When I was in my early twenties, I told a therapist I had stupid-hair.
As she leaned back and studied me, her swivel chair gave a little squeak. “Do I have stupid-hair?”
She was close to sixty and her short, curly hair looked how I thought it should. Unobtrusive.
She nodded, a silent version of the classic therapist I see. “Does anyone else you know have stupid-hair?”
“No,” I admitted.
I launched into a description of my daily bouts of hair envy. That morning, traveling to our session on the bus, I sat behind a woman with an amazing waterfall of auburn curls. Across from me was an Asian woman whose smooth cropped hair framed her face perfectly. Meanwhile, my plain brown hair remained its indecisive self. Not that I found anything wrong with other people’s wavy hair; just mine was awful. One side curled up at the bottom like a 1960’s flip while the other side curled down in a kind of frown. Once in awhile, I’d try fixing it with a blow dryer, but all I managed to do was reverse which side did what.
My therapist tilted her head and gazed at me like a beautician about to suggest a new hairstyle. Instead she asked, “How do you feel about your disability?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think about it much.”
“You’ve never felt self-conscious about your . . .” She paused, clearly searching for as delicate a phrase as possible. “. . . gait?”
“I see it as a screening device,” I told her. “Anyone who doesn’t like me because I walk with a limp isn’t worth knowing.”
“That’s a great attitude.” She checked her watch and sat forward, her clue to me that our time was almost up. “I just can’t help thinking that maybe your insecurity about hair is really a redirection of your feelings about being disabled.”
I opened my mouth to protest but, before I could, she stood up.
“I like it.” She held the door for me.
“Like what?” I asked, distracted by her sudden focus on my cerebral palsy.
“Your hair. I think it’s pretty.”
The following Saturday, I woke up with an especially bad case of bed-head. My hair managed to look both frizzy and flat at the same time. I walked to Union Square Park and wandered the stalls of the farmer’s market. A woman with gorgeous dreadlocks sold me a bottle of thick apple cider. I bought farm fresh strawberries from someone who wore her gleaming black hair in a bun. A teenage girl, who somehow managed to look great in a green Mohawk, flew past me on a skateboard as I paid a woman with striking blonde streaks in her ponytail for a loaf of homemade banana bread.
My next stop was the pharmacy. While I was browsing the shampoo isle, I spotted a home perm kit which pictured a lovely ringleted woman on the front. Beside it was a straightening kit that showed a woman with long, silky hair.
Wow. Which way to go?
I imagined striding confidently through Manhattan streets with a head full of bouncing curls. Then I envisioned tossing a sleek mane behind me as I threw my head back and laughed.
This is ridiculous, I said aloud. I left both boxes on the shelf and walked out.
A new surge of hair envy hit me instantly. The beautiful spring weather had crowded the streets with equally beautiful women. Thick French braids. Casual upsweeps. Golden blond locks. Jet black strands with peacock blue highlights. All of it shining in the sun.
Then I saw her. Her hip length red hair looked striking against her pale skin. She wore dark, almost black lipstick. And she walked like me.
I trailed her as she window-shopped down small Greenwich Village streets. Standing still before a store window, she could be any attractive young woman. Then she’d move, one stiff leg swinging in an arc, the other following with a natural heel toe step. There was a rhythm to it. If I ignored my critical mind that viewed her walk as detracting from her beauty, I could think of it as a kind of dance.
Maybe the same was true of me. Maybe the uniqueness of my walk could be seen as either flaw or asset depending on, well…the proverbial eye of the beholder.
The idea was very affirming. In the following weeks, I noticed pretty women with disabilities everywhere. A dark eyed beauty in flowing skirts tooling around Manhattan in an electric wheelchair. A petite waif in lace leaning on Canadian crutches. A blind woman with an arresting smile. And just as my therapist predicted, I stopped taking other women’s hair quite so personally.
I didn’t give much thought to my own hair either. In fact, for the next decade, I kept it really short and collected a wonderful array of dangly earrings. Within those ten years I had my son. When Ethan was eighteen months old, I held him on my lap, marveling at how the golden flecks of his hair had grown into thick beautiful waves. I recalled my mother telling me, on more than one occasion, how she never noticed what a nice shape she had until she saw her own figure on me. I wondered if my wavy hair was actually as nice as Ethan’s. Maybe I should grow it out and see.
But short hair was easy to care for, which meant a lot while I was busy chasing a toddler. Plus I could bring out my earring collection again now that Ethan was passed his pull-everything-you-see phase.
When Ethan was four, I was single again and dating. My boyfriend at the time expressed a preference for long hair. I decided to let mine grow. It took awhile and I nearly lopped it off several times as it went through various dreadful in-between phases. Finally, my hair reached my shoulders.
It looked great. The waves gave it fullness and body. The rich brown complimented my dark eyes and the new length highlighted my good bone structure. It occurred to me that I was actually kind of pretty.
I thought of my old therapist suggesting I transferred my feelings about disability onto my hair. Back then, I chose to focus on my waves being asymmetrical rather than my body. It amazed me that the mind could work that way.
I took a few steps toward the full length mirror. There was something nice about my way of moving. An awkward grace. Doe-like.
“Mommy,” Ethan’s voice startled me. Moments earlier, he’d been in his room building an elaborate structure out of Legos. Now he stood watching me.
I felt like I’d been caught doing something mischievous. “Hi.”
“Mommy,” he gave my image in the mirror a stern look. “When you walk, it looks sort of . . .”
Ethan paused and I braced myself for his chosen adjective. Kids aren’t exactly kind when it comes to noting people’s differences.
“Sort of what, Honey?” I prompted, ready to get it over with. So much for feeling good about myself.
“Wavy,” he finished. “You walk sort of wavy.”
I had to smile. Quite a nice smile, I noticed in the mirror.
“Wavy,” I repeated. “That’s me.”