A number of readers commented on last month’s post about hair. It’s interesting to me that most reached out to me in private. Here are some of the comments I received:
So I just read your blog post quickly. I know you don’t like stereotypes (who does?), but I can’t resist telling you that I thought you were Jewish the first time I met you. And it did have something to do with your hair, but also with your way of being. I love Jewish-looking hair myself and wish I had it! Sorry if I’m being lazy in this short cut.
Loved the post!
My response: Thanks. I wonder, too if there can be some sort of recognition of ethnicity/culture–a reading of multiple clues such as hair, gestures, etc. Whatever it is, I don’t believe it can be a simple reading of physiology. Regardless, I wear my hair proudly!
Another reader: I had to respond to what you said. Growing up Jewish, I knew/was told that Jewish hair was different. I could never (nor could any of my family or friends) wear the straight bob. I always wanted Veronica Lake’s hair. Straight, just hung there, no body. (You may not know who Veronica Lake was, but if you go on the internet you would probably get a picture of her.) I had thick hair – not curly. It is only recently with all the straighten products that one can have that straight look. I, and all my friends, had our hair thinned. We certainly wanted to look like the movie stars. Straight hair, small noses. I never thought it was a way to stereotype someone. It just was the way it was. Didn’t all young girls want to look like the movie stars? I was grateful when Barbra Streisand became famous. Although she never had the “Hollywood” image she was glamorous, which kind of made the big nose, thick hair seem more acceptable.
The question I occasionally ask myself – Why growing up didn’t we question any of this and just accepted it?
Interesting that we both used Veronica Lake as our archetype for hair. She was thinking of this:
When I referred to Veronica Lake, I was thinking of soft, luxurious curls like this:
More than likely, any wave in Veronica Lake’s hair was added with curlers.
And an exchange with a third reader who is not Jewish, but has full, curly hair: A wonderful essay that resonates with many things I’ve heard about my hair my whole life. You know, in Poland I had always been told I had beautiful hair. Then I came to the US at 18 and was surprised to hear that my hair was “frizzy” and apparently in need of stuff(s) that would get rid of that undesirable quality. I was thinking to myself then: “What? My hair is unusual [in Poland] and great, it’s crazy to say that anything about it should be “fixed.” But in the US, it sounded like in that particular situation (I’m talking about one person) my hair was seen as almost African-American or something. Then I realized “frizzy” was a concept here; it had never been in Poland, at least not in the Poland of my youth and childhood (where there were almost no “products” whatsoever to begin with).
My response: That’s really interesting. I think you know I’ve always loved your untamed hair. You are from the generation that was tired of the relative homogeneity of Polish culture, and would find your amazing ringlets exotic and beautiful. And it’s really interesting to learn that “frizzy” is an American concept. It’s definitely something I grew up trying to control.
Her response: I mean we have had ways to talk about thick wavy hair that’s out of control, and these days there are definitely “products” for “frizzy” hair sold in Poland (I wondered last summer at a Rossmann how many people actually buy them in Poland…). But in Polish I think these expressions are somehow more colorful/funny and they seem to refer to the state of unruly curly hair–at a particular moment–, not as a permanent feature that always should be controlled (not that I want to overanalyze it). So in my high school times you used to say “szopa” (“a barn”: meaning your hair looks like a bunch of straw stored together in a barn) or “jakby piorun strzelil w rabarbar” which translates into “as if a thunderbolt went through a piece of rhubarb”). But these expressions were somehow less definitive and diagnostic than “frizzy.”
Another reader recommended the book Coiffure to me, which is about the social significance of women’s hair in 19th century France. The review notes: “Hair, it turns out, is quite a bit more complex than it would seem, linked as it was to concepts such as ideal beauty, respectability, fashion, sexuality and even nostalgia.”
So yes. Hair seems to be wrapped up in our sense of identity, of being “like” some people and not like others. But these things aren’t fixed, either. Sometimes we feel compelled to do things with it so that we better fit Hollywood images, or what others tell us we should be like, or how we imagine ourselves (ideally) to be. And sometimes it’s good to just appreciate what we have.
