Picture it. Sicily. 1912.
A six-year-old boy sits to have his picture taken, the three different plaids of his shirt, pants and clip-on tie competing with his houndstooth jacket, daring the camera to focus. His pudgy little hands are plopped in his lap. He smirks and scrunches his neck down like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. He dons brown and orange swirled horn-rimmed glasses, framed by the uneven, platinum bangs of a home-style bowl cut.
All right, so maybe it wasn’t Sicily in 1912. Maybe it was some podunk town in Massachusetts in the seventies. But I’m not lying about the glasses and the clothes. Or the bowl cut.
Somewhere around second grade, the bowl cut was replaced by the cow-licked comb-over, petrified into place with liberal amounts of Aqua Net – and occasionally by my mother’s spit.
Later grade school years saw me back in one version or another of the bowl cut. But, then – ah, then came high school.
My cousin Eric introduced me to the hair dryer. He also introduced me to products. It’s been downhill ever since, I tell you.
That first magical potion was known as mousse. I used Suave, which came in a metallic, purple canister with a push tip, delivering its contents much like whipped cream. Fascinating. Armed with my first product and a hairdryer, the zany journey for personal style had begun.
Now, my school had rules about hair. A boy’s hair was not allowed to touch his collar, his ears or his eyebrows. All of this was presumably based on some religious code backed by God somehow. I admit that I still do not quite understand why a universe-steering God would fret over my hair. But they assured me it was legitimate and worthy of much ado. I was actually disqualified from a music competition in seventh grade, during which I played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor on the piano nearly flawlessly. Judges notes simply said, “Hair touching eyebrows,” and I was given a score of zero. And so, as you can see (while perhaps not being able to comprehend), this posed a challenge for me regarding my hair.
But it was only a challenge, not a barrier.
If my hair couldn’t come downward, I’d send it upward. Closer to God. Armed with my hairdryer and my mousse, I felt drunken with the sheer sense of control. As if that weren’t enough, I soon discovered that mousse came in lots of fun strengths. Who needs firm hold when you can have ULTRA MEGA hold? The next year, for the same competition, my hair was not unlike Don King’s. Though frowned upon heavily, I could not technically be disqualified. Despite disparaging comments from judges, I won first place.
As I moved on to college, I’m not gonna lie – things got out of hand. There is one picture of me wearing a striped shirt from Chess King, a skinny tie, and a very Cosby-esque turquoise sweater. But no one really noticed the outfit, because my hair – was – enormous. The power of hair products and blow-drying had clearly gone to my head.
It was time for a change. And that change came by way of having my hair cropped tight on the sides, but spiked high on top and kind of longish in the back. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that it must have looked like a mullet. Well, it wasn’t. It was more of a … well, the kind of thing that someone like, maybe …
All right. Fine. I had a raging mullet.
You’ll be happy to know that it was soon replaced with a really gnarly surfer do. It fell just short of shoulder length all around, with the kind of bangs you had to continually swipe back with your fingers and tuck behind your ear, only to have it fall forward again the next time you budged. Or you could just use a sort of cool swish of your head to get it out of your eyes, as long as you kept your head tilted to one side, so that gravity worked with you. Best of all, while a hair dryer did facilitate things in the morning, I was saving tons of money, since product was no longer necessary. Unless you count shine spray, which just kind of gave you a nice gloss without hold. Or sea salt spray, which gave you that carefree, fresh-from-the-beach look.
Come to think of it, I guess I didn’t save that much money after all.
Well, the surfer do just wasn’t cutting it. I wanted more. More, do you hear me? And so I didn’t cut it. I let it grow. And grow. And grow – until it was down to my elbows. This could be worn straight down in back, or looped under itself with a hair elastic. I was frequently complimented by fawning females, all jealous of my silky, straight blondness. In addition, I received many comparisons to Wesley from The Princess Bride (with which I could not disagree). And to Fabio (with which I highly disagreed). After the thousandth time hearing, “Hey! ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter – SPRAY!’ ” I knew it was time to donate to a worthy cause.
