Autobiography in Eight Hairstyles by Susan Vespoli

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, April 15th, 2019

"More toxic than chemical exposure, is the act of not owning your thoughts or speaking your mind."


Personal Essay by Susan Vespoli

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Baby Hair:

          I came into the world as a blond. My few fine first hairs whorled my newborn skull like a thumbprint. Not just one, but two cowlicks spiraled my crown like googly eyes, a quirk that would drive more than one stylist nuts.


Kid Hair:

          By the time my hair was brushable, it was brown. My mom kept her four daughters’ locks clipped short—manageable styles like pixies or bobs with bangs. I didn’t care what my hair looked like as long as shampoo stayed out of my eyes. I was more interested in looking for four-leaf clovers in fields where I was sure at least one grew or standing on my head in the front yard, scalp poked by stickers.

          I had a sensitive scalp, I was told, prone to snarls and mats requiring the help of Johnson’s No More Tears to detangle. Barrettes and stretchy bands pulled stray pieces up and out of my eyes. Pink sponge rollers, bobby pins, and spoolies coaxed temporary curls.

          One day, I got psyched up to try a Lilt home perm. As my mom squeezed the smelly solution over hair-wrapped plastic curlers, I dreamed of glamour, but wound up with poodle hair: a Brillo pad positioned above my frowning face.


Teen Hair:

          I turned 13. The aunt who wore false eyelashes, a push-up bra, and leopard prints pulled me, my older sister, and her daughter aside. “To look good,” she instructed, “you need to figure out your best feature and play it up.”  She sized the three of us up, then said, “Well, you all have nice hair.”

          I wound my tresses around bristly rollers held by plastic stick pins, then covered them with a hairnet to sleep on the equivalent of a head of nails. I was a sloppy hair setter, dubbed the messiest hairdo roller at slumber parties. My girlfriends laughed; I laughed. I didn’t see how tidy rows of snuggly attached curlers made much difference once hair dried and was combed out.

          At one overnight party, I let my friends cut my hair into a Dutch boy. My mom was horrified when I came home, a big plus to a new adolescent mastering her art of rebellion. I loved my trendy hairdo along with my heavily applied black eyeliner and mascara. I sprayed Sun-In onto my dark hair aiming for beach girl, ended up with brassy orange.

          By age 14, we moved to Guam, and I began growing my hair with the rest of my generation. Long, straight sheets of hair parted down the middle—we all had it. Even the curly haired went straight by ironing theirs or rolling it on coffee cans.

          Hair was a Broadway musical. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang about “letting their freak flag fly” in “Almost Cut My Hair.”

          I watched my grandfather’s face twist into a grimace in the early 70s as he watched American Bandstand dancers on TV. He spat at the screen, “Why don’t they cut their hair?! They look like girls!”

          Such power! I grew mine longer and longer, occasionally looping it into a knot on top of my head with a chopstick or pencil.


Young Womanhood Hair:

          When I became a mother at barely 17 to my oldest son David, my hair still hung to my lower back. By the time I graduated from high school, dabbled with a short marriage to my baby’s father, and fled back to my parents’ house to assimilate an adult life, it was time to chop off several inches. While I supported myself and small son typing documents for an insurance company, I visualized myself with sophisticated waves.

          “How about a stack perm?” my stylist urged.  “It’s a whole new look.”

          I had no idea what a stack perm was, but thought of Vogue models, so agreed and found myself in a salon chair looking at my reflection: me with some sort of sticks holding curlers away from my head like a science experiment. Who knew the procedure would turn me into Rosanna Rosannadanna? I called in sick from work for two days. The frizz relaxed eventually, and then I cut it off into a Dorothy Hamill wedge ala the 1976 Olympics.


Married Mommy Hair

          After having two more kids, I saw my mom’s point in keeping hair short. Who had time to keep everyone alive and play beautician? While changing diapers, chasing toddlers, making beds, and whipping up casseroles, I mostly wore my hair short with a poof on top, created by – oh no! —another perm. Or by blow drying the top while holding my head upside down, or by applying shellac-like gel and shaping it into a dome.

