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Getting to the Roots of My Pandemic Hair Fixation

Musing about what we can control helps when there is so much we can't

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

I reached a personal pandemic milestone this fall: My hair is finally long enough to wear in a ponytail. Unfortunately, that ponytail is threaded with a two-inch ribbon of silver hair that makes me look like a skunk.

pandemic hair, Next Avenue
Credit: Adobe

For years I've had my hair cut and colored every two months, but assumed I was still mostly brunette. I'm not. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram seem to be eavesdropping on my thoughts about this, or maybe it's simply the zeitgeist, because ads for do-it-yourself home hair dye kits are proliferating like toadstools on my social media feeds.

One day at the start of the pandemic lockdown, as my neighbor and I squinted at each other from 10 feet across the street, I noticed she was suddenly sporting suspiciously silky hair.

"L'Oréal light brown number five. It's your color too," she said pointedly, which I chose to ignore.

She's the kind of competent, self-sufficient woman I'm decidedly not, but very much wish I were. She's equally adept at cleaning out the sewer drain or wielding an industrial-grade power washer.

"I think I might try cutting it myself next," she mused.

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Hair is Never Just Hair

I still haven't recovered from my teenage run in with Sun-In, a  do-it-yourself hair lightener that promised sun-kissed hair. I yearned for a sultry, Jessica Rabbit vibe. Unfortunately, I wound up with Carrot Top's aggressive orange.

Hair is never just hair. It's a signifier of so much. Sexual allure. Physical strength. Desirability. Robust health. It's social collateral.

When I was small, my mother often braided my hair. I squawked whenever she combed through the snarls or pulled it tight. "To be beautiful you have to suffer," she said. I know now she meant it ironically, but as a child I embraced it as divine wisdom.

Most of us have strong feelings about our hair, men included.

Eventually she got tired of listening to me shriek daily. When I was six, she took me to the beauty salon at Best & Co, in Manhattan,  a department store known for "tastefully styled and proper women's clothes and sturdy children's wear."

She told the man wielding the scissors, "Do whatever you think looks best."

He lopped it all off into a pixie cut with short bangs. Then he dried it with a deafening green metal blower, managing to burn my scalp. When I flinched, he snapped, "It's your own fault for squirming."

The constraint I felt to be "a good girl" vied with my outrage. How could my mom let that happen to me? Afterwards, she took me to the children's department and bought me a bonnet, perhaps to hide the hideous mess of my hair.

"You look adorable!" the saleswoman said.

"I'm Me Again"

Most of us have strong feelings about our hair, men included. When my autistic son, now 28,  was a toddler, he had sensory issues and hated haircuts so much you'd have thought the barber was trying to perform surgery on him without anesthesia. With time and therapy, he outgrew it.

One month into lockdown, he began badgering us to take him to the barber. "The shop is closed," we told him repeatedly. I noticed with alarm that he had a bald patch. Was he losing his hair? I shared my concern with my husband.

"I found more patches," Marc reported back. "The good news is that he isn't losing his hair."

"And the bad news?"

"He shaved it off with his electric razor."

The barber wasn't making house calls. Desperate, I unearthed the buzz clippers we'd bought to trim the matted fur on our long-haired cats. (Before anyone gets all skeeved out, let me add that we had never used those clippers on anyone, human or feline.)

Marc is skilled at many things. Cutting hair is not one of them. The only things he knows how to trim are wisps of carpet threads the cats have clawed up. By the time he was done brandishing those clippers, our son looked like Sonic the Hedgehog.

"At least no one but us will see him," I consoled Marc.

Our son didn't mind. "I'm me again," he said.

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Why Do We Worry About Appearance?

I compared hair woe with my college roommate, whom I've been texting with daily since the start of the pandemic. During lockdown, we got into the habit of FaceTiming frequently. Before we call, though, invariably she warns, "I'm not wearing any makeup."

"Oh, the horror," I joke. "Better wear our face masks."

Why are women always apologizing, especially for our appearance? It feels scripted. Performative. Are we preempting criticism?

For more than 40 years, she and I have seen each other through countless stretches of illness and recovery, heartbreak and happiness, yet we still feel the inescapable social pressure to look pretty. Polished. Put together.

I think of those dreaded words, "She let herself go." But go where?

Several months into lockdown, I mail-ordered Color Wow, a pricey powder concealer that promised to "Instantly cover greys and dark roots with no mess! Stays until shampoo'd out — you can even swim in it!"

I'd have liked to give that claim a whirl, but all the pools were still closed. The product looked like an eye shadow kit, and I followed the instructions diligently. It helped, but not enough. There was just too much silver to hide.

Am I afraid that if I let go, forgoing hair care or makeup it's a slippery slope to utter indolence? That I will end up permanently cocooned in a food-stained blanket Snuggie covered in pet hair, a bucket of Milky Way fun size bars in my (rapidly spreading) lap, endlessly watching Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel?

I think of those dreaded words, "She let herself go." But go where?

All Struggles Are Valid

For the past seven months, we've forsworn daily makeup, let our gray roots show and lived in our leggings, trying to hold together our hearts and hearths. These are extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult times. So what if we scarf down a sleeve of Thin Mints or self-soothe with a pint of Ben & Jerry's Dulce Delish ice cream? Instead of framing this as self-neglect, why not think of it as a different form of self-care?

Focusing on such petty concerns sounds shallow, given what others are living through. But it interrupts my doomscrolling, and distracts me from what's really at stake.

I've had nightmares about not being able to breathe. Visions of ventilators and dying alone. Rather than think about existential threats like pandemics, California wildfires and the impending election and possible death of our democracy, fretting about gray hair gives me the illusion there's something I can still control.

I'm sorry for complaining, I text my roommate. I know lots of others who are dealing with much harder stuff.

It's not comparative, she responds. Or a competition. Your struggles are as valid as anyone's. Yes, other people have difficulties. Doesn't deny you yours. Right?

Right, I text back. Why is it easier to have compassion for others than for myself?

She asks, What are you looking forward to when the pandemic is over?

I hesitate. Not a haircut. Not hair color. Decidedly not Weight Watchers. I'd love to see a Broadway show. Visit the lavender fields of Provence. Most of all, hug in person the people I miss and love.

I pause a moment more, then reply, Still being alive.

Photograph of Liane Kupferberg Carter
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a New York-based essayist and author of the memoir, “Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism.” Read More

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