Truth and wisdom do such a delightful dance throughout Me, My Hair, And I that you finish the essay collection wondering why we don’t spend more time, not less, obsessing over our tresses.
“Ask a woman about her hair,” writes Elizabeth Benedict, “and she just might tell you the story of her life.”
Benedict, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop coach and the author of five novels, did just that, gathering essays from a diverse group of 27 female writers, including Anne Lamott, Jane Smiley, Maria Hinojosa and Suleika Jaouad.
“What’s abundantly clear in all these personal essays is that hair matters,” Benedict writes. “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.”
Hair is our culture, our priority, our sexuality, our personality, our pride, our shame — perched atop our heads for all the world to see.
“The liminal status of hair is crucial to its meanings,” writes Siri Hustvedt. “It grows on the border between person and world.”
The book is full of such plain, profound observations. At the heart of each essay is the way in which our hair shapes and alters the world’s reaction to us.
We learn about the pressure within the Satmar Hasidic community for women to adopt a uniform appearance, including a ritual head-shaving after their wedding day.
“Failure to blend in is probably the most egregious social crime one can commit,” writes Deborah Feldman in her essay, The Cutoff, which explores her childhood raised in a Hasidic Jewish home, her parents’ divorce, her marriage and her eventual rejection of her culture’s demands.
We follow Alex Kuczynski through Istanbul and Syria, where Islamic teachings often deem pubic and underarm hair unclean, and into American pop culture, where Kuczynski explores the unlikely intersection of religious dogma and pornography.
“I often reflect on the paradox of the American woman, influenced by porn-star culture, stripping off her pubic hair, coerced into a state of enforced genital infancy, and her similarity to Muslim women all over the world,” Kuczynski writes. “They spend their entire adult lives never seeing a pubic hair on their bodies — but in their case, it is for religious reasons. In one culture, porn rules; in the other, God. The result is the same.”
We listen in as Lamott bravely and hilariously recounts her evolution toward her trademark dreadlocks after years spent battling her natural curl.
“Can you imagine the hopelessness of trying to live a spiritual life when you’re secretly looking up at the skies not for illumination or direction but to gauge, miserably, the odds of rain?” she writes. “Can you imagine how discouraging it was for me to live in fear of weather, of drizzle or downpour? Because Christianity is about water. … It’s about baptism, for God’s sake.”
The funniest essay comes from author and screenwriter Adriana Trigiani, who described her childhood mane thusly: “I got my father’s hair, tight curls and fine texture, as if B.B. King and Louis Prima had a baby.”
Reading two dozen essays in a row about hair can become monotonous. Each installment is powerful in its own right, but the phrases and truths that would land and linger on your consciousness if you read them solo begin to run together when gathered as a group. Still, it’s a deliciously enlightening read, equal parts fun and poignant.
“I’ve never figured out how to tell the story of my life,” Rebecca Goldstein writes in the opening line of her essay. “But I do think I can tell you the story of my hair.”
And, as Benedict promised, we learn that the two are not really so different from one another.
Heidi Stevens reviewed this book for the Chicago Tribune.
Meet the editor
Who: Elizabeth Benedict with authors Hallie Ephron, Ru Freeman and Marita Golden.
When: Noon Nov. 21.
Where: Miami Book Fair, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.