Fabio bowed to Caesar – a very short Caesar cut, which was kind of like – well, kind of like back to a bowl cut. Only for cool kids. It made quite a splash after having been known for the luscious locks. And I liked it. But it seemed a lot of upkeep. And I was (and am) secretly enraged that I cannot – and never have been able to – grow sideburns. It is one of the banes of my existence, if you must know. And if I couldn’t look like Russell Crow in Gladiator, then really, what was the point?
Somewhere during the Caesar stage, the notion hit me that I wasn’t getting any younger. I looked at both of my brothers’ receding hairlines, and soon I found myself checking my own almost daily. A friend who cut my hair assured me that my hairline hadn’t changed in a decade, but I wasn’t so sure.
All of this fussing and fidgeting began to strike me as – too much somehow. Was my identity really that bound to my hair?
I wasn’t having it. And so, steel-jawed with determination, I marched into the barber shop and told them to shave it all off. And by off, I mean off. To the scalp. Bald.
I was pleased to know that my head was not nearly as lumpy and misshapen as I’d feared. What’s more, this drastic decision assured me that I really could deal with it, should I lose it all later in life. I was a free man. And this time – I really did save money on product. Not to mention time with the dryer.
The only problem was that people were now frequently expressing version of “You look scary, dude.” The best of these was “You look like a prisoner – only nicer.” And while I did enjoy the controversy over it for a while, I felt I’d proved my point. Hair would no longer rule me. It was time to grow on with my life.
Next came the short, spiky do. But shortly thereafter, when my then six-year-old niece honestly only called me by the name “Uncle Pointy Hair,” I decided to give Ryan Seacrest back his hair.
And dabble in color instead.
Call it what you will – bleaching, streaking, tipping. I guess I was just missing the platinum joys of youth. This sometimes involved wearing a strange, rubbery cap in public, and having my hair picked and pulled through tiny holes using an implement and technique not unlike making a latch-hook rug. On one particular visit, the bleach was left in too long. Suddenly, I was the worst of Rod Stewart. Mortified, I attempted to have color added back in. The technician called it “kind of auburn.” It was orange.
Round 2: Erik vs. the Buzzer.
Upon growing this out, I decided that a casual bed-head look was the way to go. Let it be known that getting good-looking “casual bead head” is a darned lot of work. I became reacquainted with my old friend, the dryer. And products! Oh, the products. Paste. Pomade. Fiber. It’s really more like making papier-mâché. I even had one product that came in a bottle like Elmer’s Glue. It was inventively named … Glue.
Recently, the messy look took an upsweep, into a sort of faux-hawk. But I’ve got a cut scheduled for 2:00 tomorrow. You never know what will happen.
What’s my point, in this trip down Rapunzel Lane?
Well, you really wouldn’t believe the difference in the way people have treated me based on my hair. I alluded to some in the commentary above. But there were those who would tug my longer hair and ask in a mildly condescending voice when I was going to get it cut. Some people even told me it was a sin, and that I didn’t seem like the type of person who would want to sin.
Some people got scared of me when I shaved my head, looking at me sideways or pulling their children closer and walking a bit more quickly. In the other direction.
And bleaching was for women. Or movie stars. Not regular guys.
But did my changes in hair really change who I am?
Why do we deem people more or less worthy of our attention or respect or love because of their hair? Or their clothes? Because of ink or piercings that mark their skin? Because of the type of car they drive or the model cell phone they own? Because of the words they choose in order to express themselves or their choice of how to best follow their dream in life?
I guess what I’m getting at is, why can’t we see past the superficial to the soul?
Seeing souls takes intention. It takes admitting that we are part of a system that, by default, does not see the soul. It takes then making deliberate choices to break free of that system. To rage against the tide of it. To all but ignore the wrappings, in favor of doing the harder work of finding out what is inside.
And once we are able to really see people – and not merely hair – all of those outer accoutrements begin to look different. They begin to look less like barriers and more like art.