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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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The Hair Back There

Quelle horreur! (Yes, looking at this photograph I realize my initial reaction was ridicIt was a bad day, what can I say?)

So updo season—known as “spring” to those of you who don’t use their long hair as a built-in neck warmer during the winter—is coming, and in an effort to make sure my hairstyling skills wouldn’t be too rusty when it’s warm enough to wear my hair up, I had a little practice session the other day. (Side note: This updo tool is fantastic and will down my hair prep time to basically nothing. It pulls your hair really tightly, though, so be warned.) I took out a small mirror to check the back of my handiwork and was greeted by a tidy updo—and a neck that, even though I’ve looked at the back of my head in an updo a zillion times, suddenly seemed unseemly hairy. Like, not hairy in the way that just means I’ve got a lot of hair, but hair that goes outside of my hairline in these sparse little patches—long, fine strands of baby hair tufted away at the top of my neck, half-dollar-size patches just below the bottom edge of the skull.

It was horrifying, all of a sudden, made all the more horrifying by the thought that I’ve been probably walking around with this neck garden for years, walking around with my hair in an updo like I didn’t even care that there was a neck garden there, or—possibly worse?—that I knew of my neck garden and was just fine with it. I took to Google, knowing that every beauty magazine and website and blog out there must have covered this—it was just that I’d somehow missed it, despite more than a decade spent reading ladymags for a living—so I’d find what to do to remove/tame/conceal/manage my neck fuzz. Instead, what I found was…a handful of women worried about their own neck fuzz, and legions of other women telling them to quit worrying about it already. A sampling of comments:

 

  • “I’m sorry your baby hairs bother you, but I’m sure nobody else notices them.”
  • “I don’t mind them…I think they’re cute/pretty.”
  • “Much of the sensation we get from being touched is from our little skin hairs being moved, and I don’t care to lose any sensation on my neck, if you catch my drift :)”
  • “yeah, it’s normal. don’t worry and just leave it. you’ll look like a freak if you try to mess with it.”
  • “How did you even notice it?”
  • “Everyone gets hair on their neck. Don’t worry!”

 

As expected, there were also a handful of people who had concrete advice—electrolysis, spraying them into the updo, waxing, bleach. But the ratio here was remarkable: For every bit of beauty advice, there were five responses along the lines of “don’t sweat it.” (And it’s worth noting that I couldn’t find even one ladymag/beauty blog service piece anywhere about how to manage neck hair. All the responses were from online forums of various sorts, beauty-related and general.)

Now, compare that with questions about hair on, let’s see, every single other part of a woman’s body except the scalp. Most of the comments above apply to other body hair—plenty of hair we depilate isn’t visible to most people, hair increases sensation, and most important, we all have it. But if you start in with applying those sentiments to leg or armpit hair, you may as well have a life-size tattoo of Ani DiFranco. None of the comment threads I read were on body-image, body-acceptance, or  feminist forums (and feminist forums might well have depilation threads anyway, since “leg-shaving feminist” isn’t the oxymoron some might make it out to be). Yet in these mainstream forums, a gentle acceptance—even a kind-hearted teasing of people who were overly concerned about their own neck hair—reigned supreme.

Naturally, I’m pleased by what I found, both on a technical level (let ‘em grow!) and on a political-ish level. But I’m puzzled too. Why do queries about neck hair yield cries of acceptance, while queries about any other form of body hair yields advice, recommendations, tips, tricks, products? When I posed this question to a friend, she pointed out that even though neck hair falls below the full hairline, it’s still on our heads, and women’s locks are “supposed” to be long and luxurious—and what’s more luxurious than abundance? Plus, some women’s neck hair (like mine) is softer and downier than the stuff atop the head, lending a fine, wispy appearance—feminine, you might say.

This makes sense to me, but there’s more here too. After all, onceuponatime pubic hair was widely considered sexy too—if only because it signaled, um, sex—and the popular idea now is that when it’s seen as arousing, it’s in a somewhat fetishistic sense. So what made Brazilian waxing—and armpit shaving, and leg shaving, and eyebrow threading, and tweezing everywhere—popular? Porn is often cited, and that is a good deal of it, but what made the Brazilian something that roughly half of women between 18 and 29 engage in? Availability. It wasn’t like women were shaving themselves en masse before the Brazilian became available; they got the Brazilian in response to its availability. And there isn’t yet a product or service available—available and marketed to women, that is—that does away with neck hair. (Which actually made me think twice about posting this, given that some entrepreneurial mind could stumble across it and come up with The Neckscaper™ but I’ll take my chances.) Because our neck hair hasn’t yet been capitalized upon and packaged back to us as something to “manage,” it remains safe.

