falling out, getting frizzy, changing colors--in short, demanding our attention: Comb me! Wash me! Relax me! Color me! It’s always there, conveying messages about who we are and what we want. Invite me to the prom! Love me! Hire me! Sleep with me! Don’t even think about sleeping with me! Take me seriously! Marry me! Mistake me--please!--for a much-younger woman!

It’s always there, unless it’s gone or it’s hidden--and those absences tell stories too. A common one involves the ravages of chemotherapy; missing hair is evidence of illness. Then there are cultures where women shave off their hair and cover their heads, and other cultures where women may keep their hair, but their heads must be shrouded in veils, sometimes with only slits or screens through which to see. Why the shaved heads? Why the draperies? There are many reasons and many interpretations, depending on one’s relationship to the veils. Covering the hair signifies membership, to insiders and outsiders, in a specific group; it’s a quick self-identifier. It may remind members of the group how to worship and to behave. It focuses attention on the face, not the secondary characteristics. And shaving or hiding the hair fundamentally nullifies hair’s ornamental, aesthetic, and sexual properties, thereby sending unambiguous messages about the women’s availability and independence. Finally, there’s the hair that’s almost always hidden from view--but that has crept into public conversations in the past two decades, as Brazilian waxes, dyes, bleaches, and other grooming gimmicks have made achieving childlike genitals the new normal.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a hair story in the news just about every day, and because we live in the twenty-first century, most of these stories then leap to Twitter, Facebook, and TMZ, and heavens knows where else. Before long, the whole world--or just a few thousand people--is debating Jennifer Aniston’s layers, Michelle Obama’s bangs, the toxins in hair dyes, the Duchess of Cambridge’s teasing her husband about his bald spot, a movie star on a TMI jag about her pubic hair, a child expelled from school for a hairstyle, an Olympic gymnast condemned for her kinky hair, and the US Army’s issuing new rules about which hairstyles are permitted and which are not. News stories about hair run the gamut from pop-culture fluff to ethnic and racial hot buttons, and the hottest of those often involve African Americans and their tresses. If we’re black, we know the landscape of this territory intimately. If we’re not, we may be oblivious to the very separate world of African American hair, an issue so complex and charged that it’s been the subject of dozens of books--histories, self-help, and photo essays. Long before Good Hair, Maya Angelou told her own hair history in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and in his autobiography, Malcolm X describes his introduction to getting his hair straightened into a “conk,” using lye, eggs, and potatoes, and later his condemnation of this brutal technique.

In African American culture, “good hair” is smooth and soft. For many of the other contributors, “good hair” is also the straight hair that they don’t have naturally and always wanted. As all unhappy families are different in their own ways, each story here of a woman at war with her hair is unique. Fortunately, not all contributors have had such adversarial relationships, though family conflict and connection were often acted out through the writers’ hair and the locks of other family members.

While it’s easy to make light of our obsession with our hair, very few of the writers in these pages do that. We get that hair is serious. It’s our glory, our nemesis, our history, our sexuality, our religion, our vanity, our joy, and our mortality. It’s true that there are many things in life that matter more than hair, but few that matter in quite these complicated, energizing, and interconnected ways. As near as I can tell, that’s the long and short of it.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments xi

Introduction xiii

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, The Rapunzel Complex 1

Suleika Jaouad, Hair, Interrupted 9

Marita Golden, My Black Hair 19

Anne Lamott, Sister 35

Patricia Volk, Frizzball 47

Alex Kuczynski, And Be Sure to Tell Your Mother 55

Rosie Schaap, Kozmic Hippie Hair Breakdown Blues 67

Bharati Mukherjee, Romance and Ritual 75

Emma Gilbey Keller, My Thick Hair 85

Adriana Trigiani, Oh Capello 95

Deborah Tannen, Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle over Hair 105

Honor Moore, Beautiful, Beautiful 117

Maria Hinojosa, My Wild Hair 131

Jane Green, Love at Last 139

Deborah Feldman, The Cutoff 147

Ru Freeman, Glory 157

Elizabeth Searle, Act Tresses: Hair as Performance Art 171

Hallie Ephron, Remembering Sandra Dee 185

Katie Hafner, Maids of the Mist 195

Deborah Jiang-Stein, Hair in Three Parts 205

Siri Hustvedt, Much Ado about Hairdos 215

Myra Goldberg, Two Hair Stories from One Life 231

Julia Fierro, Capelli Lunghi 243

Deborah Hofmann, Heavy Mettle 255

Jane Smiley, At Last, I Learn How to Turn Heads 269

Anne Kreamer, Getting Real 277

Elizabeth Benedict, No, I Won’t Go Gray 287

Contributors 299

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Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A book that focuses on something that mostly affects women and each woman has good moments and not so good moments with it - HAIR! There are good hair days and bad hair days and maybe even bad hair months or years! Each woman has a relationship with their own head of hair and through our lifetime we make changes for different moments in our lives and they tell a lot about ourselves and the people we are. Like in all short story collections, there were a few stories I enjoyed less than others. BUT there were some stories that I completely adored. I loved the stories that made me think about women with different hair and background as I do and how that defines them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It seems I am not the only one obsessed with my hair! ~*~LEB~*~