Fluff piece: In Defense of Good Hair Days in the Time of Coronavirus // The Paradox of the Masks We Wear
I don’t know why this feels like a confession, but in the 6th week of quarantine, I still put on mascara and do my hair every day.
I could say it’s because I have a demanding daily agenda of essential online meetings with major celebrities and foreign dignitaries needing their Yoga for the Creative Life fix, but that wouldn’t be strictly true.
I do have a lot of Google Hangouts of the yoga, creative, and chiefly, happy-hour-at-noon variety, but they’re not the real reason I’m pandemic primping—back to that in a minute.
It is true, however, that all the hours subtly scrutinizing my appearance through the warped fun house window of the webinar are causing me to see myself in a new and merciless light.
To soften the blow, I ordered one of those LED ring light thingies that goes around your phone and makes you glow from within like a very pretty alien. I haven’t even used it yet, but I knew I had to buy it because all of a sudden every ad in my Instagram feed was for one brand or another of those lights, and even if I resent being spied upon, I can take a hint.
These are terrifying economic times, but based on my experience in the FaceTime hot seat, there are several businesses, besides ring lights, I think we can say with confidence will be booming when lockdown ends.
Plastic surgeons, for sure, are about to make a killing. The angularity and asymmetry of my jaw, I was used to. But how in 48 years had I never noticed, until Quarantine Zoom made it so alarmingly clear, that my eyelids are entirely different shapes? Even now I can barely detect it in the mirror, but in my little square of the Brady Bunch grid, I look like Rocky Balboa in the 14th round.
Maybe when this is all over, I should have that fixed. Can they do just one eye? And if so, which one should I do? Should I have the one lowered or the other lifted? To complicate matters, the eye I prefer is on my least favorite jaw side. So I now I don’t know which way to casually tilt my head for the camera on video calls!
Orthodontists. That’s another one.
My mom is an artist and home décor aficionado with an infallible eye for the perfectly chipped pot or re-purposeable rusted iron farm tool—a veritable good witch of wabi-sabi. From a very early age she taught me a valuable and affirming lesson about imperfection:
“Things are always more beautiful when they’re a bit wonky,” she said.
Also this: “A little overbite is adorable, so grin big. There's no substitute for a smile and two coats of mascara.”
And that is all lovely and my whole life it has helped me embrace my offbeat charms. Even to celebrate them in carefully curated Instagram photos.
Seriously though, why in the name of all that is holy did they not put braces on me? Because now I know that when I talk on camera, the more I smile, the more I look like I’m struggling to hold my teeth in my mouth. Just the faintest fish-eye of a laptop lens and my toothy grin starts to look less Meredith Baxter and more Mister Ed in pink lip balm, and no amount of Great Lash can distract me from it as we virtually converse.
Thank goodness I have my homemade surgical mask.
You will say you do not notice those things, and God bless you, I’m grateful. But I’m also grateful for Vaseline to smear on the lens.
The truth is, though, this isn’t, at its core, about how I look on camera. Or how I appear to you.
Long before a global pandemic locked us down and turned our neuroses up to 11, I often felt like the only thing standing between me and a totally thrown in towel was a proverbial good hair day.
To stay happy and sane, day-to-day, I need to:
- be creative,
- feel productive
- move my body
What each of those entails on a given day varies, but I have a much better shot at success if I give myself a head start by doing a few basic things that make me look and feel pulled together.
There’s no question I’m vain, I’ll own that. But it’s also what helps me call upon my best self.
And I think I’ve begun to understand something larger—personally, artistically—about how I move through the world from an extended period of not being able to move through the world.
A few years ago a writer friend and I were discussing the challenges of juggling creative life and motherhood. She asked me what I really needed, day-to-day, to keep writing, keep the creative juices flowing. I know she is a true friend because, instead of laughing at my answer and judging me shallow and silly, she affirmed it as truly essential.
I didn’t ask for a room of one’s own, a financial windfall, 8 uninterrupted hours a day, fancy pens, a new computer, or a personal chef (don’t get me wrong, any or all those things would be helpful—please send)
What I said was: red nail polish.
I was sort of half kidding. But only sort of, and only half.
