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HAIR

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Hair deeply affects people, can transfigure or repulse them. Symbolic of life, hair bolts from our head. Like the earth, it can be harvested, but it will rise again. We can change its color and texture when the mood strikes us, but in time it will return to its original form, just as Nature will in time turn our precisely laid-out cities into a weed-way. Giving one’s lover a lock of hair to wear in a small locket [3] around his neck used to be a moving and tender gesture, but also a dangerous one, since to spell-casters, magicians, voodoo-ers, and necromancers of all sorts, a tuft of someone’s hair could be used to cast a spell against them. In a variation on this theme, a medieval knight wore a lock of his lady’s pubic hair into battle. Since one of the arch-tenets of courtly love was secrecy, choosing this tiny memento instead of a lock of hair from her head may have been more of a practical choice than a philosophical one, but it still symbolized her life-force, which he was carrying with him. Ancient male leaders wore long flowing tresses as a sign of virility (in fact, “kaiser” and “tsar” both mean “long-haired”). In the biblical story of Samson, the hero’s loss of hair brings on his weakness and downfall, just as it did for the hero Gilgamesh before him. In Europe in more recent times, women who collaborated with the enemy in World War II were humiliated by having their hair cut short. Among some orthodox Jews, a young woman must cut off her hair when she marries, lest her husband find her too attractive and wish to have sex with her out of desire rather than for procreation. Rastafarians regard their dreadlocks as “high-tension cables to heaven.” These days, to shock the bourgeoisie and establish their own identity, as every generation must, many young men and women wear their hair as freeform sculpture, with lacquered spikes, close-cropped patterns that resemble a formal garden maze, and colors borrowed from an aviary or spray-painted alley. The first time a student walked into my classroom wearing a “blue jay,” it did startle me. Royal-blue slabs of hair were brushed and sprayed straight up along the sides of his head, a long jelly roll of white hair fell forward over his eyebrows, and the back was shiny black, brushed straight up and plastered close to the head. I didn’t dislike it, it just seemed like a lot to fuss with each day. I’m sure my grandmother felt that way about my mother’s “beehive,” and I know my mother feels that way about the curly weather system which is my own mane of long thick hair. One’s hairstyle can be the badge of a group, as we’ve always known — look at the military’s crew cut, or the hairstyles worn by some nuns and monks. In the sixties, wearing long hair, especially if you were a man, often fetched a vitriolic outburst from parents, which is why the musical Hair summed up a generation so beautifully. The police, who seemed so clean-cut and cropped then, were succeeded by a generation of police in long sideburns and mustaches. But I remember at the Boston Love-in in 1967, my first year away at college, hearing one young man say to a passing couple who ridiculed his ponytail: “Fuck you and fuck your hairdressers.” I also remember, in the fifties, walking out of my bathroom with my hair sprayed into a huge bubble. “What have you done to your hair?” my father demanded. “I’ve just teased it,” I said. To which he replied: “Teased? You’ve driven it insane.” I wear my curly hair au naturel these days, in a shag cut the French call la coupe sauvage (“the savage cut”), but its volume and faintly erotic unruliness bother my mother’s sense of propriety. To her generation, serious women have serious hairdos that are formal, sprayed, and don’t move. A few weeks ago, she phoned to warn me that professional women aren’t taken seriously if they don’t have a “wet set” (rollers, hair dryer, setting lotion, hair spray). Loose ends on one’s head signal loose ends in one’s life. From this point of view, which has been popular for ages, a woman grows her hair long but keeps it tightly controlled in a bun, under a hat or scarf, or with hair spray, and lets her hair down only in private at night.

Most people have about 100,000 hair follicles on their head, and lose between fifty and a hundred hairs a day through normal combing, brushing, or fussing. Each hair grows for only about two to six years, at about five or six inches a year, and then its follicle rests for a few months, the hair falls out, and is eventually replaced by a new hair. So when you see a beautiful head of hair, you’re looking at hairs in many different stages in a complex system of growth, death, and renewal. Fifteen percent of it is resting at any one time, the other 85 percent growing; many dozens of hairs are all set to die tomorrow, and deep in the follicles new hairs are budding.

Hair has a tough outer coating called the cuticle, and a soft interior called the cortex. People with coarse hair have larger follicles, and also a thin outer coat (10 percent of the hair) with a large inner cortex (90 percent). People with fine hair have smaller follicles, and almost the same amount of cuticle (40 percent) as cortex (60 percent). If the follicle cells grow in an even pattern, the hair will be straight; if they grow irregularly, the hair will be curly. Lice have a hard time attaching to thick hair, which is why black schoolchildren don’t succumb to epidemics of head lice as often as their white classmates. Besides being sexy to most people, head hair protects the brain from the sun’s heat and ultraviolet rays, helps to insulate the skull, softens impact, and constantly monitors the world only a hair’s breadth away from our body, that circle of danger and romance we allow few people to enter.

Of course, hairs grow in many places around the body, even on the toes and inside the nose and ears. The Chinese, the American Indian, and some other peoples have very little hair on their face and body; those of Mediterranean descent can be so woolly and thickly haired they seem only a step away from our ape-man ancestors. Bald men are sexy men; they go bald from a high level of testosterone in the blood, which is why you don’t see bald castrati or eunuchs. Men with thick mats of hair on their shoulders and backs used to scare me. A word like “carnivore” would form in my mind when I passed them on beaches. Women tend to be smoother-fleshed than men, so it makes sense that we would shave our legs and apply lotions to accentuate the gender difference. But despite efforts to remove hair from our bodies, quite a lot remains on the arms, faces, and heads of women, and the chest, arms, and legs of men, to do what it was intended to do.

Hair is special to mammals, although reptiles do form scales, which are related. Each hair grows from the papilla, a wad of tissue at the base of a follicle, where there is a nerve ending, and there may be a group of other nerve endings nearby. The average body has about five million hairs. Because hairy skin is thinner, it’s more sensitive than smooth skin. One hair can be easily triggered: If something presses it or tugs at it, if its tip is touched, if the skin around it is pressed, the hair vibrates and sparks a nerve. Down is the most sensitive hair of all and only has to move 0.00004 of an inch to make a nerve fire. Still, it can’t be firing all the time, or the body would go into sensory overload. There is an infinitesimally small realm in which nothing at all seems to be happening, a desert of sensation. Then the merest breeze starts to blow, nothing like a real disturbance. When it grows just strong enough to reach an electrical threshold, it fires an impulse to the nervous system. Hairs make wonderful organs of touch. “Breeze,” our brain says without much fanfare, as a few hairs on our forearms lift imperceptibly. If a dust mote or insect brushes an eyelash, we know at once and blink to protect the eye. Though hairs can take shapes as various as down or antennae, some especially useful ones are vibrissae — the stiff hairs cats have as whiskers — which adorn many mammals, including whales and porpoises. A cat without its whiskers bumps into things at night, and can get its head caught in tight spaces. As we can. If we ever get a say-so in evolution, one of the things I’d vote for is whiskerlike feelers to keep us from bumping into furniture, friends, or raccoons in the dark.

 

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