Hair Ghazal: An Essay

Hair Ghazal: An Essay by Traci Brimhall

Though it began as a medieval custom to provide keepsakes from a funeral, it was the Victorians who showed the most creative devotion to their dead by crafting jewelry and art from their loved ones’ locks. For a brief time, people adorned their living rooms and parlors with a peculiar sentimental mortality—flowers and lyres and memento mori made from the family’s hair.


Not all families think hair is a memorial; for some it is a tool for survival. In one of Grimm’s fairytales, “All Kinds of Fur,” a princess must escape her father’s plans to marry her (because the king says he will only wed someone as beautiful as his dead queen, and the only one that outrageously lovely is his own daughter) by setting her father impossible tasks by which to prove his love for her, while she hides from him in a cloak of fur, because what could hide her sinful beauty but a pile of animal hair?


When I was young, I was blonde and wild and I talked my sister into playing lions in the fresh mud with me. She ran home early and changed, but I sauntered home in my feline glory, and my mother took a picture of this as she laughed through her anger: me on the peeling steps of our home in what looks like mid-roar and my sister in a clean green tank top, trying to hide what she’d done, forgetting the clumps of joyful mud still clinging to her hair.


In Peter Arrell Browne’s Trichologia mammalium (1853) he outlines properties and uses of boar bristles, sheep’s wool, armadillo keratin growth, as well as his assessment of human hair and his collection from the scalps of presidents. He says the dislike of redheads is the fault of Esau; that blondes are associated with feebleness and luxury; and that black hair is most often associated with strength, yet it took 1,323 grains to break a single strand of E. Hale, the Quaker Giant’s, brown hair.


I think Samson wanted to be betrayed, his downfall growing out of a sentimental sadism, because why else would he have told Delilah the truth? He’d already told her three lies and watched her try to bind him with bowstrings and ropes and weave his curls in a loom, and then he soothed her ecstatic rage when he freed himself (and really, this is a common sin in desire—to wound someone so you can heal them), so Samson knew what was coming when he fell asleep in Delilah’s lap and told her the key to his lion-killing strength was his long and untouched hair.


At 21 I thought vanity might help me climb mountains for 2,000 miles, so I shaved my head when I started hiking the Appalachian Trail. I walked through snow storms and spring; walked past tracks in the snow and a week later found mayapples; walked until my shoes split and I could brush salt from my thighs where the day’s sweat cooled into crystals; walked and pleasured in my own resilience; walked because I was young and excess appeals to youth; walked states and miles, but didn’t make 2,000, only long enough to grow an inch of hair.


The largest recorded bezoar was taken out of an 18-year-old American girl. Usually a trichobezoar will occur in ruminant animals, such as cows, but humans with trichophagia will compulsively consume their own hair and sometimes carpet, eating and eating until the bezoar is the shape of their stomach and they start to show signs of Rapunzel syndrome which was the case for the American girl who was relieved of the suffering she’d caused herself, was cut open and from her abdomen they lifted (like an overly large fetus) ten pounds of hair.


Like so many pregnant women, I was suspicious of everything I ate and did, assumed every meal a threat, every dream an omen, and since I believed knowledge could guard my child and me from harm, I researched everything—from ancient midwife recommendations for carrots and honeysuckle and against strawberries, to the old practice of soaking Bible verses and swallowing them to prevent sirenomelia. I tried all fifty old wives’ tales I found for determining the sex of the baby—studied my cravings, diagnosed whether I carried high or low, charted morning sickness, until I got the answer I wanted by hanging my wedding ring over my stomach from a noose of my own hair.


Many fairytales begin with dangerous births or, in the case of Rapunzel, with a sinister craving for someone else’s vegetables. What never astonishes anyone about that tale is what a man will trade his daughter for, or that an old woman could be so lonely she would listen to her neighbors’ sobs while she raised their daughter in secret, or that another man would be such a damn fool for beautiful curls, or that a girl’s tears could be so powerful they could heal a punishment administered by a witch—only that it was a wonder how a girl could grow such magical, sturdy, impossibly long hair.


Although wreaths and lyres made of brown flowers interrupted by silver buds were the most popular Victorian hair art, many popular arrangements of graveyard tableaux were crafted in glass domes or shadow boxes, long blonde strands woven into a willow’s timeless weeping. Mourning inspired the imagination of jewelers who created books with ornate commercial offerings and of the homespun handicrafters using thread work, palette work, table work, and dissolution to weave and brush and cut messages of virtue from absent beloveds’ hair.


After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, a hairdresser noticed the water around otters seemed cleaner than the rest, and with a kiddie pool and clippings from his barbershop created a boom to keep the oil from spreading to beaches. When BP spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, schoolchildren cleaned out their brushes, churches passed around old nylons for people to donate their pet fur, because all it takes to clean up a quart of black oil staining the sinless sea is a pound of hair.


My mother would never leave a movie theater without reapplying her lipstick, saying, “I need to put my lips back on,” and I could never open Christmas presents without her applying mascara and blush because she didn’t want photographs of her without makeup on. I knew she would be mortified by the way she looked at her funeral; I’d done my best to find a lipstick that matched her sweater but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t curl her hair.


The National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences does not require any licensing for a hairdresser to work on the deceased, only a license to practice cosmetology in the state where they are helping prepare the deceased for viewing. Noella Papagno helped start desairology, or the study of how to best style deceased people to appear more like their living selves, creating more classes in cosmetology schools across the country for the field; though when she died in 2017, her obituary did not mention who she asked to be the final stylist of her hair.


In another fairytale, “Bearskin,” the devil makes a deal with a man in which he must wear a bearskin and not bathe for seven years, and if the man dies the devil gets his soul, which seems like such an odd bargain from the devil, though I admire that his approach is a game and requires consent. The man agrees and wanders unhappily in his filth but after seven years, the devil cleans him and sets him on the road with a pocket full of coins, where he returns to marry a girl he’d met in his furry travels, and her sisters (seeing the beastly wanderer transformed into such a handsome man, the moral, perhaps, not to judge others for how well they are coiffed) kill themselves over what they’ve lost, and the devil returns to the man to say he got two souls for the price of one and runs his cloven hand through his neatly trimmed hair.


Mine is nothing to swoon over or die for, but perhaps I feel that way since no one has called my own lovely, and I’ve either been with women whose hair knots and tangles in my fingers, or men with tight curls I could barely get my hands in or short bristles that felt like fur. The one I love now is losing his and he looks devout, as bare as a confessed shame and therefore dear to me, his scalp a dangerous white that was once hidden by hair.


In the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia I learn that the commercialization of sentiment through hair jewelry ended with WWI, though it doesn’t say why it became no longer fashionable to grieve so publicly and lavishly, how the moral hierarchy of emotion shifted away from grief. I’m not sorry that I didn’t keep a lock of my mother’s, and though I love the world more than God and understand we can prize a made thing more than the maker, I’d still like to request it of my own death—that someone might want to make something of my body, to learn an old art, to make a crown of unfading flowers from my gloriously ordinary hair.

Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon); Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), winner of the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and Best American Poetry, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Review, Georgia Review, The Normal School and Brevity.