Off the Cuff

How to Style Your Hair

At age four, let your mother take you for a short haircut. It will be a wedge in the back with a middle-parted bob in front ala Dorothy Hamill after the 1976 Olympics. Done.

But your hair will grow quickly. By first grade it will be very long. Do not wear it down; never let it flow; do not let it brush your shoulders as you play. Your mother will plait tight braids against your head. The braids will be so snug that nary a stray hair will escape for at least two days. If braids are not pleasing, or your mother feels a change of pace is necessary, pigtails or a high, secure pony tail will suffice. At night it is important to massage your scalp with your tiny fingers to relieve soreness. 

Beware, the middle school years will be awkward. Cut your hair in seventh grade. The celebrity styles you see in your mother’s People magazine will encourage you. Try a short style with short, feathery sides and just a bit of front fringe. It may not be quite what you expected.

Get a perm.

Get the perm straightened after Ernie Fierro and his cronies laugh at you in school.

High school. Seemingly overnight your hair will become lush and long. It is truly amazing what hormones can do. One day you will look in the mirror and see a young woman with thick, straight, shiny brown hair past her shoulders. There is power in this. Never wear your hair back in a ponytail or braid if you can possibly help it.

Prom, of course, is an exception. French twists look good on you, so go for it. Tease your bangs.

Don’t worry too much about changing hairstyles until college. Right before you move into the freshman dorms, chop your hair right to your chin. Let go of the mile-high bangs. It’s okay if you feel a little less pretty, a little less powerful. By the end of the first semester it will be quite a bit longer. One thing the women in your family do well is grow hair.

When you are in your twenties, you’ll be an archaeologist working in the hot Virginia sun. Really, now, there is no choice but to sweep your hair off of your sweaty neck. Your best hairstyle will be a simple bun. Do this: grab a pencil from the site’s tool box. Twist up your long hair and use the pencil to secure a tight bun. Be surprised when the site supervisor, a fellow graduate student, tells you years later―when you are his wife―that he saw you do this and  found it alluring and beautiful and seductive.

A few months after your wedding, go ahead and chop it all off. It’s okay; just do it. Now doesn’t that feel good? It certainly won’t be as scary as you anticipate. Everyone is shocked and asks “why” but be assured that you look pretty cute. 

In your second year of marriage, take a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. There you will find a room filled with human hair representing all the hair shaved off the heads of Jewish women in concentration camps. Let it stop you cold. Let it remind you of what the world thinks of women, their hair,  their bodies. Excuse yourself so that you can cry in the public bathroom.

Your hair will fall out by the handful after your first child is born. Do not be alarmed. Even though the shower drain is clogged and clumps of hair are everywhere, your hair will grow back. It will never be the same, though. It will be thinner, not nearly as shiny, and rather limp. Make peace with that.

Your second baby will nurse while holding a long strand of your hair in his hands. Because of this, it is important that you do not cut it, though it is in your face. The moments you share with this child are precious. Your hair is part of your bonding experience.

When the first baby turns thirteen, you’ll begin to find gray hairs on your head every single day. At first it is funny, but don’t laugh too hard. Soon you will have so many that you cannot count them or pluck them. Your mom and sister will laugh when you tell them you will not dye it or hide the gray in any way. Ignore them. But do consider readopting that Dorothy Hamill bob with a modern twist. It will likely be more flattering at forty-one than it was at four.

This time, instead of going to your mother, find a brand new hairdresser, one in the city, one whom none of your friends know. In the waiting area stare at all the hair on the floor: blonde, purple, black, and brown locks, all ready to be swept out with the trash. These will remind you of an old folk belief that warns people not to throw hair from a brush or a hair-cut outside.  The birds will gather it and use it for nests. They’ll wind your hair in and out of twigs and grass, and this will make you go mad. You’ll be helpless. Powerless. Insane. When you sit in the chair, ready for your dramatic new do, think of those birds and the hair on the floor.  Think of the baby twirling your tresses between chubby fingers, the lover watching you untangle your thick mane, your mother twisting perfect braids. Each strand is a page from your past. Tell the hair dresser, “Only a wee bit off the ends, please. I want to keep it long.” 

(Christine Green is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist in Brockport, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge”, at A Different Path Art Gallery. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.)

