Her feet and hands and face are bare, but the rest of her is covered in waves of light brown hair. It’s not matted, not animal, not thick like a pelt, although it covers her like fur. Soft wiggles, almost like it’s been combed. For a moment, I wonder how that would feel: being combed, groomed like a dog. I wonder if she sheds or if it’s permanent. Then I’m back, lost in the light brown waves. What a strange depiction. Mary, mother of Jesus, covered in hair.
I found this image by searching for it after a friend told me about her. Hairy Mary. Medieval painters, according to my friend, sometimes painted Mary covered in thick body hair. She almost looks like an angel wearing a Chewbacca suit. The tendrils of her body hair curl gently, forming little stylized tufts that cover her from ankle to collarbone to wrist. What a glorious thing, I marvel.
It’s the end of summer when my friend says this. The last of the days when I wear dresses and skirts without thick, fleece-lined tights. I like the tights—they’re comfortable, high waisted, and impossibly soft on the inside. They keep my thighs from chafing (though by the end of the cold weather season, the inside seams will be riddled with holes from the friction). But I’ve also come to love the warm summer air on my bare legs.
This was not always the case. Bare legs can feel like a liability when your body is built like mine. Bare legs require more thought, more planning, more products, more skillful execution. A dozen decisions behind one tiny detail: Slip shorts or body glide? Socklets or bare feet? Sandals or flats? Painted toenails or plain? There’s a reason why, by the end of the day, I have decision fatigue and I’m only too happy to cede the arduous task of choosing what to eat to someone else.
Having seen her, I can’t get hairy Mary out of my mind. She’s strange, near-mythical-looking, yes. But also, there is something subversive, almost shocking about her, this angelic-faced mother, being covered in a pelt of hair like an animal. What does it mean, I wonder. And so I begin to read.
Nothing below the lash line, a lover once told me. He knew that women grew hair below the lash line. But what he wanted was a woman who would remove it all for him. He’s not alone in this desire. Nothing but soft skin from the eyes down is an American fantasy. In HBO’s first season of Euphoria, one of the qualities most admired about Maddy Perez, the sexy girl next door cheerleader who is dating the misogynist, closeted quarterback is her lack of body hair. Countless commercials have advised me to get smooth and stubble free, to have long and sexy and white-but-tanned legs, to wear short shorts.
We remove our body hair because it’s wrong, unfeminine, because it’s not supposed to be there. Or we choose where we find it acceptable (and this varies greatly depending on a woman’s body hair and her culture) and remove the rest. There are nearly a dozen ways to remove body hair: shaving, waxing, threading, tweezing, chemical removals, sugaring, electrolysis, and lasers. I’ve tried all of them at one point or another. Each one promises to be less painful, to last longer, to produce softer stubble and fewer ingrown hairs. Each of them fails to deliver on at least some of that promise.
In reality, the hairless body means stubble in tender places, ingrown hairs, razor burn, and constant maintenance. Once you’ve removed the hair from a place, you have to keep it exfoliated and hydrated. You have to keep it smooth. And, because your body seeks stasis and sameness, you have to keep removing it. You have done so much work, only to owe more work in maintenance, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
At various points in my life, I have removed hair from my eyebrows, upper lip, armpits, arms, fingers, stomach, pubic area, thighs, legs, and toes. Never all in one go, but the processes (and later, the maintenance) took hours a month. Hours that I didn’t spend reading or working or writing or even thinking beyond “don’t cut the shinbone, careful of that ankle tendon, knees are so weird, get more lather, rinse, repeat.” Hours that were not about my passions or my ferocity, but about my willingness to perform a particular brand of femininity.
When I think about how many hours of my life I’ve spent on hair removal I want to cry.
By contrast, when it comes to the hair on our heads, women are supposed to grow it long and abundantly. Every shampoo commercial features women with power hair: thick and shiny and tangle-free. I find it hard to tell whether I admire long hair because it’s intrinsically beautiful or whether I’ve simply been taught to admire it.
For most of my life, I wanted hair long enough to hang myself with. I wanted hair wild and flying. I wanted hair that would snag me lovers like a lasso. I wanted hair to flip and shine and toss over my shoulders like an invitation. I wanted a veil of hair, or perhaps I wanted a screen. I wanted a seduction. I wanted power hair, mermaid hair. I wanted long waves, and a braid I could use as a weapon. I wanted a coat in the winter, a fan in the summer. Hair like my friends, the pretty girls, had when I was a child.