I discovered years ago that I write better when I have a nice manicure. But it took me a long time to figure out why.
An artist’s life is full of failed attempts and torn-up drafts, hours and days of spinning your wheels, working all the time and having, it seems, little to show for it.
Add to that the daily jumble, and sheer emotional intensity of motherhood—which, spoiler alert, does not ease up the way one thinks it will when justlikethat they stop being toddlers and are suddenly teens.
I pour so much into it all and still feel most of the time like a scattered, flustered, muddled, ineffective mess.
But when I look down at my fingers on the keyboard or holding the pen as it flows in fits and starts across the page, and see neat nails in a bold, cheerful, powerful color I think, hey, THAT woman has her shit together. Maybe she can harness the mayhem, wrangle the demons, and say something lovely or funny, or true.
There’s nothing morally superior about good grooming, and maybe a manicure seems silly and superficial, but for me, it’s a sign that I’ve made time in the mayhem for a bit of self-care, invested in a detail that feels expressive and intentional, bold and orderly, clean and beautiful.
Isn’t that similar to what we crave from art? We want the raw, wild, and truthful, trained into just enough shape, painted in clear vibrant color, so we can see it clearly. We want attention to detail.
My high school friends used to challenge me to have a conversation while sitting on my hands. I couldn’t do it. As profoundly out of my body as I was as a young person, I couldn’t tell a story without abundant gesticulation—my thoughts demanded physical expression.
I still talk with my hands—but I notice it most when my nails are painted (or I’m on a Zoom call).
It occurs to me that, in the end, after all the pacing and pencil chewing, audible sighs and talking to oneself, a writer mainly expresses ideas through their hands. When at last you sit down and actually write, that massive transfer of energy is through the fingers. We have to trust them to channel, to translate all the things.
Seen that way, is it any wonder I feel most creative and confident if my fingertips—the last point of contact between my soul and you, gentle reader—look strong, appealing, and like, don’t worry, we got this?
I write about many things on The Regular Jenny—but at its heart, it’s almost always about the relationship between physical life and creative life, the body and the imagination. Spirit Style Wellness Family Arts is the subheading, but I’m always slightly sheepish about the Style bit. I’m not a fancy fashion blogger with a big clothing budget and covetable It Girl closet, but I take the topic of personal style seriously, as an important expression of the physical/creative connection.
What I know is true for me, and what the lengthy Coronavirus lockdown, in a strange sideways manner is driving home, is that how we feel about the way we look, how we see ourselves and hope others will see us, and how we think they do see us; how we choose to present in the physical realm and how we achieve it; and what we need to go about our day with a sense of normalcy, accomplishment, confidence, and forward motion--even when no one else is looking—is connected to our deepest sense of self, and most fundamental creative impulse.
There’s a clipping of a Peanuts Gang comic strip I’ve kept since I was an awkward 'tween. For over 30 years, it’s traveled with me, tucked into journals, taped to locker doors and dorm walls; for a decade it’s been framed above my desk.
Little Frieda fluffs her loopy locks and says, "People always expect more of you when you have naturally curly hair!"
I was somewhere between the ages of my son (15) and daughter (13) when I found this little cartoon.
Hutch has hair like spun silk, the finest threads of blond, in shades from platinum to golden sand. Violet’s is an improbable shade of copper, thick and wavy but nonetheless smooth and cooperative.
My hair has always had a little roughness, a little heft. When I was a child, it had, all on its own, a quality known as “texture.” Just enough natural wave to look sweetly slept-on and “second day,” but still manageable.
Nowadays, stylists and products boast that they can help you achieve this look with saltwater or wax or heat implements. It’s coveted by people with hair like my son’s because they’ve never had to do battle with hair that has actual texture. They think texture is something you get from a day at the ocean, a night out dancing, or hearty sex. They think texture is something you spray in for date night and shampoo out in the morning.
People with real texture know better.
I was around my daughter’s age when my hair turned suddenly from agreeably “beachy” to a dense and unruly mass of non-uniform curl and fuzz. Some of it is fine and fluffy but not very curly. Some of it is coarse and ropey as horsehair. Some hangs in satiny rag-curl ringlets of the Shirley Temple variety. Odd patches of it have a frank pubic quality.
