Save for the ironic-T-shirts-and-pigtails era of my early 20s, I have a long, stubborn history of being unimaginative with my hair. If it wasn’t in a ponytail, it was pretty much always loose. I’d try a bun here or there but would usually wind up feeling matronly; I’d play with a side braid and unravel it by midday. In fact, one of the best perks of having short hair was that the option to do anything drastic with it was pretty much nil. (The magazines always say that short-haired women can “mix it up” by slicking their hair straight back with gel, which I have never, ever seen any woman do in real life, with the exception of some dazzling butch fatales...who were, after all, mimicking nattily dressed men. Anyway.)
So when I grew out my hair after several years of sporting short hair, I was pleased to discover the updo. It had eluded me in my younger days of long hair—I could never get the directions right and would always wind up with this weird nest at the back of my head that didn’t resemble anything on the Seventeen prom pages. And even when I did manage to get it right, I didn’t have the courage to wear it out of the house: It seemed conspicuous to me, this mass of pinned-up hair, and since I hadn’t yet discovered the glory of the “messy updo,” I also found it prim.
What I now recognize is that I also saw the updo as too adult. I’ve seen plenty of young women pull off updos with aplomb, of course; like anything, confidence will make it work. That particular strain of confidence has always eluded me, though. I still don’t have it; instead, I have a little more age, a little more gravitas, that allows me to wear an updo without feeling like I’m putting on a costume.
It started as a practical style: On unbearably hot days, even the dusting of a ponytail on your shoulders can be an annoyance—enter the updo. It masks dirty hair; it was my saving grace during the transition period of my no-shampoo experiment, and even though I’m now shampooing about once a week, it still comes in handy if I don’t have dry shampoo handy and I’m looking greasy.
But soon, I found that wearing the updo made me feel just a little different. I liked that I could control my overall look more easily than when I wear my hair loose; my hair is hardly unruly, but it has that college-girl unstyled feel to it, which is fine when I’m just kicking around in my jeans, and a little more troublesome when I’m working at an office in which I’d like to project an image of efficiency. I work the hell out of those bobby slides, so I don’t fuss over or fidget with my hair when it’s up, whereas normally I’m a fusser and fidgeter, so it’s not just the look of professionalism—having it up allows me to actually be more professional.
Still, those concerns fall toward the practical. In truth, my love of the updo is about intimacy, sexuality, and modesty. The updo is modest, but modest in a way that implies an immediate threat of becoming immodest. At a moment’s notice, the updo—and, presumably, its wearer—might come undone.
The phrase “let your hair down” acknowledges that having one’s hair up means you’re not quite able to have fun, not quite ready to join the party. You’re literally not quite ready to let loose. With an updo, you can join the party the moment you wish, with the flick of a few hairpins—but maybe you just don’t feel like it yet. The party might be private; the tumble of sexuality that “letting your hair down” brings happens only when you wish for it to, not before.
Having your hair touched is always an intimate act, but when your hair is as long as mine, it’s something that just happens in the course of life: a friend will touch it when we’re talking about hair texture, a stranger on the subway might grab it accidentally if it’s draped over the back of their seat. With the updo, the lines of intimacy are starkly drawn: Your hair, and all that loose hair connotes—freedom, sexuality, youth, the sensation of being carefree—is drawn close to you, and becomes yours alone to handle as you please.
None of this is to say that by wearing your hair loose, you invite implications about sex and intimacy, any more than wearing a short skirt means you’re “asking for it.” At the same time, the very reason that older women with long hair and younger women with short hair is still seen as somewhat subversive is that we as a culture couple flowing locks with youth and sexuality; the sexually available woman, whether Botticelli’s Venus or the cover of Maxim, has hair that invites touching, the photo shoot’s wind machine acting as surrogate for the vibrancy we’d surely feel in her presence.
To be sure, even when my hair is at its flowiest it resembles neither Venus’s nor that of the cover of Maxim. It’s limp, a little stringy, and, as my grandmother once kindly told me, “not your best feature.” My hair is hardly a swirling vortex of sexuality. Still, I can’t deny that on days when I wear my hair up, when I let it down at the end of the day, I feel as though I’m signaling—if only to myself—that I’m now beginning the part of the day that is private, speaking intimately only to myself and the person I’m purposefully being intimate with. On days when I go out with my hair loose, I miss having that delineation. I have other signals that I’m home now, in a domestic groove; I take out my contact lenses, kick off my shoes, change out of my street clothes. But those are largely matters of my physical comfort and social appropriacy. Only one of my ritualistic acts carries the implication of intimacy: reaching around my head, unpinning my hair, and letting loose.