April 2004

Liz Miller

nonfiction

Rapunzel's Daughters by Rose Weitz

In the eighth grade, I got pretty much the worst haircut of my entire life. My mom is always quick to point out that the stylist did the best she could, given my inability to express what I wanted -- but my vagueness lead the stylist to assume that what I wanted was a femullet with bangs, my hair's natural curliness encouraged to form a poofy blonde haze around my skull. Maybe this was a popular look in the mid-90s. It was not a popular look with me.

I've tried my best to repress the memories of that haircut, but they ended up dogging me throughout every page of Rose Weitz's Rapunzel's Daughters. For, every time I wanted to scoff "Oh, come on -- hair really isn't that important" I had to remember what it felt like to realize what I'd done to my hair -- and feeling my thirteen-year-old sense of self crumble with shame.

Weitz's survey of how hair fits into femininity, from past to present, covers all the bases -- getting it cut, getting it dyed, having it straightened, adding curls, even losing it partially or completely. Invoking the Rapunzel fairy tale -- wherein hair was not only the heroine's most attractive feature, but a valuable tool that lured a rescuer and provided escape -- Weitz posits that hair is the way we as woman represent ourselves to the world, using follicles as self-expression and salvation.

To prove her point, Weitz uses historical facts, then shifts to interviews with women the world over regarding their life stories as told by their hair. The first section, focusing on the history of the issue, proved to be fairly engrossing. Hair-covering rituals among Muslim and Orthodox Jews, Native American girls being shorn of their traditional braids while attending English-conversion schools -- hundreds of years bearing witness to the practice of using a woman's hair to gain power over her.

But while the shift from the elaborate updo's imprisoning the French aristocracy to easy-maintenance hair-bobbing maintains this clear focus, later chapters, based on interviews and observations of women and their hair, fail to really build on the original points made.

The growth of the hair-care industry and the social aspects of haircutting, especially the way beauty salons can become a woman's social circle, are well-covered. And the stories of Susan, the American Muslim who finds liberation in putting on a hijab and veil, and LaDonna, who grew uncomfortable with the way her long wavy hair stood out in her African-American community, gave me a new perspective on these cultures. But the majority of the stories told in Rapunzel's Daughters seem to run along the same lines -- "I disliked my life, I made a hairstyle change, I liked my life again" -- and while I can appreciate the excitement of choosing a new look, it's disturbing to see how focused we as a gender are on this one issue.

For being one of Rapunzel's daughters seems to mean a lifetime of viewing one's hair as an escape from the prisons we find ourselves in, whether those prisons be low self-esteem, a disastrous breakup, or a life fallen into a rut. The problem with that is the extreme emphasis on appearance over, y'know, everything else. Using hair as a means of self-expression is one thing, but using it as a method of self-improvement is another. Appearance is a factor in every interpersonal relationship, of course, but that doesn't mean that we have to play into this system of extreme objectification.

As an analysis of the culture surrounding hair, Rapunzel's Daughters is an engrossing read, the passive acceptance of the standards by which the world judges a woman is more than a little disquieting. The history of humanity, Weitz ably shows, has been moving towards the reclamation of a woman's control over her body. But now that we've gained that control, isn't it time we focused on other issues -- like how to change the system that makes us think good hair is what really matters?

Rapunzel's Daughters by Rose Weitz
Farrar Straus & Girroux
ISBN: 0374240825
288 Pages