And there’s just so darn much of it.
My hair’s overall effect, in its natural state, is of an unintentional poodle mix. Not some highfalutin, designer-blended breed of canine dustmop with a cutesy KimYe-inspired mash-up name that costs $1400 bucks at your local pet shop—a Schnoodle or Doodle or Shitzpoo or Teddy Bear—more like what you might get if little Fifi, panting in heat, escaped into the woods one sultry night and took a walk on the wild side, let a local coyote buy her a few drinks and talk dirty.
Throughout my life, I’ve tried all manner of things to make my hair behave, to smooth it out or wrestle it into whatever was in style, including various methods of thinning it out, many expensive products, and some very tragic bobs (from the Dorothy Hamill to the Lady Di to the modern lob). I’ve tried every diameter of curling iron, burned through several straighteners, broken all the teeth off a lot of hot air brushes. My mop cracked the Bubble Wand in half on the first use.
In the late 80s, when I was in high school, I wore a variation on the mall mullet that was all the rage, at least in the Buffalo suburbs—short in front and sort of feathered back with very high bangs, and long and curly in back. Certain vexatious boys used to sit behind me in English class and throw pencils and paperclips into my hair to see how long it would take me to retrieve those things, or if I would even notice.
The early 90s however, were a heyday for hair like mine. I grew it long and did a lot of moussing, scrunching, diffusing, and upside down blow-drying to achieve maximum “Mystic Pizza” volume and ringletude. My virgin corkscrews garnered infinite compliments. The cascade of curls caused more than one earnest college poet to wax lyrical, proclaiming its beauty in overblown verbiage like “resplendent,” “pre-Raphaelite” and, once, even—“goddess.”
My junior year in college, when I played Nora in A Doll’s House, the set designer lit an entire scene around the moment when, with the pull of a single pin, I liberated my waist-length locks from their uptight Victorian knot and let my hair flow free as I walked out on my suffocating husband (incidentally, the actor who actually became my not-suffocating husband).
This was hair as metaphor. What better to make an English Literature nerd feel beautiful for the first time?
When we moved to NYC as 23-year old newlyweds and began doing Shakespeare plays in parking lots and musty basements, we made friends with an angsty young playwright/novelist who ran with an impressive literary crowd and had a glittering nightlife in which beautiful waitresses fawned all over him.
One unusually balmy spring morning—it happened to be the exact magical, annual day when the flowering trees in downtown Manhattan shed their petals at once like pink snow—as we all strolled home after a night of booze, deep talks, and clove cigarettes, he picked petals from my corkscrews and said, with the sexy earnestness of a tortured artist, “You must never cut that hair.”
I took him at his tobacco-scented word, and clung to my tresses in a secret hope that they’d inspire some bright, emerging playwright or director to make me his muse.
I blush to tell you, I didn’t recognize all that was terrible about that plan, from a practical, artistic, and feminist standpoint.
But a couple years into being an unemployed actor, the muse thing hadn't panned out and I began to think I’d been hiding behind my hair. Or rather, leading with it because I feared it was the only thing that made me interesting or attractive. Hoping it made up for something I lacked. I wondered if I depended on my hair because I didn’t believe in my talent. Maybe I thought that having hair that looked like every painting ever of a Shakespearean heroine--ah, ye olde male gaze!--validated my artistic existence. I proffered my luscious curls as evidence I was genetically coded for leading lady-dom.
And then I felt ashamed that I could have been so shallow and silly, to have thought hair mattered so much, was so important or powerful. And in perhaps equal measure, ashamed that I’d flattered myself to think of my own "beauty" that way. Which is really just an ironic reversal of the embarrassment I’d had as a teen about having unruly, unfashionable hair.
Anyway, by this time we were deep into the Friends era, and the guiding principle in matters of style and beauty was WWJAD?
First came “The Rachel” with its perfectly buoyant floppy, choppy layers, and then, so hard on its heels, the Revised Rachel, when everyone ironed their hair into shimmering satin sheets. Either of these looks I could sort of achieve with 3 hours hard labor, and maintain for an additional 3 hours if I sat perfectly still in a room climate-controlled to 68 degrees,14% humidity, and no moving air of any kind.
