Arranging to meet a stranger in a busy cafe last week, I needed to describe my appearance. I started: ‘I have long, dark hair with a fringe’ That’s not because it’s an easy way to spot me, but because my hairstyle is the very thing that I recognise myself by — when I look in the mirror, when I picture myself, when I think of myself in the past or the future, it is my hair that I see first. For while other people might notice different features, or describe themselves in terms of their clothes, height or figure, for me it has always been this one thing that defines me.[contentblock id=1 img=adsense.png]
And I don’t just mean it defines my appearance; it defines my inner identity, too. Some women use their hair to reflect their mood or a time in their life, they like to chop and change with the seasons and follow trends. Then there are women like me — and Jemima Khan — who keep the same hairstyle throughout their entire lives. This week, Jemima tweeted a photo of her childhood hair — golden, thick, long and framed with a fringe — identical to the style she still has.For us, our hairstyle is such a fundamental part of who we are that to change it would be as brutal and unthinkable as having plastic surgery. Cutting my hair off would be like losing part of my soul. It’s not that I think my hair is particularly fabulous — it might well look better with a different cut — but it’s the consistency that counts.
Since I was five it has always been shoulder length or just below with a choppy fringe. Sometimes it is longer, sometimes there are a few layers, but though I am 53, I haven’t changed my style since childhood. Back then, my grandmother cut it with kitchen shears; now Marcio, my lovely Portuguese hairdresser, uses high-tech scissors at vast expense. But the end result is pretty much the same. So while many people have embarrassing teenage photos of themselves with a mullet, perm or a disastrous dye, my ‘look’ — if you can call it that — has never wavered.[contentblock id=2 img=adsense.png]
And I relish that fact; I love peering nostalgically at photos of me in my 20s partying with friends and spotting the hair I still have and love. Or looking at my glowing, gloriously happy face at my wedding in 1989 and still admiring the hairdo. And somehow the style has come to encapsulate my character — it is shiny on a good day, albeit slightly messy and reliably straight. My STYLE is driven by my personality, too, for while there are women who don’t mind facing the world with their hair scraped back off their face or with pixie cuts that mean every emotion is visible, I am not one of them.I need my hair to hide behind, to chew when I am thinking, to pull over my face when I am embarrassed. For me, my hair is a veil, a barrier between me and the unkind scrutiny of the world. I don’t want people to see what I am thinking all the time. But it is a mental barrier, too — a comfort blanket, an unchanging element as my face changes. My world has transformed since I was a child, but throughout school, university, marriage and children, one thing has remained constant: my hair. Without the hairstyle I have always known I would feel strange and vulnerable.I’m certainly not alone. I used to work on TV makeover programmes and we would ruthlessly change women’s hairstyles because we knew that would guarantee an enormous emotional response. Only once have I experienced that trauma — and I have never been tempted to alter my hair again. I was 36 and the hairdresser talked me into having a really short haircut. I had just started a new job and part of me thought a sharp new style might turn me into a sharp, decisive person. The hairdresser cut it without a mirror, so I had no preparation for the shock of seeing my face without its normal framing.
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I was hoping for liberation; instead when I saw myself shorn all I felt was horror. When I went home, my six-year-old daughter burst into inconsolable tears, crying: ‘You don’t look like my mummy any more.’ Even my husband, who doesn’t know the difference between a dress and a skirt, was shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do this?’ he kept asking. Though he didn’t say it, I knew he was thinking: ‘You don’t look like my wife any more.’ And for several days, until the shock had worn off, my husband and daughter avoided looking at me as much as possible.[contentblock id=3 img=adsense.png]
I felt much the same way as my family — every time I looked in the mirror I could barely see myself there. I hated my reflection. For while I thought that cutting my hair would make me feel like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday — young, free and liberated — I felt like Samson in the Old Testament, who lost all his strength when his hair was lopped off. I stopped feeling attractive. I couldn’t tell a story, let alone flirt, without my hair to play with. My hair took about six months to grow back — the longest six months of my life — and since then I have done nothing to it except a careful trim and colour to keep the grey hairs at bay. Basically, just what I need to do to keep my hair looking exactly as it always has.When my mother died two years ago, I found a cache of photographs of her as a young woman. In the last years of her life she had worn her hair up mostly, but when I saw these photos I realised she, too, kept the same hairstyle pretty much all her life — and it was identical to mine, shoulder length with a fringe.So, this hairstyle hasn’t just been worn for one lifetime, but two. Of course, there are moments when I think I should try a more mature hairstyle. But despite my advanced age, I simply don’t think I am mature enough to cope without my hair. For in my heart I am still a little girl peering through her fringe — and that’s what my hair helps me see in the mirror, too.