Okay, this truly is an interesting discussion. I don’t think I really have ever had a discussion about “Jewish” hair….noses, yes, opinions, yes but hair….that one is news to me other than the possibility of hair color. Certainly there are the depictions in caricatures with the Jewish individual with black curly unruly hair, a kippah, and hooked nose. There is also history and art with depictions of Jewish individuals with red hair and some say that was relevant or an overt tie to red herring or scarlet letter of sorts. Funny, though, in all my existence and my personal many experiences concerning stereotyping or directly and indirectly with anti-Semitism, do I recall someone referring to “Jewish” hair. I also mentioned it to my dad, and he does not recall it either in his existence. Frankly, had to google it! Learn something new everyday! I am reminded of a comment someone said to me recently at my high school reunion. I do think there are cultural and regional influences about all. Even in New York, I was rarely characterized as Jewish by my appearance. I often chalked that up to my name, Kim, which is not a very typical Jewish name and, of course, our last name with the O’L….most folks don’t get to the ‘sky’ part and even fewer appreciate the Eastern European linkages. When we moved to Florida, not Miami but the West Coast, it was completely different as well. In high school, I don’t recall anyone asking much less assuming I was Jewish. Even to today and back to the reunion, most assumed I was Greek or Italian (of course, both of those are Nationalities which makes sense as you know I balk at the inclusion of “Jewish” as an ethnic or nationality distinction versus a religion). Part of the reason folks assumed I was Greek or Italian was my closed friends were that and I “looked” the part – in two of my friends cases, I looked more stereotypically Greek then they did with my dark hair and they both had light brown or blonde hair. Such irony, right? So at the reunion, our class president, who happens to be Jewish and a friend, said “you have a lot of Jewish groups on your FB page, can I ask why?” I replied, because I am a MOT. He chuckled and said, “you’re kidding! Smart, beautiful and a MOT – how did I miss that.” We both smiled at the comment but it hit home on a number of points. Frankly, most who meet him likely would have no doubt guessing/assuming his affiliation. He has the curly brown not black hair, larger than average nose, nasal tonality in his speech etc. One last item to share. When one of my friends daughter was being baptized in the Greek Church, there was a visiting Priest from Greece. The designated Godmother was late and my friend asked if I would step in. The Greek ceremony is beautiful with lots of symbolism and pageantry. I was doing my best to follow along and do what I was supposed to do but given my ignorance to the protocol, the Priest was becoming more and more frustrated. He mumbled many times through out how this generation of Americans were so disrespectful not learning the ways and demonstrating our commitment to the Church and associated learnings. Funny thing was he assumed I was Greek. He continued his comments through the brunch afterward. My friend and her parents were having a great chuckle at my expense with how he was admonishing me even though I wasn’t Greek and didn’t tell him till the event was almost over. We all had a great laugh but it does punctuate what and where our nurtured or learned assumptions seemingly naturally take us. Thank you as always for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts as well as the appreciating our additional commentary.
Marysia Galbraith said:
It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this. And I appreciate your point about how ambiguous looks can be as a marker of belonging in any group. BTW, thank goodness for the Internet. I had to look up what MOT means.
Marysia Galbraith said:
And I just followed your lead and googled “Jewish hair.” I found this interesting blog entry: Berkenwald, Leah. “What is Jewish hair?.” 26 October 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on October 12, 2015) .
Well, you are a MOT – member of the tribe! I should have written that out not sure how I missed that. Fun find on the blog and even the comments re: Chris Rock. In thinking more about this last night, it triggered a childhood memory, When we were younger and my hair was straight and thin. I was so I awe of your glowing locks. I must have been whining about it as I recall I often did since my mom kept me in that pixie cut, but clearly remember your grandmother commenting that I should be happy my hair was like it was. It is actually one of my vivid memories and I remember being perplexed. I even asked my mom what she meant. In our musings here, I have to wonder if it was related in anyway related to this topic.