It’s a Mess

I was sitting here trying to think of a topic to write on, and messing with my hair. I’m going to be out later, on another field trip (birdwatching, yay!) and so I braided my hair this morning rather than twisting it up and skewering it with Hairborne Defenses or another hairstick option. The problem with this, and the reason I was messing around trying to make it more secure, is that at my last haircut I’d gotten long (think chin-length) sweeping bangs and layers into my mid-back length hair. Which looks great when it’s down. I don’t wear my hair down all that often. You’ll see it down on the BroadCast, but that’s when I’m sitting indoors. As soon as I’m headed outside I’m putting it up. If I don’t, I do a nice imitation of Cousin It as soon as I make the door, thanks to the Texas breezes (or downright wind). And for long outdoor expeditions, I wear a hat, because I have no pigment in my face any longer. So, braid.

Which is all to come back to this: how does your character wear her hair? Or if male, how does he? How do they take care of it? Frankly, if I were in a survival situation I think I’d chop the hair off and keep it as short as feasible. Day to day, the reason I have long hair? It’s easier to take care of. I don’t have to go get it cut every few weeks to maintain a style. On average, I visit a hair salon about every year, and it’s often more like two years. Sometimes I get wild and have my hair cut from waist-length to just above bra-strap, and a few years ago I tried it short, but that lasted until I realized I’d have to go get it cut that often. Sure, it’s faster to wash and dry when it’s super short, but I’m used to the process. My hair has been long most of my life, after all. Now, I never did grow it out to knee-length like my sister did at one point, but it’s always been long enough to pull back and braid.

Then you have to think about the kind of hair your character has. Mine is wavy, although it will form into true curls briefly before the length pulls them out again, and fine. Curly girls have a whole other challenge, and have to really think about hair maintenance and protection. When you get into 4C curls, that’s going to take time and consideration on the character’s part, and you’ll have readers wall the book if you don’t give a plausible reason to skip it (shaved head? For MilSf or even MilFantasy that’s likely the most practical idea). While some women can get away with very low-maintenance hair (like mine) others cannot. And even mine can be a pain in the tuchis, like today where I’m attempting to make sure it isn’t all straggly under the hat.

Above and beyond the practical lurks the world of hairdressing, and elaborate hairstyles, and stories about princesses, or at the very least, Regency-era balls. Here’s where you really have to think about hair, and hats, and having help with the hair because some styles aren’t possible on your own. Not to mention that women of a certain status wouldn’t be doing it themselves, or even know how (now, there’s a Lost Princess bit for a story…). In some cultures, hair has a status all it’s own. Whether that’s long hair, covered hair, braided hair… even the way hair is ‘put up’ has a coding that speaks to those who know how to read it.

For me, today, I’m contemplating the French braid, with combs at the sides of my head and high (above and before my ears) to keep my bangs and layers in place. So long as it stays off my face, I’m happy. This is another reason I keep it long – I can pull it all the way back and off my face and neck. It’s actually cooler for me to do that than have it touching me when it’s hot. Again, it’s all what you are used to…

But it’s a great way to work in some verisimilitude to a story. Unless your character hasn’t got hair (and if that’s the case, you really need to mention it and give it a reason, as it’s far outside the realm of experience) and even then, you can have fun with it. I knew a mother and daughter with alopecia who both had amazing tattoos of intricate colored flowers all over their skull. It was beautiful, and very striking. For me, I tend to forget about it, but then again I’m bad about not describing my main characters, particularly not if I’m writing first person. I need to make an effort to consider it when I’m writing, and if it should come up in the story. Oh – and it’s not that easy to cut off a whole braid at once…

31 thoughts on “It’s a Mess

  1. In the Familiars stories, for a man in the Hunter clans to have long hair means that he’s a bit of an outsider in some way. It’s not necessarily bad, just that he’s making a clear statement that “I’m different, I know it, you know it.” Only Nikolai and Jude have “long” hair, and that’s long relative to the other men, not long-long.

    I’ve had short hair, long hair, loooooong hair (too thick to do without head and neck aches), and “oops-now-it-will-be-short” hair. In several cultures, long, uncombed hair was a sign of mourning or self-denial for some reason. In others, when a man went into mourning for a close family member, he cut off his braid – again, a clear sign to the rest of society that he had entered a specific ritual and social season of life, and was to be treated accordingly. It’s something most of us westerners probably don’t think about, unless we accidentally bump into a culture where it matters. (Like covering one’s head in a religious building – men only? women only? men and women? Only those over a certain age?)

    1. Mourning because not looking after your appearance is indeed a sign of grief.

      Self-denial because you are abstaining from maintaining your appearance.

