It sprouts avidly from the tops of our heads, and other fertile zones, but shirks certain plains of skin, leaving them as smooth and naked as sea-brushed stone. We must be some of the strangest mammals.
I was born with a golden gossamer sheen, my parents told me, a seal becoming human. Soon after the baby coat disappeared, I grew a halo of curls, confirming my reddish coloration. That hair took on a life of its own, which still eludes me at times. It was deemed my trademark, burning brighter in people’s minds and memories than it ever really did; a legend of sorts. Long-lost playmates and elderly Italian “aunts” continue to stoke the fire of my hair, which has apparently blinded them to almost everything else about me. Their comments carry an ambivalent charge, the needle of the barometer fluctuating wildly between ugly and beautiful, shameful and glorious, unfortunate and extraordinary, flickering like a flame itself. Whether they veered toward this or that secret verdict, the power of their judgment shook me. I was shy but temperamental, self-conscious but brazen, inward yet attention-seeking, and I wasn’t sure how to wield this unpredictable weapon, which seemed to work both for and against me. My parents were clearly enamored with it, proud of the genetic surprise they pulled off; my peers played to my own uncertainty, teetering between complimentary and derogatory; even strangers usually fell into one camp or the other, exclaiming praise or (more rarely, I have to admit) sniggering quietly.
Despite the strong reactions I’ve involuntarily elicited over the years, and the frequent reminders and conversations about my hair color, I sometimes “forget” that I’m a red-head, and when I suddenly remember, I’m struck by it, too. How random and inconsequential it is on the one hand, and how specific and defining on the other. How superficial and how essential. There’s no denying that my hair has woven itself into my identity. And so it is with any of our external features, especially when they make us stand out from the crowd. We own our bodies, but we didn’t chose them. There’s only so much we can do to change them. Nature makes us one way, and civilization throws us to the wolves. We are forced to claim and defend the fur and hide we live in, or be eaten alive by metaphorical cannibals (“mit Haut und Haaren”). We impose the cruel politics of appearance on an already brutal biology. What are the gingerly sprigs of an ambivalent ginger’s experience compared to tight coils of resentment wound by racial injustice, just waiting to spring? Hair, skin, fat, and bones… our elemental heritage, for better or worse.
We lose our hair, we sculpt and shape it, we dye it, we tear it out, we grow it, we shave it off, we crimp and curl it, we straighten it, we wash it, we tangle and grease it, we braid and tie it, we tousle and caress it. Animal hair, in the hands of humans. Strands of protein, as magical and natural as pearls from the bottom of the ocean, the origin of all life, on loan to us until we die and return to whence we came.