‘Impressions on Hair’, First Place in Nonfiction

Impressions on Hair

by Emily Tian

Animals shed. Garter snakes moult upwards of forty times in a lifespan, their past selves gone white and crepey like pantyhose. Cats leave their hair carelessly where you’d least expect: hidden corridors, bedroom window sills, shirts tumbled and starched dry. Salamanders, in the greatest of all metaphors, consume their dead skin. Self-immolation becomes survival.

People shed. While shaving, for example. In seventh grade I stole blue disposable Gillette razors from my dad’s plastic Costco supply. It was a secret box, wedged in the bottom drawer under the sinks with all my mom’s tampons and pads, and thus capable of magic and great harm. The razors were designed to go dull after a few runs but I made them last for months; I never could ask for my own. I was in so many ways not yet woman— breasts like half-hearted mounds formed in the recesses of a sandlot dig, periods that skipped months and sometimes half-years, a bedroom still awash in pastel lilac— and asking to shave seemed like knocking for permission into an adults-only club where I would be rudely denied entrance. Besides, my mom told me that women who shaved could never stop, because hair always grew back with vengeance, darker and thicker than before. The first time I waxed my upper lip I spent weeks squinting into the mirror, trying to see if I would sprout a moustache. The first time I shaved my legs I couldn’t stop wearing shorts, even in late October, to marvel at how they shone like the skin of eels under the sunlight.

You can’t talk about hair without calling for Rapunzel, and she is asking me, here, to clear up her story. She loosened her hair and reeled in a prince. No, that’s not right. Her hair has its own constitution. It pulled on her neck like a leash, it could smother her at night, it grew like a seven- year-old who made a birdcage livable by entropy, by the sheer fact of taking up space. A prince found a woman at the end of a braided rope but his object was always the rope, the hair before all else, morning calisthenics yanked into taut muscled ego.

Maybe I don’t just mean Rapunzel. Maybe what I mean to say is Diana Ross’s afro is more than a crown, and so are Frida Kahlo’s plaited braids and Tina Turner’s switchgrass tease. A curl is riotous. It slaps an entire juggernaut of homogeneity on the face. Angela Davis’s hair fills the windpipes with humanity. When Keri Russell cut her radiant yolk-spilled curls on Felicity, ratings crashed. The show was no longer to carry the sympathies of the early aughts. Why would it? The mutability of hair is nested in its terms of agreement: if stared at for long enough, hair snarls with strangers. Even unstyled hair is an aesthetic statement. You don’t get tired of looking at it. What hair implies is youth and sex and power and self and what it is, often, is a docking station for pine needles and eraser shavings.

And always the calculus of it: conditioner to gum onto my hair for faintly tropical moisture, pumps of anti-dandruff shampoo to flatten my wallet at Walgreens. Ascetic baldness subtracts vanity, glossy magazines multiply want. The haircare global market is valued at nearly 90 billion dollars. We blow off hundreds of paper bills to halo our heads in aluminum foil. On Sundays when the salons are closed, the tide turns to swallowing biotin pills, chewing vitamins, slicking on DIY egg-white hair masks before a girls’ night out.

Fact: If you are so inclined, the American Girls hair salon will braid your look-alike doll’s hair for twenty dollars. Further: It is cheaper to go downtown to shave off your own head of hair, all twenty inches of it, even including a reasonably generous tip to the barber. It is cheapest of all to grab a pair of green craft scissors – not the serrated kind, those refuse to work – and hack all of your hair off into the bathtub on a creepingly slow hour in the early afternoon. Rather that than wait for all of it to fall off, all those tight obsidian follicles with a white pin of grease at the point of departure.

When his son and daughter-in-law were subletting an apartment near campus, my grandfather flew to America to care for the newborn. Up until I turned two he shaved my head with a corded razor he had brought with him from Tianjin. It’s a generational old wives tale, that as your hair intuits its monthly shave, it will grow healthier and stronger against that residual resistance. I can’t corroborate the myth, and apparently doctors can’t either, but the logic of it speaks to the same set of values in my family. Work hard, Emily, study now, save up for later. And when is “later”? Does my hair grow glossy and straight because my grandfather taught it to, or because that is the only way it knows? Recently I looked through the family albums my mom keeps upstairs, trying to find that ethos – a family built off of delayed gratification – reflected in the laminated sheets. I didn’t find it. Instead, I rapped my fingers on the baby’s head in those pictures, smooth and focused as a searchlight, and guessed what sort of squelching gray matter sits inside its thick shell.

In the cheap oceanside resort in Charleston a clump of hair is arranged neatly the shower glass. A few months ago, after losing fifteen pounds in a month of aggressive fasting, my hair began to thin in dark, coagulated clots. I don’t want to go bald. I don’t want to rotate between three medicated shampoos and five oblong pills. And yet I think the selfish part of me liked rearranging my ordered life – my yielding parents, my good grades – into a school of tragedy, an art nouveau. I wanted to play a part (Beth March, Ophelia, et cetera) that is not mine and still isn’t. I wanted to write myself into someone else’s prayers. Well, here I am. This particular Carolinian clump configures itself like propulsive dribbles of paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. Loops upon loops upon loops, knot upon knot upon knot.

Everyone I know is disgusted by hair lost in the temporary crevasses of unfolding chairs and tiled floors. What triggers that visceral gut-repulsion? Permanent hair loss is a portent of sickness, which is a portent of death, but even so, the American Academy of Dermatologists say that the average person will lose fifty to a hundred strands of hair every day. We’ve never been great at dealing with our own waste. Our fingers would rather search for hair on the living: In the nineties rom-com, the love interest’s endearingly tousled bangs is a vehicle with which to imagine the side of the bed she slept on, the two blaring alarms she missed. One can’t help but reach towards the liquid plasma of the screen and push aside the trembling locks like gorgeous film stars do before they’re unveiled as something so human it hurts.

I scrape my fingernails into my scalp, and premature dandruff is ejected as fat white flakes that butter the slats of my dining table-turned-desk and the fishbone stitches of my sweater. Better, I think, to streamline loss, than let it accumulate like a dizzy, silent snowstorm.

Hair on my arms says: Look at the coldness. See what the world does to you: the Honeywell thermostat, a slash of chalk, my prickling fear of whatever comes next.

When I think about hair I think about its immaculate conception in a scrim of oil. This is followed by a tea tree-activated charcoal-coconut milk benediction and ends as dead puckered lines on the ground. Mostly, when it’s not up in arms making a statement, hair is proof of how much noise we make, how much we take just from our own being here. Even without gas mileage and Keurig pods, we’re always courting detritus, leaving our own calling cards in a messy forensics trail. Say hello, you skinny fallen tightropes, to the ants.