I wasn’t allowed to have long hair as a child. The first time I grew it past my shoulders I was in sixth or seventh grade. I quickly realized why my mother had insisted on keeping it short. My hair is fine, but I have a lot of it. Masses of tiny, delicate hairs. The problem with fine, thick hair is it tangles at the nape. I have to comb the underside or I get impossible knots. As I pull at the frayed ends, the tiny hairs split and wrap themselves around each other. I cannot move my fingers through without pain.
I have spent hours detangling filaments of my own hair from each other with my fingers. If it weren’t beauty maintenance, if I had more time and less to do, if it didn’t hurt, perhaps I could think of it as meditation or prayer. These fine knots slipping through my fingers like rosary.
I’ve got the wrong Mary. In my reading, I learned that it’s not mother-of-Jesus Mary covered in hair in these old paintings; it’s Mary Magdalene. The explanation for the hair is that she went to the desert to pray and was so devout in her worship that she lost all her vanity. She didn’t change her clothes, and so her veils grew thin and finally disintegrated into nothing. For modesty’s sake, God covered her in thick body hair.
This myth both fascinates and irritates me. A woman who wishes to devote herself to prayer or spirituality or anything other than maintaining her outward appearance is “blessed” by having her body covered in a hair suit? Why is God so worried about her modesty when she’s praying anyway? Presumably God doesn’t have a problem with our bodies, since God made them? And, she’s alone in the desert.
I admit, as a not-very-religious Jew, I’m fuzzy on the doctrine. But if God was ashamed of human bodies (or even specifically human bodies with breasts and vulvas) why wouldn’t God make them differently? Why would we be built by a creator to displease and shame? It doesn’t make sense to me, but I hear that religion is less about logic than faith.
This is not my God, and I know it, but I puzzle on the mythologies just the same.
This is the God who made Eve out of a man’s rib. This is the God who (according to some) believes in something called original sin. The mythologies about long hair, beauty, and power are probably older than Eve. Hair fetishists make up seven percent of the population. Some are aroused by body hair, some by head hair, and some by both. (For comparison, foot fetishists are estimated at fourteen percent of the population.)
Whether by socialization or because of some innate longing, I understand how long hair can be seductive. Historically, women letting their hair down was seen as an act of intimacy. A grown woman walking around with her hair down was assumed to be a whore. Long, loose hair is one of the strange details that twisted all the Marys together, not only in my mind, but in the minds of early Christians.
The gospels and surrounding literature contain several Marys, including Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Egypt. Then there are a bunch of unnamed women (including at least one prostitute who repented, but whose name was never given). Over time, various religious leaders (including Pope Gregory in year 591) interpreted the stories for their mostly illiterate congregations. In the mouths of men, Mary Magdalene went from the powerful, wealthy, and trusted woman at Jesus’s side to a repentant prostitute who fell in love with Jesus. As James Carroll wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, “Eventually, Magdalene, as a denuded object of Renaissance and Baroque painterly preoccupation, became a figure of nothing less than holy pornography, guaranteeing the ever-lustful harlot—if lustful now for the ecstasy of holiness—a permanent place in the Catholic imagination.” You can see this version of Magdalene in countless paintings, eyes cast upward, long, loose hair covering her otherwise scantily clad body.
My babysitter Heather had the first long hair I fell in love with. Long and blonde and straight, she used to let me play beauty salon with it for hours while my parents were out. Heather Crookston was in high school, and in my memory, she was beautiful like a 1980s television actor: blue eyes and pale skin and masses of long blonde hair. After Heather, there was Karin whose long, dark brown (nearly black) hair was in contrast to her sister Jessica’s waist-length red hair. They were teenagers and I, an awkward ten-year-old, would watch them get ready on summer nights, sitting cross-legged on the bed while they styled their hair in the bathroom, trading insults. I wanted to drown myself in their Herbal Essences shampoo and their pink-bottled hair spray that smelled like artificial strawberries. My aunt Lorrie had the only long hair in the family, which she sometimes kept closer to shoulder length, and other times let grow long and wild. As a child, I hoped that I would grow up to have hair like hers, but I have hair more like my mother’s: fine and wavy. Not the right texture for growing long.
