For any woman -- or man, for that matter -- who has ever had a bad hair day, Rapunzel's Daughters is a must-read. Author Rose Weitz, a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, has written a fascinating and intriguing book about hair and its power to define a woman’s identity and create a cultural statement far beyond even what fashion and makeup can achieve.
Using her own research, historical anecdotes, in-depth interviews, black and white photos and art, and illuminating social commentary, Weitz explores the effect hair has had, and continues to have, on women in society, from the Middle Ages to today’s modern wash 'n' go simplicity. Throughout history, changing social position has created an ever-transforming canvas for hairstyles that not only expressed what was going on outside of a woman, but inside as well. Hair has come a long way, baby, just as woman have, yet at the foundation of hairstyle transformations over the years, the way a woman felt about herself has remained the critical decider in choices made in and out of the salon.
We learn why women covered their hair during the Middle Ages, then discovered creative ornamentation and bizarre styles of self-expression as a backlash, and how even as young girls the powerful drive to be beautiful has set the stage for an obsession with hair that continues throughout a woman’s life. We come to understand how hairstyles create conflicts in some instances, say in the workplace or religious institution, and how others bring opportunities, namely in attracting the opposite sex.
The author covers all the bases of hair obsession, including how much emphasis women place upon their hair when it comes to romance and self-identity, and how aging and illnesses such as cancer that cause hair loss can totally undermine a woman’s identity, often forcing her to look within for her sense of self, rather than in the mirror or at the beauty salon.
Other chapters focus on the salon as a social meeting place that creates a sense of community and self-renewal, on matters of baldness and how having no hair effects a woman’s psyche, childhood emotions around hair and how girls and boys get treated differently (it starts as early as pre-school!), and how age and self-acceptance shade our perceptions of hair even as we shade our hair to hide our gray.
I never realized until I read Rapunzel's Daughters just how much I obsessed and thought about my own head of hair, and how hair has always been a force of nature in my own life. Reading about the power of hair throughout the history of feminity, and hey, let’s face it, the issue affects men, too (wasn’t it Samson who didn’t want to cut his hair because it held all his power?) opened my eyes to just how much we create our sense of who we are based upon what we see in the mirror.
At the same time, coming to terms with the power of hair also gives us the very means by which to finally end the struggle for perfection and accept our own unique head-topping…by celebrating it, as author Rose Weitz encourages us to do in the final chapter.
Now where did I put my comb?