It finally seemed like too much fuss and I became obsessed with the idea of doing something radical, bold, and dangerous, proving a point to myself and the world.
I decided to lop off the luxurious locks.
I shelled out $75 at a nice upper west side salon—an absolute fortune for us at the time—and asked them to give me a chic pixie cut.
Make me Jean Seberg. Julie Andrews. Judi Dench. Joan of Arc.
Just do it. Take it. All of it. I’m ready.
And they did.
But not quite.
They left just enough that by the time I’d walked home in a light rain, my dainty gamine crop had achieved the impossible—to both shrivel up and expand exponentially into a sort of Edith Bunker style.
I saw the new me reflected in a shop window, and tried to smile confidently. But it felt like a death.
It was, in fact, a disaster of mythic proportions, and very nearly caused a divorce because my husband, who had totally championed the whole “smart, cool chicks have short, carefree hair” thing, could not hide his horror at how bad it looked.
When I popped out of the closet and said "surprise!" all he could manage was a blanched, “Wow! You are…drastic.” And then he disappeared for about 8 hours, later admitting he’d been in the basement praying for wisdom.
I hid in the loo for several days trying to decide whether to drown myself in the bathtub, but finally emerged and tracked down a hairdresser who fixed it, by cutting it so short I was essentially bald.
When the worst of the regret wore off, and I learned to how cut it pretty well myself, the new hairdo did make me feel liberated somehow, feminist and badass, free and freshly feminine. Seen, in a different way, a fuller, more real one, maybe. Exposed, in a positive sense. Viewed as confident even when I wasn’t.
I kept my boyish crop for nearly a decade, till I could hardly imagine having it any other way.
It’s hard to say how much the hair actually had to do with it, but it was during this time I began to learn at a deep level that creative work is about revealing.
Still, there were drawbacks. When I auditioned for classical plays, directors (male and female) without much imagination (or budget for wigs) often remarked, as if trying to identify some mysterious and ineffable quality, that there was just something “too contemporary” about me for whatever role they were casting. I was "edgy," "quirky," "offbeat," "all business," "making a statement."
Samson lost his strength when he lost his hair; I gained a certain strength, but lost my softness. Or so it was perceived.
It was a real pisser because by this logic, I'd be more appealing as an actress if I'd never stopped hiding the lioness behind her mane. And conversely, my Jean d'Arc hair covered the fact that I was terribly delicate.
While pregnant with my second baby—as undeniably soft as I'd ever been—I actually did start to feel that, once again, what I was physically presenting to the world didn’t match who I was anymore.
Or maybe motherhood had changed me--personally and creatively.
Anyway, I took advantage of the extra hormones and grew out my hair. There were some really awful awkward stages—it was like adolescence all over again. The texture had changed with time and babies, and it took me several years, several more debacles, and a goodly number of Pinterest boards to figure out how to manage its new character.
Over the last few years—ironically, an era in which I've been more focused on writing, teaching, and still, mothering, than auditioning and acting—save one catastrophic cut, my hair and I have come to a sort of understanding.
I’m not saying I’ve gone au naturel. I color my gray, and go for professional highlights once a year. On a daily basis it takes at least 2 different irons to redirect the behavior of certain sections. But I try not to beat it into submission for the whims of fashion or unimaginative directors.
It is what it is, and we’ve kind of agreed to work together. I try to honor its natural inclinations, and most days it lets me shape it into something that looks fairly intentional so I can feel my best and maintain a modicum of control.
On a good hair day—when the curls and the elements both cooperate—my hair drapes in loose coils over my shoulders, framing my face with a soft honey-colored halo.
Still, often without my knowing what’s happened—it was fine when I left home!—my hair grows hideously misshapen. It sprouts wings and launches itself on the horizontal plane, each individual strand taking on a mind of its own, till I look like Rosanne Rosanna Danna on a bad hair day, in a tropical climate, if she happened to step in a puddle where a live electrical line had recently fallen. Other times it curls up tightly at the temples, into a hard and unflattering sort of Downstairs at Downton Abbey ‘do.
It can singlehandedly change my entire appearance--alter the shape of my face, the placement of my eyes, the size of my nose, the already formidable angularity of my jaw—to very poor effect indeed.
