If you ask people who have met me to describe me physically, most likely the first thing they will mention is my long blonde hair. My “long beautiful hair…shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen” hair, as Gerome Ragni and James Rado penned for the 1968 hippie musical, Hair, has always been a very important defining feature about me. I am not sure I would’ve had the same life experiences without this hair…wouldn’t be…well…me.
When I was born, as Mom recalls, there was a lot of silver hair on my head and it stuck straight up, like Sting’s hair circa Zenyatta Mondatta days. By the time I was three or so, it was apparently such an eye-catching white blonde that on a family trip to Kanab, Utah, a Native-American man told my grandfather that he would trade his grandson, who was about my age, for me. Umm, did he see something in my hair other than the color that made it special or different in another way? Since my grandfather declined the offer, I guess we’ll never know what his plans were for me.
It is weird that my hair stayed naturally blonde as I grew up. Both of my parents and my older brother had light hair as kids, “toeheads” as they would say. By their pre-teen years they all had heads of various shades of brown hair. Of course we used to joke that I was the blonde milk man’s daughter, but other than the hair, I look too much like the guy who was married to my mother at the time of my conception in 1971. 😁
The meaning of hair, having it or not, and its stylings, are as diverse in human history as cultures, skin color and religions are. It can be a symbol of freedom and at the same time oppression, of something extremely sacred or something shameful that needs to stay hidden. We save and wear locks of it from our loved ones two and four-legged alike. Hell, using cut human hair as a medium for decorative art was a popular Victorian tradition adorning the walls of any household in society with good taste. Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Har, explores the importance of hair in black culture…a total 180 from this discussion about a white girl’s blonde hair. Funny, really, to place such importance, decision making and behavior on strands of nothing more than an outward presentation of protein and dead cells. Sometimes dead is pretty…and powerful.
When my older brother was starting out in local rock bands in the early 80s, the length of his hair was a bone of contention between him and our father. The need to have long-hair to be a rock-n-roll musician was a given for guys then. Hair won, and my brother went on to have a notable career as a front man/writer for a “hair band” on the L.A. rock scene in the late 80s playing clubs where bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warrant had just been discovered. Hair, and that “look”, had a lot to do with those careers.
My hair, at least I believe in part, opened doors for me too. I spent the first half of my life getting leads in community theatre plays, taking local modeling jobs and starring in local tv commercials. It probably got me a boyfriend or two along the way for better or for worse. As much as having beautiful hair may have enhanced my life, it brought some weirdness my way too.
In 1984, when I was twelve…TWELVE…I had decided it was time to get with the social trend of big hair. I mean, I waaaaas going into seventh grade, a big deal. Time to shed the little girl long, wavy hair, get it cut and PERMED! I wanted a more “mature” look for junior high school. My mother agreed and took me to our regular guy, young and funny. We both liked him. Getting a perm took hours so Mom confidently left me alone with him to go do some shopping. We knew him. I felt very grown up. Long story short, the twenty-one-year-old MAN told me how very pretty I was and would I like to meet him on his boat at the lake sometime, alone. It would be “our secret” he said. My twelve-year-old self was conflicted. “Wow, an older man likes me?” and “Wow, this is really strangely uncomfortable.” Alas, I had to sit with those feelings for a couple of hours alone with him under those rollers and the awful smell of the perm juice ruining my hair. By the time my mother had returned to retrieve me and pay the man, my hair, with its new extremely tight permanent curls, looked like a blonde poodle, and a part of my innocence had been violated forever. I never told my mom at the time, and needless to say, my boating days did not start at twelve.
I did get a few more perms during my junior high tenure (not from Mr. Pedophile, the hairdresser), but then left my hair go back to its natural state of waviness. I never touched the color of it with the exception of putting lemon it during those high sun days of summer to lighten it “naturally”. Of course, this was the mid 80s so my hair saw more damage by my styling it with hot crimping and curling irons, teasing it and using a mountain of hair spray and mousse. I was terrified to go swimming with boys then, because my hair would’ve gone flat when wet which equalled looking ugly. I was only desirable to guys with that HIGH HARD HAIR! Forget about showering in gym class! Ya with me gals who were teens then?
For the second half of my life, with its good hair days and its bad hair days, my hair was just something to keep trimmed and pulled back while I worked. My younger self had always said I would never artificially color my hair. I considered that to be a high-maintenance personality trait a la the pie ordering scene in When Harry Met Sally. I did not want to be called a high-maintenance kind of gal. Whatever happened to my hair naturally, so be it. My dad ended up with the most beautiful gray/white hair, so I figured the same fate would fall upon my head. Nope. My naturally light blonde color started to darken aaaaaand the grays (yes you can see grays in blonde hair) actually started to appear. My hair’s appearance was making me feel dumpy and old. Sooooo, I broke down at forty and got it lightened with streaks, by a wonderful (non-pedophile) lady hair stylist! I could look in the mirror and see a glimpse of the old Greta again (from the neck up at least. The rest of me is a story for another day). Whatever. I felt better. No need to apologize for it. I only get it done twice a year.
At forty-five, my hair was once again tied to an important life event. When I was diagnosed with appendix cancer I was told that all I would need is a majory surgery to “cure” it. But when biopsies returned, chemo was suggested. After a tear, the first words out of my mouth were, “will I lose my hair?” The answer was no. “It will just get thin,” the doc said. Truth. Eight rounds of chemo later, I had thinner hair for two years of pain and sickness before a major recurrence was found. Then came the suggestion for another kind of chemo where hair loss is a given. I stoically and resolutely declined the pointless treatment. My cousin said to her mother, assuming I would need the dreaded chemo, “Oh no, Greta has cancer. She will lose all of that beautiful blonde hair.” As I said, the first thing people mention/think about me.
You see, it’s not JUST hair to me now…with my mortality looming. It is seriously the last physical thing about me inside and out that is still ok…that is still me. The thing that people can still recognize when they see me. The thing that makes me my father’s daughter with our German DNA. The thing that makes me my mother’s daughter with our Irish DNA. “Gimme a head of hair, long beautiful hair…” over suffering through a treatment that will not keep me from dying young from this disease, but just make me die bald. I’m with you Treat Williams. I choose hair.