Hair by George Merrill


Hair grows liberally over my entire body except where it’s supposed to; on top of my head. I began losing my hair in my late teens.

It was a slow process, but inexorable; each brushing or combing would yield unnatural amounts of loose hair. In a manner of speaking, the handwriting was on the comb.

My mother is of Spanish heritage. She had great confidence in olive oil – which she often cooked with or added to salads. She wondered if its legendary properties of healing might alter the course of my falling hair. She convinced me to let her rub some into my scalp. The regimen went on for about a week until my pillow case began looking like my auto mechanic’s shop floor and smelling like the salad that often accompanied dinner. We both acknowledged that the historic therapeutic properties of olive oil did not extend to altering hair loss or promoting its growth. Surrendering to this reality I accepted the fact that my pate was sealed; by the time I was in my late twenties I had little hair left and had prepared myself psychologically that I would suffer the same fate as my grandfather. I was destined to be bald.

Barbers ask extortionist prices for haircuts. I’d have to pay the same as a man with abundant hair. My wife offered to cut mine, free. It takes little time.

The role of hair in shaping our self-image cannot be underestimated. We treat hair growth like a Japanese horticulturist cultivates bonsai trees; we coerce hair, forcing it through all kinds of contortions depending on the winds of popular taste, which often change like weather. All this in the service of getting it to look just so. Sometimes we curl our hair, bob it, get a brush cut and other times straighten and color it. Among the young – both male and female – we see on the same head of hair the complete color spectrum of the rainbow. Consider that only a few years ago, men wore long hair down on their backs, wove pony tails and grew sideburns looking like mutton chops. Now, the style for men is like Telly Savalas, bald as a billiard. Even men with massive hair growth allow themselves to be shorn like sheep. For me, the thought of being bald intentionally seems like the farmer eating his seed corn; imprudently wasting a primary asset.

Kim Jong Un has an interesting cut. If haircuts are personal statements, his suggests a preternatural drive to be the man on top. By the same token, our president grooms in a way that expresses his contrarian nature: most people groom hair from front to back. Characteristically, he does the opposite, from the back, forward.

Hair is implicated in our moods: Being in a foul mood is “Having a bad hair day.” We get so frightened “our hair stands on end” or so creeped out “it makes our hair curl.” We call sticky situations, “hairy.” No greater honor can one woman bestow on another than saying, “I love your hair, dear.”

Religion is ambivalent about whether to display or hide hair. Monks were tonsured, once a sign of humility. Not now so much. In Christian rites, women were exhorted to wear a head cover in church – a gesture of submission I suspect. Men went as they were except, except for Jews, while Catholic bishops wore Miters (oddly, looking like a dunce cap), the priest and cardinal a berretta or Anglicans the Cranmer cap with four corners. All this suggests to me that we have confused values with regard to just who or how our hair should or should not be displayed either for fashion’s sake or even for the greater glory of God.

There’s a code word in my house that’s evoked when it’s apparent I need a haircut; “You’re looking furry.” The other day, during my haircut, my wife commented that my eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own and grew bushy and unruly like the legendary John L. Lewis’s. How odd that hair grew aggressively below my scalp but not on top of it, the way some lawns inexplicably luxuriate in one corner of the yard, but never in the other.

I’d never given a thought to eyebrows. Surprisingly so since they are one of our most prominent features. Thinking about it, hair growing on the pate is always stationary, except in a strong wind or in those rare instances when something makes your scalp crawl. Consider for a moment how eyebrows’ mobility betrays our emotions. Raised eyebrows are the signature feature of skepticism or surprise. Furrowed brows can indicate anger or anxiety. Drooping brows might signal grief or melancholy. Winking can lower one eyebrow sufficiently to reveal that you’re flirting. In another context, just lowering one brow may signal that no one should believe a word you are saying or that you have no clue as to what’s going on. The Washington elite are often referred to as highbrows, depending, of course, on whose side of the aisle is making the point.

Beware: our eyebrows may reveal our hidden emotions and let the cat out of the bag. And speaking of cats, Greek historian Herodotus wrote once that when the family cat died (in ancient Egypt, not Greece) everyone shaved off their eyebrows as a token of mourning.

Traditionally, for women, eyebrows have been beauty marks. Like hairdos, eyebrow styles have gone in and out of fashion. Egyptian Queen Nefertiti liked extended eyebrows, darkened by paints. In the 15th century, Queen Elizabeth’s day, one’s forehead wasn’t to be cluttered so eyelashes and eyebrows were removed as a beauty statement. Throughout history, eyebrows were variously sported: they were plucked, arched, darkened, painted, lightened, shortened, lengthened or simply removed.

Mention of barbers and hairstylists is in order. Historically, barbers were more diversified in their services, grooming being only one. As a kind of one stop professional, they addressed a wide variety of personal needs including surgery, bloodletting, leaching, cupping, tooth extraction, and enemas. They, cut hair and trimmed beards, too.

A friend of mine, a hairstylist, told me she enjoys close relationships with her clients. The cliché, “only her hairdresser knows” is not frivolous. It’s generally descriptive of the kinds of intimate conversations that often arise between a hair stylist and her clients. I suspect a woman’s hair is more closely tied to her sense of femininity than a man’s is to his masculinity.

Years ago, when I grew sufficient hair to warrant seeing a barber, I’d describe the visits as classic male camaraderie, like a neighborhood bartender; talk of football, baseball, trips, hot cars, taxes, and the like. Pleasant and safely circumstantial.

About my surviving hair I can say only this for sure; I can’t do a thing with it.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Jonathon Powers says:

    Dear Editor:

    Just one word in response to the eminently readable column by George Merrill: HIRSUTE.

    Jon Powers

  2. Hair is a mine field. The saying is that men get their hair from their maternal grandfather; my father had a full head of black hair until he died (77) but my son went grey and balding at 17. I’ve had several skin cancers removed from my scalp and now have a lovely bald spot. My hair style has changed after umpteen years in an attempt to conceal it (not very successfully). Your mother loved olive oil, mine told me toast crusts would make my hair curly – ate them faithfully but the intended results never resulted. Among my women friends not one has hair she likes – the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! You men are lucky – not many people pay attention to your coiffures. Thanks for an interesting article with some chuckles.

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