Hair Today

updated 08/28/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

You know it. You have it. And given that it's just dead cell matter, you may spend a surprising amount of time fretting about it. "We color it, perm it, shave it, implant it, braid it, wax it, highlight it, mousse it, gel it, brush it and brush it and brush it," says Diane Simon in her new compendium of follicular phenomena, Hair: Public, Political, Extremely Personal. Simon spent 18 months researching the subject in interviews and visits to hair emporiums as varied as a braiding salon in Harlem, a Hasidic wig shop in Brooklyn and Penthouse for Hair Recovery in Manhattan (which she calls "a place where men can let their hair down and take their hair off").

Simon, 30, the curly-haired daughter of straight-haired parents, says she has been plagued since childhood by a condition she suspects is common to many—"low hair esteem." A Brooklyn-based writer with degrees from Columbia and Yale universities, Simon combed through the subject with correspondent K.C. Baker.

Why are women so obsessed with their hair? Why does it exert so much power over our lives?

You might think it's just an extension of the general concern about appearance, but the fascination runs deeper: Hair is inextricably linked to how we feel about ourselves as sexual beings.

Beyond that, it's the idea that your hair can betray you. You feel that the bad things about you might be broadcast to the world through your hair. It's a piece of your heart, your inner being that shows up on the outside and leaves you vulnerable.

What do you mean by "low hair esteem"?

It's the chronic feeling that your hair—and therefore you—just won't measure up to society's expectations. There's a difference between low hair esteem and a plain old "bad-hair day." I don't feel much sympathy for Gwyneth Paltrow when she has a bad-hair day. There are so many of us who are really suffering most of the time.

Your book covers 20th-century hair from the flapper bob and the bouffant to the Afro and hippie hair. What do today's styles say about us as a society?

Hair has come to represent options and potential. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock can do anything with their hair. So can Julia Roberts. She makes it straight. She makes it curly. She has a big mane one day and a sleek mane the next day. We associate options with success.

How do people come to define "good hair" and "bad hair"?

Mostly from Hollywood images, what we see in movies or on TV. That's how we decide what we want. Right now, the most coveted look is long and silky, like Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox Arquette Arquette. It appears so easy and free, but it often takes plenty of time and muscle and money to create that effortless look. Few people come by it naturally.

Do African-American women feel pressure to have their hair conform to the majority standard of beauty?

Historically, it's an important question. It's about defining beauty norms and how some people are excluded. Many African-American women want straight hair for the same reason I do, to fit in—and to enjoy the same options as their white counterparts with straight hair.

Are men as obsessed with their hair?

They're obsessed with hair loss. For many men, balding is synonymous with aging and a loss of virility. That's why you see so many comb-overs and wigs and men spending thousands of dollars for hair-replacement systems.

Why are some men embracing their baldness or, like Michael Jordan, simulating it by shaving their heads?

It's taking control of your head: You can't tell if I'm going bald, because I'm going to create baldness. It's a huge trend now.

How's your boyfriend's hair?

It's straight and there's enough of it. I'm often jealous of it. I have a little bit of hair envy.

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