In 2000’s The Virgin Suicides, Kirsten Dunst is a milk bubble of a nymphet—luminous, lustful, and blessed with splendid hair. It’s long and straight and creamy-golden, with shadowy bangs that flip toward the ends. A platinum, marcelled bob for the role of Marion Davies in 2002’s The Cat’s Meow proved Kirsten’s hair had range. But it wasn’t until Dunst played broken-down beauty Sofia Mellinger in last year’s Levity that her hair defied the law of averages. The silvery-yellow shag swished cleanly against her collarbone even while Sofia roamed around plastered.
So imagine the bombshell when she appeared last month on Letterman to promote Mona Lisa Smile looking generally Mia Farrowed out, thanks to her Rosemary’s Baby crop. “You know when you just want to cut movies out of your hair?” Dunst said about the snip she got on a whim three hours before the MLS premiere. “I just wanted a new look.”
Do bad hair days inform Dunst’s universe? Probably, according to Rose Weitz’s new Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives (FSG), which states, “[We] still may hate our hair, and, on really bad days, hate ourselves because of it.” Weitz, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Arizona State University, explores our national preoccupation with hair in her diligently researched book by recalling Melanie Griffith in Working Girl: “You wanna be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”
Our hair, Weitz argues, is one of the most compelling ways we blare our identity to the world. We use it to control our image, and therefore our lives. Other people measure us based solely on our hair, she says, because it sends them messages about our sexuality, age, politics, and class. Rapunzel’s Daughters seems an especially relevant read in this era of bikini journalism and Extreme Makeover, with its contention that a few buttery highlights are all that separate studs from duds. “The makeover myth is part of American culture,” Weitz tells the Voice. “Compared to some things we may want to change, hair is more manageable.”
Rapunzel’s Daughters, with its bimbonically titled chapters (e.g., “I’ll Dye Until I Die”) can seem overstated. There are no cliffhangers. But upon scrutiny, Weitz’s undertaking admits a certain ambition. She supports her thesis with the scientific method, interviewing 74 women and 11 stylists of varying ethnicities and economic means, then conducting focus groups with heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual teens, as well as women over 50.
The result is an observant, largely anecdotal stew unencumbered by statistics. Rapunzel’s Daughters also deftly navigates, in a chapter called “Bald Truths,” the touchy subject of women who have lost their hair to chemotherapy or alopecia areata, the autoimmune condition that was rumored to have caused Princess Caroline of Monaco’s baldness a few years back. “It’s on your mind all the time. I’m afraid that the wig will blow off or that it’s on crooked,” Gwen, a 45-year-old alopecic woman who lost most of her hair at 15, tells Weitz in one of the book’s most agonizing exchanges. “You’ll be talking to someone and catch them sneaking glances at your hairline, trying to figure out what looks wrong.”
But as well-intentioned as Rapunzel’s Daughters is, saccharine insights like “Fifteen years later, Hannah still remembers the thrill of figuring out how to braid hair” might urge you to implore more bilious critics of coiffure, like The Washington Post‘s Henry Allen (who once said of the young Lauren Bacall, “Her hair lounges on her shoulders like an anesthetized cocker spaniel”) to intervene. No need. You will find life-preserving reprieves in chapter one, “The History of Women’s Hair,” and also by savoring “At the Salon,” an installment devoted to stylists, those “called to the ministry” of hair. In probing the former, Weitz notes that oily hair made head scratchers a sought-after accessory among the pedigreed petticoat set of the 1790s and that it wasn’t until the 20th century that even monthly hair washing became the norm. No less intriguing are the modern-day stylists, defined by Weitz as “kitchen cutters,” who recognized their natural abilities as a divine mission after clipping friends’ hair over sinks at home. A caste system is also illuminated by interviewees like Jane, who says, “If you see [a client] in a restaurant, are you allowed to act like you know them? Or should you just nod and say hello and keep moving to be polite?”