          As my kids grew, so slightly did my hair. I turned 30, 35, and then 40 wearing a series of bobs. When gray strands appeared, I paid hairdressers to cover them with dye or blend them with highlights. I spent lots of money and hours in salons wearing perforated plastic caps or foil strips.


Cancer Hair

          When I was diagnosed with cancer of the perineum at age 44, I was shocked. Pissed at what I felt was a double-cross by my body. Furious with doctors who misdiagnosed, finally diagnosed, and then casually detailed my treatment options, I sat on the exam table in my paper gown watching this tall male doctor explain how my hair will fall out from the chemo.

          “In clumps,” he said.

          Oh yeah?  I thought. Nope! My hair won’t leave me, because I’ll get rid of it before it has the chance.

          I called my hairdresser du jour and she squeezed me onto her calendar and cut it off. Not Mr. Clean or Sinead O’Connor, but short.

          My sister Nancy flew in from out of town, drove me to a wig store and bought me the fake mane that most closely resembled my former hairstyle. I hated that thing. Hated the store and the person who sold it to us. Hated the chair I sat in to try it on. Hated my reflection in the mirror. Hated the way it smelled and felt when I got it home, kept it in a box in my closet.

          “Wait to see how you feel about it,” my sister said in a gentle voice, “when your hair falls out.”


          Years later, I would still feel the pitbull of anger in my gut when I thought about that wig. I would still want to torch it and bury the remains. So, no, I never wore it. I mailed it in its box to an organization called Bosom Buddies that helps women with cancer. Maybe somebody got some use out of it. To each her own.

          And guess what? My hair never fell out. The doctors were surprised. The tall one who predicted my baldness eyed my stubbornly growing in pixie.

          “That drug makes everyone’s hair fall out,” he said. “Not sure why yours didn’t.”

          My pubic hair fell out, though. That was a surprise. Seeing that bald triangle instead of my former shag rug made me wonder how anyone would opt for a Brazilian. It looked lonely and kind of pathetic, like a putting green where the grass had died, a golf hole no longer played.

          But I lived. The hair on my head grew back and my pubic carpet returned, although sparsely.


Revolution Hair

          “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” ~CoCo Chanel


          More lethal than bad food, bad drink, and bad exercise habits, more toxic than chemical exposure, is the act of not owning your thoughts or speaking your mind. I learned that denial and tamp-down are poison. By age 50, I began to speak up. I left my marriage, cut off my bob, sold my business, moved to a cabin in the forest, and ended up with an MFA.

          I was so angry at men for a couple years after my marriage that I looked at all of them with distaste. No interest! And then I met one I fell madly in love with and began to grow my hair long again. Something about reclaiming my femininity. Being an Eve to his Adam.


Now Hair

          Flash forward ten years. I’m back to a bob, tinted medium blond for a while now to blend in the ever-increasing swaths of gray. The grayer I get, though, the more noticeable my skunk stripe of roots. I dye it myself to save money, and because of botched dye jobs by professionals who had their own opinions about what shade my hair should be. I’m currently moving from medium gold to light ash to get closer to what is becoming my natural color – a grayish-white.

          Will I eventually stop dying it and let it all go? Will I go purple or turquoise like young and old women I see on the street? Will I go asymmetrical or mohawk or make some other radical statement? An anonymous quote I found while googling says: “It’s your hair. Do whatever YOU want.” And I think that about sums it up.

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Header image courtesy of Philip Munoz. To view his artist feature, go here.

Susan Vespoli splits her time between Arizona and Washington state. Her work has been published in spots such as Mom Egg Review, Emrys Journal, Writing Bloody, Role Reboot, New Verse News, Pact Press, Nasty Woman Poets Anthology, South 85 Review, and dancing girl press. She has an MFA in poetry and nonfiction from Antioch University L.A.

Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.