Monday, March 18, 2013

The Hair Back There


Quelle horreur! (Yes, looking at this photograph I realize my initial reaction was ridic.
It 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.

15 comments:

  1. I''m glad you brought this up, and I like the link to resistance towards the end of this piece, it's a nice bit of context I didn't know about.

    The first time I became aware of the hair on the nape of my neck (and that it might not good hair to have) is when I was in my teens. I was talking with my mom about something when she suddenly shot a concerned look at my neck and then reached out and began digging under my collar to see how far down my neck it went! I promptly informed her that this was not cool, and I think I've felt a little protective of that hair ever since, even as I try to subdue it with hairspray. But my hair is light, so even though I see a messy little halo of hair springing out, I doubt anyone else notices.

    I think there is something else there on the feminity front too, triming neck hair is really, for me, associated with men's hair cuts (both in terms of style, and part of the service). Short hair is often seen as a statement on women, and I think one way short hair cuts are 'softened' is through the styling of the hair on the nape. Actually, I had a hairstlyist refuse to shorten the hair on the nape on one very short hair cut I got, claiming it "balanced" the hairstyle (I cut it myself later).

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    1. Lauren, that's a great point about how the effect of short hair is "softened" through keeping the nape hair relatively untouched. I can't imagine a hairstylist telling a man that he needed his hairstyle "balanced" by keeping unwanted hair long!

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  2. No, kitchens do no get a pass. (BTW, the origins of the term you mention are accurate...I have heard all those explanations.) Not only do kitchens not get a pass anyone with a kitchen that doesn't match whatever they've done to the rest of the hair on their head- no matter the style- is likely to be ridiculed or at the very least some "kind" person will point it out to them so that they can fix it. An episode of the show Martin comes to mind. http://www.curlynikki.com/2011/10/are-you-ashamed-of-your-kinky-nape.html
    The most recent and easily found by googling example is Naomi Campbell's receding hairline. While her hairline isn't technically her kitchen you will find the same negative commentary applied to the look of whats left of her natural hairline.

    I have the same neck hair "problem" you do. Only in the black community there is a service to fix it. It's called "taping up". Back when I used to get my hair straightened professionally the stylist NEVER let me leave his chair without doing it; announcing "You're almost done but lemme tape you up". He'd then spend another five minutes (no joke) running an electric shaver up and down the back of my neck. Meanwhile, I saw other customers get taped up in a moment or two. Needless to say I started to get a bit of a complex about the hair in that area.

    Having said all that I'll have to side with the majority of the responses you found online. Leave your neck hair be. Some of us have a lot of it, period. I used to shave mine at home for awhile after I quit going to salons (and went natural before I knew thats what it was called) but it was difficult to do myself so I stopped. Ironically, I discovered not trimming that hair/trying to straighten it made it grow longer and I don't have a unruly kitchen anymore.

    Sorry for the essay! Lemme know if you ever need any more guest writers. lol

    ~Mary

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    1. Mary, thanks for adding your thoughts here--you answered questions I didn't know I had. How fascinating that there's a specific service and language to "manage" nape hair. I suppose the resistance aspect of the kitchen can only go so far, eh?

      And drop me an e-mail about guest posting, seriously: the.beheld.blog at gmail dotcom.

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  3. Lordy, if I only had the little bit of hair you have, I'd be thrilled. Heh. I recently bobbed my hair again, but it was down to my mid-back and the little hairs at my neck hairline were only three inches long or so. And, since I have an unusual hair texture (not curly, not straight, but sort of kinky-straight), they stuck straight out to the sides. Always. No matter how many times I clipped them down, sprayed them with hairspray... They stuck out like clown hair. I could never have a nice neat ponytail or updo. They wouldn't grow longer than few inches. Not that I wasn't entirely sick of having long hair, but they were definitely a factor that led to me bobbing my hair again. At least then I could just have my neck shaved along with my haircut.

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    1. Ten bucks says nobody but you notices! It's funny, I don't think that my sudden self-consciousness about my neck hair has been what's kept me from cropping my hair again, but I don't remember being self-conscious about this in the least when I had short hair. I wonder if, had I the desire to cut my hair dramatically, how I'd deal with this. I'd like to think I wouldn't care but now it's like since I've been bothered, it'll be difficult to be UN-bothered. But I'm trying.

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  4. Interesting exploration and very intriguing comments as well. In the spectrum of things to be insecure about Neck hair is low on my list. Then again I am someone who used to think she looked bad from the back (but only the neck up). Yes, I was once insecure about the back of my head!

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    1. Surely I'm not the only one who spends much longer in dressing rooms with three-way mirrors than in those without 'em. I never think about how I look from the back until it's right there, and then I'm all sorts of preening/examining!

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    2. That is so cool.

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  5. I hate it. I'm hispanic, with dark thick hair. The hair on the nape of my neck is full and low. I actually shave it every other day to keep it at bay. Sometimes even after I shave it, I use hair bleach to allow the impending stubble to blend in with my olive skin. My happy trail of hair descends down my back, albeit shorter than the nape hair, but still very noticeable unless bleached. It's a problem I noticed when I took a hand mirror to the back of my neck in front of a larger mirror. Needless to say, I was mortified. I actually found this blog in effort to google a better resolution to my current hair regime lol You aren't alone! And yes, some people err... ethnicities do have it worse :/

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    1. It's a tough one, ainnit? Even after I wrote this post—and realized that this was actually one area of body hair that sort of gets a "pass"—I still felt self-conscious about it. But I've been consciously looking at other women's neck hair and have yet to see anyone who looks unseemly (and I live in a very mixed area—I'm white but I'd say at least half the people in my neighborhood aren't). So chances are you're just fine as-is!

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  6. I too suffer from a neck garden or even worse "neck beard" as my husband once (jokingly) referred to it (poor guy has no idea it only made my insecurity worse). I always knew I had "baby hair" that would fall out of any updo, but it was deciding how to do my hair for my wedding that I discovered how excessive it had become. At some point between my teen years and thirties it apparently started growing around my neck (almost to under my ears). My immediate thought was also "How long have I been walking around like this?!". I frequently pulled my hair into ponytails. Shaving the hair resulted in a very noticeable 5 o'clock shadow because I am VERY fair skinned with dark hair. I tried waxing hoping the results would last longer, but each time I went the wax line creeped higher and higher. I decided to try to embrace the hair and grow it out again. It's been a long year since that decision. I never wear my hair up outside of the house because it looks so awkward and I'm back to wanting to take it off again. I stumbled across this blog looking for solutions. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

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  7. Currently I have very long thick naturally brown curly hair. I wear a slick back ponytail. I want a short dyke/mans taperd cut with about two inches on top of curls. But oh shit! I haven't had short hair in years. I forgot all about neck hair. Right now neckhair its very long to bottom of my neck. I'm looking for wash and go. I don't even shave my legs. WTF am I gonna do about neck hair? Can I just let it grow?

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  8. Ok, I need some help! My hair is the kind that's really thick and straw-like, and i can't put it in buns, braid it, or sometimes even put it in a ponytail! And to make matters worse, i have A LOT of neck hair. I have black hair so it's really, really noticable, and it's only an inch or so long, so i can't do ANYTHNG with it! It doesn't even go down, it just sort of sticks to the back of my head, and it makes my hair look really greasy, but in reality it's comepletly not! DOES ANYBODY HAVE ANY SOLUTIONS I AM SO PETRIFIED OF MY HAIR

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  9. Love this article! Great critique, especially about how beauty is marketed. I also came hear because I was suddenly curious about the ” status” of my neck hair, but I prefer the idea of resisting any more body image complexes, and just forgetting about it!

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