At such times, my crowning glory elicits the kind of unbearably awkward don’t-know-where-to-look looks usually reserved for truly disfiguring facial warts, an ill-fitting glass eye, or men who wear dance pants as street clothes. Adults become tongue-tied, children stare outright and say things that embarrass their parents, my own kids roll their eyes.
In other words, it’s still a daily challenge to keep it in check, but for the most part, I feel finally, like my hair fits me, tells the story I mean to tell—or at least, the truth, which is sometimes uncomfortable or scary... That some days I’ve got things kind of under control and some days I’m losing it completely. That I’m hard and soft. Confident and afraid. Strong and fragile. Wild and domesticated. A chipped, rusted, wonky, edgy, pissed off, nasty, neurotic, soft, womanly, glamorous, earth mother, maker. And that every one of those things contains both the ugly and the beautiful.
Which brings us back to Zoom calls and quarantine and why I bother writing about good hair days, let alone actually trying to achieve them, during a global pandemic.
This morning I colored my roots.
I usually touch them up every 3 weeks and it had been 7. I was sporting the full Pepé le Pew.
It would have been easy enough to keep spraying on that weird powdery color so that no one could see my gray on Google Hangouts—and, really we’re all on lockdown, thousands of people are dying every day, none of us can see an endgame—who gives a shit if I have gray roots? And the answer is, no one.
Except --I do.
Silver foxes are gorgeous. There’s nothing wrong with gray hair. I just don’t happen to love the way mine looks on me.
But more importantly, it doesn’t match who I am right now. Who I want—need—to be, or feel like, or believe I am, in this moment.
I have no issue with my age. Dear God, if ever we knew to be grateful for Every Single Day, it’s now. I am proudly, happily 48. And, as I repeat like a mantra everyday, I am exactly where I need to be.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I’m where I thought I’d be by now. As an artist, teacher, yogi, mother.
And lo, Covid-19 has interrupted what little forward motion I felt--in quotidian triumphs and big picture trajectory.
What I feel each and every day right now, in this liminal space, this suspended animation, is that I cannot bear to watch the gray fill in, marking the passage of time—weeks of quarantine and years of unfinished business, the one unveiling the other.
I’m not ready for the next era while there’s so much I haven’t done yet that belongs, at least in my mind, to this one.
I’m not ready, for example, to have an empty nest when so much of my work has focused on the very tension that it will relieve—between motherhood and creative life. In the great pause, my almost grown children have been given back to me for a term, as well as hours for writing I don’t usually have. I feel with increased force, a paradox I’ve lived with for 15 years—urgency to move on, and an almost frantic desire to freeze-frame the now.
Maybe I need to feel creative, productive, young, and beautiful during lockdown because I know that in so many ways it’s the end of an age, and in the words of U2, I’m running to stand still.
Maybe it means that once again, I’m hanging onto my hair as some sort of hope, or symbol, or attachment to old selves and outrageous ideas—but I’m willing to reveal that here on the page.
As Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth…”
Now more than ever, small acts of self-care—whatever that means to you, however you're sustaining and presenting yourself through this madness—are valid, important, even creative. They’re not frivolous just because they’re cosmetic. Sometimes the cleaned-up version of ourselves we present to the world on the Zoom call or the Instagram story is a necessary lie that allows us to keep going, to keep ourselves together enough to keep working to reveal the truth in our art.
A gorgeous loaf of sourdough, a perfectly organized sock drawer, or two coats of mascara might be the story we need to tell ourselves in order to get down to the business of telling the story we need to tell. Sometimes simply putting on the costume or the wig brings an actor much closer not only to the character, but to the precise part of himself that can make that character live and breathe on stage.
Sometimes, the little masks we wear, if we’re willing to peak under them, reveal as much about us as letting it all hang out. And that was true before Covid-19 handed us such an obvious metaphor.
What’s on the outside can’t make you an artist, but feeling like you’re living your truth in your body—like your insides and outsides match, more or less—can help you be more honest, creative, productive, confident; it can make you less afraid of being uncovered, even ugly, in your work, which is how the most beautiful art is made, and the truest truths are told.
Jenny Sheffer Stevens
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2020 -- All rights reserved.