I have a love/hate relationship with the hair on my head. I hated it for most of my childhood and adolescence. I was super envious of the curls that many of the other girls in my Jewish school had. My hair was thin and mousy brown. Mousy. I remember seeing that word in the book “Jennifer Murdley’s Toad,” an awesome piece of young adult fiction. The main character, Jennifer Murdley, was chubby and had mousy brown hair, just like me. Of course, the girl on the cover was thin and blonde. I loved the book anyways.
The summer after I graduated high school, I dyed my hair bright red. I had intended on highlights, and got the cap method instead of foils because of price. My hair was thin enough that is pretty much just looked solid red. Bright red. The color of a good, ripe tomato. My hair stayed red throughout most of college. When I got lazy, it grew back out to brown. But I always loved it red. With bright red hair (as well as the blue, green, purple, and orange that followed), I could be noticed. With mousy brown hair, I was plain and shy, the fat girl who hid in the corner. But I couldn’t hide when my hair made me stand out.
Around age 21, I started thinking about covering my head full time. Traditionally, in Judaism, men cover their heads. Those are the little caps that people associate with Jewish events. Many religiously observant men wear them everywhere. Some also wear hats or other head coverings, depending on the sect. I’ve heard a number of explanations for this practice: it’s a reminder that there’s something higher than you; it’s a public statement of Jewishness; it’s a safeguard against vanity. As an egalitarian Jew, one who believes that requirements should not generally differ between men and women, I felt conflicted. My beliefs said that I should cover my head. It seemed incredibly simple. But I didn’t want to wear a kippah. I didn’t have the energy to challenge gender norms in that way.
Non-Jews, if they’ve seen people wearing kippot, have usually only seen them on men and tend to ask lots of questions. Many people, especially non-egalitarian Jews, assume that women who take on historically male rituals and garments are simply doing it for attention or to make a statement. I wanted neither, but covering my head seemed like an important affirmation of my Judaism and my egalitarianism. I thought about wearing hats or scarves or bandanas, but there was another problem: historically, the only women who covered their heads were ones who were married. I was looking to date, and didn’t want to have people interpret my action that way. I also didn’t want people to think that I believed that women had to have their hair covered, and I very much differentiate between head covering and hair covering.
And, though I hated to admit it, part of it was vanity. I loved my brightly-colored hair and didn’t want to cover it up. So I didn’t.
But when Mr. Ruggedly-Handsome and I were a couple months away from getting married, I revisited the issue (Mr. R-H has been asked not to be referred to as Mr. Shoshie because he thinks that Shoshie is a weird alias– no accounting for taste). I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about signaling that I was single because, well, I wouldn’t be, and hadn’t been for quite a while. I knew I wasn’t going to cover my hair, for the aforementioned reasons. And, after having a long conversation with a friend who had recently started covering her head, I realized that vanity wasn’t a good enough reason for me, anymore.
When I mentioned my decision to Mr. R-H, he asked me why. And I told him that, in all other ways, we were observant Jews. But not in this one, and I thought it was important. He decided to start wearing a kippah full time. We’d both start after wedding. I bought a bunch of thick headbands, headscarves, fascinators, and awesome hats. I looked up ways to tie up the headscarves, and brainstormed haircuts that would allow me to show off my brightly colored hair while still covering my head sufficiently (traditionally, a covering as least the size of your fist). These days, I feel weird if I don’t have my head covered, at least if I’m not at the gym or hanging out around the house. It’s become a part of my daily uniform.
These days, I have another reason for favoring my head coverings: my already-fine hair has become even thinner. It’s possible that it’s been due to stress or my recent ill health, but female pattern baldness runs in my family, so it’s definitely possible that my hair will continue to thin until I barely have enough to cover my head. I’ve thought a lot about how I’m going to respond when/if this happens. Will I wear a wig? Will I shave my head? Will I just wear lots of hats and scarves? Should I continue dying my hair? It may make my hair fall out faster, but it brings me a lot of happiness in the meantime.
I’ve probably cried more over this hair issue than any of the others that I’ve brought up.
Mr. R-H tries to cheer me up by saying that we’ll lose our hair together, but it’s not the same. He can lose his hair and still feel like a man. How can I lose my hair and still feel like a woman? We don’t have any cultural tropes for this, because women are supposed to have hair on their heads.
For the time being, I’m ignoring it. I’m wearing my hats and my headbands. I have a box of red hair dye sitting on my bathroom counter. My hair may not be the curly locks that I craved when I was 10, but it’s doing OK for me now. As for the future, well, I’ll try as best as I can to build my own story.