When I was a tween, my mother’s best friend came to visit wearing a fall—a clip-in hairpiece that transformed her short, ordinary hair into spectacular 1980s video queen hair. She let me try it on, and wear it around the house, and later the neighborhood. In that hair, I felt more powerful, more like an adult, than I ever had in my life. I saw myself for the first time as potentially desirable, as on my way to something dazzling and sexy and womanly. I was the age when people would comment on what I would look like “in a few years.” I remember a lot of people’s warnings that I would be a heartbreaker, and jokes about shotguns. I remember being baffled that anyone saw beauty in me. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond this awkward preteen stage, where everything felt off and puffy and under-baked. But then, one afternoon, I put on that fall. It was like being given a peek into a future that I hadn’t been able to shape. It was like seeing myself grow with the flip of my head.
What strikes me about long, thick, shiny hair is that it, too, is laborious to maintain. There is work in growing hair, but it is only a small part of the labor. The brushing and washing, the braiding and detangling, the blowdrying and the smoothing—all of these pieces of maintenance and routine. Just like all that smooth, shaved skin. These symbols of femininity, these physical markers of whatever we think of as beautiful, take an incredible amount of time and energy (and products and patience and money) to maintain. They are status symbols as much as they are sex symbols or symbols of femininity. On some level, they signify leisure time, wealth—a sort of kept womanhood that requires a provider. It’s all long, shiny, loose hair in the commercials, after all. It’s not long hair pulled back in a severe bun, or braided tightly to keep from getting in the way. It’s long, loose, Magdalene-gazing-from-her-knees hair.
I cut my shoulder-length hair in October, all the way off to a unisex short bowl cut. I adore it; I feel like I found myself again. I’d been thinking about my short hair for years, honestly. It was the last hair style I had before I became a mother: pixie short. It suits my texture and my face, but for more than five years, I’ve told myself that I couldn’t have that haircut anymore because I was a mother now, and mothers have no time for themselves, no time to cut their hair. And also, before I was pregnant, I weighed less than I do now. I felt longing every time I saw one of those old pictures of me with the short hair. But I couldn’t tell if it was longing for that girl’s pre-parent life, or for that girl’s haircut, or for that girl’s body size. I was afraid to cut my hair and find out.
I gave up dieting for weight loss when my daughter was one. By doing that, I also gave up any real hope of fitting into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe. To be that size, I had to exercise every day and eat very little. I looked delicate, tossable. Everyone loved it. I was the most depressed I had ever been, obsessed with losing another five pounds to make a dumb numerical weight that I had once lied and put on my first driver’s license. I wanted to be child-sized, a blurred-together version of myself.
For a year after having my daughter, I could barely think beyond our survival. The pre-baby me was obliterated. Breastfeeding meant that I was hungry all the time, and having a small child meant that I rarely got to eat uninterrupted. I shoveled ready-made food into my mouth, didn’t cut my hair for a year, and stopped shaving anything at all. I was immersed in something, like Mary of Egypt (the fourth-century Mary who went to the desert to pray). I didn’t grow a Chewbacca suit of hair, but it would have been convenient if I had. I let myself go, and sometimes it felt like a sort of bliss, just me and my baby and whatever clothes I’d managed to pull from the bedroom floor.
Then, like a fever breaking, right after her first birthday, I recalled something that I used to be: a writer. With permission to redefine writing and my relationship to it, I began again. I wrote a piece called “Appetites,” and it was my first braided essay. I wrote about women and desire, about starving myself and feeding myself. I wrote about cheeseburgers, which had come to symbolize the indulgence, excessive pleasure, and the self love that I had been withholding.
I began walking alone, then running again. I threw out my scale. I read Health at Every Size and decided not to waste one more day on dieting. I looked back at those old pictures of me with the short hair, and I missed it, but I was still afraid to cut my hair. What if it resurrected that thirty-two-year-old girl who only wanted to be smaller, to be lovable? Who equated a clothing size with self confidence. Who cried every afternoon in bed for hours.
It’s been two months since my haircut, and I’m still swimming in joy. I wake up with bedhead that delights me. I adore those messy pieces of hair, rubbed fuzzy with my dreams. I like my bare neck, and I’m happy to never have a hair tie on me. I am not the same as I was the last time I wore my hair like this, and I’m grateful for that. I flick my hands through it and nothing tangles.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Leigh Hopkins. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.