All photographs courtesy of the author.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Black Hair

(Off the Cuff brings you opinion and essays on current events in the appearance universe)

  CC Image courtesy of    chandlerchristian    on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of chandlerchristian on Flickr

As the daughter of a Black man and an Asian woman, I have always been more than my hair, but I didn’t always know it. My mother, who is Filipino, didn’t know what to do with hair that was so radically different from her somewhat wavy, mostly straight hair. She never explicitly said that my hair was ugly, but she pledged loyalty to the flat iron. If I didn’t want to straighten my hair that particular week, she would ask, “Why not? It looks so pretty when you straighten it.” I took this to mean: You look so much BETTER when your hair isn’t curly.

  CC Image courtesy of  Clemens v. Vogelsang   on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Clemens v. Vogelsang on Flickr

Growing up in a multicultural household in a sleepy, all-white suburb in New England automatically cast me as an Outsider. My hometown believes racism and discrimination are evils only limited to states below the Mason-Dixon line. If I dare mention the racism I’ve experienced, white people take it as a personal attack. I’ve been called "racist" just for recounting my lived experiences. I may have been the daughter of two different races, but I was still black enough to be coded by the color of my skin and thus, dehumanized. My hair, with its impressive ability to break combs and brushes, has always been an easy target for small-minded bigots, from loud-mouthed, entitled white schoolgirls to oblivious older white men and women who seemed to have only seen Black people on TV.

When I was around eight or nine, my family went to Disney World during my summer vacation. I was standing near our airport gate when I felt two pairs of hands combing through my hair, tugging at the roots. Frightened and angry, I turned around to face two non-black women of color. Ignoring my distress, they reached out again for my hair. They would have continued to feel my hair if my father hadn’t appeared, mouth tugged into a frown. When whiteness is the default standard of beauty, blackness is cast as its unworthy opposite, as though one is Cain and the other, Abel.

As a child, I was made in my mother’s image of beauty. My father, considerably protective and a follower of old-school, traditional masculinity, didn’t have much to say about makeup and beauty. Meanwhile, the images from teen magazines that warped my influence were always available to discredit the mirrored reflections of my nuclear family.

I did not grow up insulated by the familiarity of blackness. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t have a large extended family. My father is estranged from most of his family and others passed on before my parents married. My mother’s family lives in the Philippines and I don’t remember the one trip we took to her home when I was three.

So at my mother’s suggestion, I began dying my hair in middle school. As the years progressed, I went blonder and blonder. I wanted my hair to be reminiscent of what I saw everyday in the media, the type of hair I saw on the white girls at my school. My mother and I brainstormed ways to tame my kinks and frizz into pitiful submission. The few times that we went to a local hair salon always ended in resentment and frustration. The white hairdressers never knew what to do. They’d stare at my hair as though it would jolt to life. One hairdresser actually turned us away.

  CC Image courtesy of    Dionysius Burton    on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Dionysius Burton on Flickr

Eventually, we grew so tired of these reactions that I allowed my mother to trim my hair. Looking back, I understand that the incompetence and ignorance of those hair stylists has nothing to do with my value as a person. But at the time, my hair was a constant source of agony and personal shame. I hated (and still hate) the assumption that a Black girl or woman with natural hair should graciously bask in their supposed Otherness: the assumption that the Black girl in question doesn’t mind if you invade her personal space to dig your hands in her hair. White people, even non-black people of color have done this to me throughout my life. Without the slightest hesitation, they put their hands in my hair. They’re surprised that their stereotypes don’t hold up, that the texture of my hair “doesn’t feel like wool.” They write off their rudeness and ignorance as curious flattery. Such disrespect has never read as a compliment to me.

Upon entering middle school, I felt irreversibly, internally shaken by the negative attention that my hair attracted. I wore my hair in a tight bun most of the time. Friends and classmates couldn’t help but add their two cents: “Do you ever straighten your hair? Why don’t you straighten your hair more? It looks so good (read: better) that way!” By the end of high school, I claimed defeat. There’s nothing I can do, I thought, I just don’t have good hair.