But! Complicating matters here is that while I’m grasping at nomenclature for my neck hair, black men and women have already devised one: the kitchen. The term is used specifically for textured hair at the nape of the neck (which is part of my own neck fuzz, but I was more concerned about the sides of my neck). I’m unable to find the origins of the term, but Linda Jones draws an astute connection here between the home kitchen—where many a black youth was once taken for searing hair treatments—and the “kitchen” of the hair. I’m guessing that the labor of straightening kinky hair also played a part in the kitchen’s dual meaning, and other theories involve the kitchen being at the back of the house (as with the nape). In any case: The kitchen runs deep, as deep as the legacy and politics of African American hair in general. “If there was ever one part of our African past that resisted assimilation, it was the kitchen,” wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his memoir, Colored People. “No matter how hot the iron, no matter how powerful the chemical, no matter how stringent the mashed-potatoes-and-lye formula of a man’s ‘process,’ neither God nor woman nor Sammy Davis Jr., could straighten the kitchen. The kitchen was permanent, irredeemable, invincible kink. Unassimilably African. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, nothing could de-kink a person’s kitchen.” The kitchen meant resistance. The kitchen saw the options available to make it “tame,” and it refused them.

It would be foolish to equate my white-girl hair woes with those of people for whom hair has played an integral role in oppression, liberation, and identity, and I hope that’s not what I’m doing. But the fact that all women’s bodies—body hair in particular—are policed so heavily, yet neck hair somehow gets a pass, makes me look to my own neck hair as a place of resistance as well, albeit in a different context. (I’m unable to tell if the kitchen gets a similar “pass” among black women who relax their hair; there are a couple of advice pages out there on growing out the kitchen, presumably in order to be able to blend it more easily with the rest of the hair, but I’d love to hear from black readers on this one.) Neck hair was a place of resistance, even psychic survival, for African Americans—something that applies more broadly when you think of the phrase “It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” This tender little spot can signal arousal, yes. It can also signal danger. Forgive me if this sounds dramatic, but: Perhaps we give neck hair a pass because it helps us survive.

There’s something about the placement of the hair in question—near the head and its tresses but not a part of it, a zone that’s both erogenous and instinctual, a part of the body that’s incredibly fragile yet is able to handle the stresses we place upon it every day—that makes me wonder if we’re somehow protective of this neck fuzz, these kitchens, these wisps or coils or curliques or baby patches or “peas” of hair. I wonder if it’s the last holdout of hair that falls outside of our strict rules about where hair should and should not go—a holdout that lets us look at the women around us, and maybe at the back of our own necks with a little hand mirror, and say, Honey, you’re fine.

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5 Responses to “The Hair Back There”

  1. Gaby says:

    I really wish people give more “honey, you’re fine,” advice to those concerned with any of their hair, instead of jumping to ways to remove it. I think it’s interesting how some hair is totally acceptable to let the world know you remove it– like leg hair and armpit hair, eyebrow waxing even– while with other hairs, (under the belly button, arms, lower back, the upper lip, the bikini), evidence of removal is much less acceptable. Yet I know many girls and women who secretly remove it religiously.

    • (Just now seeing this comment, apologies)
      That’s an excellent point, the divide between hair that’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge removal of–and the hair that isn’t. I wonder what exactly makes for that difference? The existence of products designed specifically for that area? Though that wouldn’t hold true for facial hair, but I feel like that’s in its own category of sorts because it’s so identified with masculinity. Hmm, food for thought, thanks!

  2. Samantha says:

    I was searching this too, because I’ve also recently discovered I have more neck hair than other people. It’s at the sides of my neck, but my neck is really small, and I swear it’s almost underneath my earlobe. It’s not pretty when I put my hair up, and that bun look is very in right now, not to mention practical and easy. I’m playing with the idea of using the finishing touch on it. I know I’ll have to make it a regular grooming procedure, but I feel like I have to do something.

  3. Samantha says:

    P.S. Yours doesn’t look bad at all to me. Your hair is gorgeous.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is a great post!

    As to the question of which hair is generally accepted in modern times and which isn’t, my theory is it comes down to puberty. Women are “supposed” to have pre-pubescent skin (poreless, clear), pre-pubescent skull structures (large wide-set eyes, ski-slope noses, big cranium-to-small-neck ratios), and pre-pubescent body hair (no arm-pit, pubic, or dark leg hair). But hair on the nape of the neck doesn’t generally change and isn’t a secondary sexual characteristic.

    To the really interesting point Gaby brought up about openly removing some hair and secretly removing other hair, and the mysterious separation of the two, I also interpret that as a puberty thing. Lip hair, chin hair, nipple hair, pubes that grow way down your thighs, and dark body hair are things that many women get only after puberty, but which are not commonly thought, or even commonly known, to be the way a woman is “supposed” to develop hormonally. Of course the fact that most people either don’t know or don’t think it’s normal for women to get these very common hairs is pretty effed up, but pretty much all our attitudes toward women’s bodies are, when it comes down to it.

    Also your neck hair looks nice.

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