  2. Leonid Vetch, who works as an instructor at a magical trade school, had been going to the same barber shop for thirty years, once a month or so, and getting his hair in a buzzcut because a) it’s safer in the lab, and b) it’s easy to take care of.

    Then he started dating Eleanor, an administrator at a local nursing school, and she insisted that he go to a stylist she knows. He is not entirely pleased with the result and complains that it feels funny to have his hair longer, and it makes him look like some crazy theosophist.

    (I didn’t consider the question until this post, but once I thought about it I realized how it would play out.)

  3. Long hair can be pulled back. Short hair stays out of your eyes.


    Long hair stays long. Short hair turns into medium length hair, where you have neither.

    Ensure that your characters CAN reliably cut their hair before you cut it. Sailors wore long hair because they could be caught on rough seas longer than it would take for hair to get in their eyes.

  4. Caption for that last picture: “Unlike those girls above, I just didn’t have the energy to tame an elaborate hairstyle, so I did something easy instead and tamed this tiger.”

  5. Congratulations. You induced me to subscribe to yet ANOTHER YT channel, when I am TRYING to cut down.
    I’m a veteran of the Long Hair War, aka the Hippie Punk War. I moved out of my home at age 18 (in 1971), with the precipitating event being that my step-father told me to cut my hair, or he would. Decades later, I discovered that he made the ultimatum after being twitted by his brother over the length of my hair; it couldn’t have been THAT long at the time, as I was a recent graduate of military high school.
    A year later, I joined the Army, which had more restrictive ideas about hair length; rules which varied, moreover, depending on duty station.
    I yearn for a state of no-personal-maintenance-required, which is why I have a beard. And every few years, I get a haircut, which is forced on me because loose long hair gets in my eyes/nose/mouth when sleeping, and eventually the knot in the back from a ponytail gives me a headache.
    BTW, I thought I was exclusively a fan of long hair, until I saw the Dora Milaje.

  6. The other thing is handling someone else’s hair or having someone else handle theirs can show a casual intimacy between those characters.

    There was a character whose emotional breaking point was when she realized she was going to have to cut her own hair again. Apparently she and her SO, that was something they did for each other. But now they would never be able to do that again, and she just couldn’t put that in a box anymore.

    And on the flip side, handling hair can also be used to show invasion of personal space as well. The industrial buzzcut is a classic example.

    So hair is probably a personal space, though with less charged connotations other personal spaces, which should make it a fertile grounds for character interactions.

  7. And then there’s dealing with chemo…

    I’m resigned to various hair lengths (as long as I have some way to keep it out of my eyes), but it was startling to see the mom accompanying her daughter to chemo sessions, each with lifetime max-length braids, knowing that the younger one was likely not going to get to keep hers.

    Hell, I’m reconsidering returning to the bangs of my youth to see if that will normalize my hair presentation better. While no one gets out of here alive, I’d like to leave with a dignified scalp.

    1. Miracles of modern medicine- some of the more recent types of chemo don’t make the patient lose their hair. Admittedly, my hair has never been the same since, but that was because of the illness (not cancer; still treated with chemo) and a natural progression of aging, not the treatments.

      1. I’ve heard there’s also something about, basically, a cap that chills the hair follicles so they don’t absorb as much of the chemo.

        (What will be really great is if they work out the way to practically implement having the chemo in micropackages that latch onto cancer cells.)

  8. And then there’s the care and feeding of hair. I have two characters whose scene, when injured, of being unable to brush out her own hair, and the intimacy of letting someone else care for her… well, I had a reader complain about “damn onion-cutting ninjas” attacking when he read it, so it worked. Also, dealing with hair in the shower can be a delightful moment of revealing how people think of each other.

  9. and then there’s balding (in various patterns for both males and females)

    personally, I let my hair and beard grow out until it’s annoying (~3 months) then get sheared to very short (1/8-1/4″), I jokingly refer to it as a skinhead to grizzly Adams cycle 🙂

    1. I must remember to use that with the family. I follow the same style with my hair (what is left of it). Not the beard, though – it gets too itchy, which is probably a side effect of the psoriasis.

  10. Back in my biker days I used eight elastic hair ties to keep it under control. Now I am old and my hair is thinning a lot, I’ve started shaving my head when the weather warms up and then shaving 2-3 times a week until the weather cools off again. I miss my thick hair. And my red hair. The world needs more redheads.

  11. Hair in some native cultures is a sensory organ. They found that during Vietnam, they were recruiting various fellows who were amazing trackers. They would go to basic training, get buzzed, get sent over and suddenly they could barely track. They let them grow their hair back out, and they became amazing trackers again.

    There is often a lot of emotion tied up in hair for women. And I’ve seen many girls/women cry when their hair is cut short from long, even it they thought they wanted it short.