If I had not gone out of state for college and graduate school in Boston and New York, I would have carried this mantra without knowing that there is no such thing as “good hair.” What is the concept of good hair without its relationship to whiteness? Still a superficial system of worth that shames genetics and heritage. By escaping my monolithic hometown, I was no longer the token minority everywhere I looked. In those environments, I was allowed to be more than my hair. Free of my mother’s beauty preferences, I began to trust my own taste. I saw beauty that defied the rigid standards of Connecticut townies. I was awakened to the fact that self-love did not have to be conditional.

  CC Image courtesy of  Victor Tondee  on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Victor Tondee on Flickr

Of course, my existence deems that I can’t completely escape the far reaches of racism and white supremacy. My hair still elicits rude comments and violations of respect. In professional settings, I’ve had people ask if my hair is “real” or what do I do to “make it look like that.” While out to eat at restaurants, I’ve had men put their hands in my hair, unapologetic and entitled. I’ve had potential romantic prospects exclaim surprise upon discovering that my hair is “actually soft.” Yet I no longer worry about conforming. I no longer yearn for pin-straight locks. I haven’t chemically relaxed my hair in years. If the height and volume of my hair offend you, mission accomplished.


(Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared on Book Riot, Vice, Hazlitt, The Hairpin, and The Toast. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine.)

True Blue

(Off the Cuff brings you opinion and essays on current events in the appearance universe)

  Photograph: Rollo Romig

Photograph: Rollo Romig

I was playing with my hair at work when I felt a smooth patch on my scalp, in the back of my head. Since I couldn’t look in the mirror, I lifted up my hair and asked my colleague Lauren to look at it. Lauren gasped. “There’s a bald spot there.”

I had just been promoted at work and was feeling utterly unprepared. The responsibility I was given was crushing me. I had to supervise a larger team of people and prepare reports. My lunch hour was given over to meetings and I had begun to take work home with me. I kept telling myself that this was what I wanted.  I refused to acknowledge the stress. But while I was able to suppress my anxieties intellectually and emotionally, the wisdom of the body was beyond my control.

The size of a golf ball, the bald spot on my head was diagnosed as alopecia. My immune system had begun to perceive hair follicles as foreign agents and was attacking them.  My body was under assault from within. The hair loss was my stress made physical. 

My hair has always told me the truth. When I am unhappy or stressed, my hair picks up the hints and insists that I take care of myself. The alopecia diagnosis was a warning bell that I had to heed. I slowed down. I delegated. I took the vacation I needed. I started meditating. My hair grew back.

  Photograph: John Taylor

Photograph: John Taylor

Then a few years ago, I decided to cut off my long locks completely. The last time I had had such a drastic change of hairstyle was when my father took the scissors to my hair. I was five and traumatized when I saw the choppy results in the mirror. There were a lot of tears that day! Even decades later, I felt a great deal of trepidation giving my stylist the license for a pixie cut. What would my face look like? Who would I be at the end of this haircut?

I didn’t realize it then, but what I was summoning up was the courage to live outside my usual limits. After I gave my stylist the green light for a pixie cut, I was able to quit my job, take a break from work, and return to a new, more fulfilling workplace. 

My hair grew back. I went back to work. I bought an apartment. I dated. My meditation practice deepened. I started studying yoga.  Life was good. Then I started thinking of blue hair. In fact, I had been thinking of blue hair for a long time. But as you can imagine, there had never seemed to be a right time for blue hair. But I now had a stylist I loved, Autumn Whisman at Parlor Salon in Brooklyn. Autumn took her job and my hair seriously.  I brought it up during an appointment and Autumn was encouraging. It was February and after watching the Oscars, I emailed  Autumn. “Did you see Liza Minelli at the Oscars?”

At our next consultation, I told Autumn I was worried about the permanency of it all.  I wanted to dye my grays and the ends of my hair. That way I had an exit strategy, if it turned out horribly.  Autumn experimented with a demi-permanent color to oblige my request for temporary color, but when we tried a test strip, there was no sign of blue anywhere. It was either permanent or nothing. 

I made the appointment for two weeks later, silently debating with myself if this was a good idea.  “Are you worried about how people will perceive you?” A colleague asked me, since my role at work was outward facing. That’s when I realized that I didn’t care.  My hair was my palette and I wanted to express myself. I emailed Autumn my favorite stone, lapis luzuli, to give her a sense of the color.

