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  • My Life with Hair
  • Elaine Neil Orr (bio)

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Figure 1.

Photograph by Julka M.

[End Page 8]

Hair is the most important thing you wear.

Hair Salon Banner, Atlanta, Georgia, 1983

March 2006. I'm sitting in a hot tub at Well of Mercy Catholic Retreat Center in Hamptonville, North Carolina, under a full moon. I got in on this chilly night hoping to drift further away from the anxieties that prompted me to retreat: the regular stack of ungraded papers, a botched repair job in my kitchen, a spat with a friend. I'm a person who received pancreas and kidney transplants six years ago, and I'm easily fatigued. My mother is elderly, our country is at war—there's enough to be concerned about. But what [End Page 9] I'm thinking of at the moment is my hair. If I sit too long in this hot tub my scalp will begin to sweat, producing oils that will wick onto my hair, and I'll have to redo it in the morning, a complex task. I want, instead, to take a walk in the woods.


A prelude to my life with hair: I am perched on a stool on the back porch of Rose Cottage, the abode of some missionary "aunts" in Nigeria, where I was born. I'm afraid Aunt Emma is going to cut my bangs too short. She does. This crisis is one of my earliest memories.

My life with hair began in earnest in the United States in 1960, a "furlough" year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This is how my missionary parents' lives were patterned: three years in Nigeria, a year "at home." Of course for me things were different. I was at home in Nigeria and visiting in the U.S.

I turned six in Winston-Salem, and my mother decided my older sister and I should get permanents; that's what I think I remember. But my sister says no. She got a permanent; I did not. I do know with certainty that at night, Mother turned my short tresses around her finger and fixed each lock with a bobby pin while I sat at her feet in "our" living room that was not really ours. These were sweet moments of physical comfort.

We progress to my seventh year, back in Nigeria, when I refused to get a haircut just before a big missionary convention. My mother threatened to hang a sign around my neck saying, "Mother not responsible for hair." I didn't get my hair cut, and my mother did not hang the sign around my neck. She must have realized that she would not look any better for her effort. Soon enough I decided short was better because I was hot, and then I forgot about my hair for two years. During that period in Nigeria, petroleum was being discovered not far from my backyard, but I didn't pay attention when seismographers came onto the compound. In that prepubescent moment between ages seven and nine, I was largely indifferent to adult goings-on.

I washed my hair once a week, or my mother did, often in the cool, clear waters of the Ethiope River, where we took our exercise in the afternoons. It dried on the way home, as we rode in our station wagon with the windows down, back through all the villages we had passed on the way coming. The only position I took regarding my hair was a plea—always—that my bangs not be sheared, exposing my long forehead. This sensitivity constituted the sum total of my investment in my hair, which was bright blond from hours spent outdoors under a tropical sun with my one friend, David. I paid no more attention to my hair than he did to his. We spent days constructing miniature mud villages on a [End Page 10] concrete wall or hunting "wild" animals, often no larger than snails, or staging our "Olympics," racing up and down the compound roads. At every possible opportunity, we needled our parents to take us to the river, where we swam ourselves into...


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