    Hair color makes a big difference in many older cultures, too. The norse thought that dark hair/skin was both exotic in strangers and undesired in their own people.

    As for Cedar and her problem. I would suggest getting those little silicone rubberbands, and then “netting” your hair, at least at the top. It doesn’t take very long to do, will keep the fly-aways corralled and untangled, and are easy to remove later, you just snip the bands (they are very cheap). And you can do cool designs with them! (Some are clear, some are colored).

    Here are some examples: (You don’t have to get so fancy!)

    1. “There is often a lot of emotion tied up in hair for women.”

      Oh, this. A thousand times this.
      For a long time, my hair was the only pretty thing about me. Then I lost most of it and what remained was, um, not so pretty.
      I was… less than pleased.
      I promptly put that event in a story; giving it to a character was somewhat cathartic.

    2. Many years ago, I had a coworker who had grown her hair out to her ankles. I don’t know why, but one day she showed up with it cut all the way back to shoulder length. A very big personality change accompanied that – unfortunately, for the worse. (Unknown cause and effect could be either way, of course.)

  12. 1. I’ll take the lady with the tiger. Rawr.

    2. I don’t recall hairstyles being described particularly in most of the male-oriented fiction I read, but I’ll list a few that do come to mind.

    In the screamingly purple Hawk Carse stories (all but one of which are on Project Gutenberg, and the final one I’ve got ready to put out in a collection of all of them), the titular hero has a uniquely ugly description for a space opera pulp hero. The most blatant feature of which is that he wears his blonde hair in bangs that hang down to his eyebrows (and strokes the bangs when deep in thought). The purpose within the story is to hide a scar on his forehead.

    In James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, first in his “L.A. Quartet”, one of the protagonists, a cop trying to gain the confidence of a superior who is corrupt, gets his hair cut in a pompadour. Which, proving that I had the wrong mental image of a pompadour, was a shortening of his regulation-for-the-1940s very short cut.

    In Max Brand’s Wild Freedom, the protagonist was orphaned in the wilderness at an age somewhere around ten or twelve, and most of the book takes place when he’s around twenty. There is a throw-away detail toward the end of the book that’s Tarzan-level hilarious: the protagonist is clean-shaven, because once his beard starting growing in, he noticed that the men he saw on his secretive forays around people were clean-shaven, and he began stealing razors from campers, or from a store in town in the middle of the night, leaving cleaned furs as payment. In a story that doesn’t need it, Brand near the end retconned a ton of effort in order that his protagonist not have a beard.

    The Brand I just finished proofing, Jim Curry’s Test, has a gimmick where there is an outlaw known as The Red Devil. Two characters take on the role at different times, made possible because the one who creates the Dread Pirate, er, Red Devil makes sure he wears a mask and a red wig under his hat every time he strikes, so that the outlaw’s “red hair” becomes part of his legend.

  13. For men there is “Lief the Red”, Greybeard, Bluebeard (both pirates) (I want to say there is a Redbeard, too, but not sure on that one.)

    And Red Sonya was of course known for her red hair.

      1. Many people called Black were called so after their black hair.

        Those that weren’t blacksmiths, of course.

      2. Interestingly, he’s considered the German version of Arthur, as the King Who Shall Return.

  14. Connie…forgot her last name and don’t feel like going to the Ws. Well she wrote a story in which a modern female got sent into medieval times. She had grown her hair out but it was a virtual certainty that period styles would have tripped her up. Good thing she arrived at the period, fell into a fever and the locals cut her hair off because that was a fever remedy of the age.

    1. Willis. That’s Doomsday Book.

      I pass along a word of wisdom from a cousin: ensure that you don’t finish it just before going to bed. In fact, finish it in broad daylight.

  15. My father was drafted late in WW II, and he told a story about induction. People were lining up to get the Mil-Std crew cut when one wag asked to have his hair parted in the middle. Seems the barber was in an Odd mood, and shaved a stripe for the “part”.

    I started cutting my own hair during Covidiocy, and now cut as much off as the clippers will do every few months. I can’t tolerate razors, but the beard will start itching after a while, so it’s frequently hair & beard removal at the same time. The hair was red-brown mumble years ago, with a red beard, but channeling Poul Anderson, I now look “extinguished” before the cutting.

  16. In my world, depending on the culture, a woman never shows how long her hair is: that’s private between her and her lover.

    For your own hair, you can always do the pony tail trick when you cut it.
    You can even do it yourself!

    Gather all your hair in a pony tail on the very top of your skull. Cut the tail off.
    Where you cut determines how long your layered bob will be.
    If you’ve got very long hair, cut only a few inches off and see what you think.

    I’ve done this and it does work but it’s also easier if someone else cuts the tail.

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