  Photograph: Rev. David B. Simmons

Photograph: Rev. David B. Simmons

I walked into the salon, smiling nervously. Autumn had gone through several test samples on human hair to give me a sense of the range of color that was possible. Four and half hours and several bottles of blue and bleach later, I emerged with exactly what I wanted—a deep blue that was not only vibrant but also sophisticated. 

A few months later, I would quit my job again. I would travel to a small Mediterranean town in France to learn French. Meditating in the 5th century  cathedral in the heart of this town of terracotta roofs, I would begin to understand that yoga was not just a hobby but a way of life for me. But that day when I left the salon with my blue hair swinging freely in the Brooklyn breeze, I didn’t know all that. My hair knew it but I didn’t. 

  Photograph: Vandana Singla

Photograph: Vandana Singla

(Jess Geevarghese is a meditation and yoga instructor in New York City who focuses on stress management. She holds a BSBA, an MBA and an MSW from Washington University. Jess has fully accepted her gray hair and loves to get blowouts. Her website is

Kodaikanal won't

Two years ago, during a long stint in India, my husband and I and our toddler holed up in a tiny cottage in Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu. We spent a lovely month there, writing and walking. I never thought of myself as a nature person, but Kodaikanal converted even me. The flowers! They are just ridiculously beautiful. And they are everywhere. Not just in the gardens, but along the sides of the muddy red village roads, uphill and downhill. They insisted on being seen. I feel exhausted at the thought of describing them because I always skim descriptions of flowers in books. Who could possibly be interested in reading about a flower that looks like a furry purple string, soft and delicate to touch, almost animal-like in its energy? Tiny flowers that would never make it into a flower vase because they are too wispy and delicate. Giant flowers that look like sophisticated bombs, created in a beauty lab. Purple and orange and ruby-red flowers and one that was the faintest, tantalizing blush of lilac. 

 Just a little Kodaikanal flower.  "Dancing Ballerina" by Thangaraj Kumaravel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Just a little Kodaikanal flower.  "Dancing Ballerina" by Thangaraj Kumaravel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Anyway, in short, happy times were had in Kodaikanal. And so, hearing about the Mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal lake, I am especially outraged. In 1982, Ponds moved their thermometer factory from USA to Kodaikanal, because, you know, Mercury poisons. So can't have that in the US. A few years later, the factory was acquired by another cosmetics giant, Unilever. The company was long suspected of not following the correct protocol for pollution control, but things came to a head in 2001,  when a pile of broken glass thermometers (with Mercury in them) were found in the forest. Unilever was forced to shut down the factory.

But the Mercury remains -- in the water, the soil, in the bodies of factory workers. And environmental activists in south India are asking Unilever to make amends and clean up. In a fun fun fun music video, set to the tune of Nicki Minaj's Anaconda, rapper Sofia Ashraf sings: "Unilever has been hiding behind/Their PSAs and fake Pepsodent smiles/They washed their hands off Kodai with Lifebuoy/There's nothing Fair or Lovely about this trial.."

Yes, the same Unilever who also makes the "No.1 selling women's fairness cream." For me, there is a direct line between these dots -- fairness creams and Mercury poisoning. When a corporation is willing to cash in on racist prejudices, it's a short skip, hop and jump to environmental irresponsibility. The skin of the earth is the skin of our bodies.

The watch theory of politics

I have been catching up on old New Yorker articles and this one from 2013 was an excellent read. A diamond entrepreneur from Israel won the rights to operate one of the world's richest iron mines, located in Guinea, one of the world's poorest countries. Within a year, the entrepreneur sold a fity-one percent stake in the operations to a Brazilian mining company -- for 2.5 billion dollars. This at a time when the annual budget of Guinea amounted to 1.2 billion dollars. The current President of the country is trying to strip the diamond entrepreneur's license and protect the rights of the people of Guinea to the profits from the mines. It is a fascinating story about the networks of international corruption and power-brokering, from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to Geneva. This bit struck me especially:

“I practice the watch theory of politics,” a Western diplomat in Conakry told me. “When a minister is wearing a watch that costs more than my car, I start to worry.” During my interviews with officials in Conakry, I spotted more than one conspicuously expensive watch; in the Guinean fashion, the watches hung loose on the wrist, like bracelets.

Those expensive watches, giving away much more than time -- a tiny detail that suddenly illuminates a whole web of corruption.