ELINOR GOULDING SMITH, who lives in New York City, has been writing for the ATLANTIC since 1943.

If hair serves any physiological function, it is hard to imagine what it could be, since bald-headed men, though possibly morose, seem to remain reasonably healthy. It might be argued that hair keeps the head warm, but that merely raises the question, why then are our feet not covered with hair?

Thomas Vicary considers the question in “A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomie of mans body” (1577) as quoted in Daniel George’s “Alphabetical Order.” Vicary says: “Of the Heire of the head . . . it defendeth the Brayne from too muche heate, and too muche colde, and many other outward noyances . . . it maketh the forme or shape of the head to seeme more seemelyer or beautyfuller.”

But whatever the physiological function, there is no doubt that some pretty deep and explosive emotion is universally displaced on the hair.

My own theory is that every woman suffers deep anxiety about her hair, and then brushes this feeling off on her daughters by standing around clucking worriedly and making disparaging remarks about their hair. The woman has not been born who thinks her hair “looks nice.” Comment on a woman’s hair, and her hand flies up to tuck it in or fluff it out as she tells you, at length, of the despair it causes her. For most women, hair, far from being a crowning glory, is more of a crowning blow.

Hair (the care and arrangement of) is a consuming preoccupation with women and always has been. The earliest Babylonian and Egyptian carvings show women with elaborately curled coiffures; Roman women knew how to bleach their hair; and throughout the centuries, hairstyles have ranged from artlessly naïve and simple (what might be called the shepherdess look) to wildly intricate, even bizarre, arrangements. But make no mistake — those disarmingly simple coiffures were and are just as hard to achieve as the towering confections of the eighteenth century. Ask any woman who has just spent hours in a beauty parlor having her hair straightened.

You know those soft, tender, artless wisps of hair that drift appealingly, as if by accident, across the foreheads of young actresses and models and chic women? Well, listen, they’re glued there. Those soft, wispy tendrils have been permanent-waved, shampooed, dyed, soaked with lotions and chemicals, wound on rollers, blasted with hot air, combed, brushed, teased, and sprayed with lacquer. If you touch them, you can bleed. In fact, the whole lovely head of hair feels, to the touch, like horsehair or piano strings. The owner of the hair has suffered at best discomfort, at worst real pain, in order to have achieved the look of having had nothing done to her hair at all.

Hair arrangement is, legitimately, an art, and like all arts, consists in subduing, altering, and arranging nature. A head of hair merely allowed to grow and then be blown around by the wind is simply a savage, snarly mess. A windblown coiffure is a work of art which appears windblown while staying in place with or without a wind. It doesn’t just happen: it is created by a human being, and frivolous or not, it is part of the same drive to rearrange nature that makes gardens out of weedy tangles and sculptures out of chunks of stone.

Hairstyles change rapidly, not just over the decades, but sometimes from fall to spring. When I was a very small child, ladies kept covered glass jars of a dark and opaque color on their dressing tables, and if you were so foolhardy as to peek inside, you screamed and jumped on a chair. I’m not really sure about this, but I think they saved their hair combings. As to what they did with them when the jar was full, I can’t guess and would prefer not to know. What I do know is that they placed, by means of hairpins and optimism, an object called a rat on top of their heads and then combed their own hair over it to effect a nice high coiffure, the pompadour, not really so different from the bouffant or beehive styles of the past few years. In those days, length was the chief criterion of hair splendor (though thickness counted).

When the bob burst on the world in the twenties, with the shock of this year’s transparent dresses, the very words “bobbed hair” conveyed a sense of slightly illicit pleasures — cocktails in brassy speakeasies, lipstick, red liquid nail polish — and a woman with bobbed hair was the object of, at first, scorn, followed almost immediately by envy. Hair was sheared off by the yard, and women were exuberantly telling each other how free they felt. The trouble was that after the novelty wore off, there was no fun in it anymore. Women like to fuss with their hair, and when it was cut short they were deprived of a very real, deep basic pleasure.

By the late twenties, they were slaves to their hair again, letting it grow and having it marcelled or having permanent waves. A permanent wave in those days was a form of extreme torture that only dire vanity could make a woman submit to, and a scalp burn here or there only added to the chic.

When I was a girl, dyed hair was called dyed hair in a tone of voice that curdled your blood. Only women willing to be considered “fast,” or actresses (who were considered fast anyway), dared it. When some genius began calling it tinted hair, dyed hair became as acceptable as clean fingernails. Acceptable, nothing — as necessary as clean fingernails. Occasionally, I’m told, a sudden and complete change in hair color brings on an emotional crisis, and some women break down and cry when they see their newly blond hair, even though they grow to love it later. Sometimes it’s the woman’s husband or children who feel the shock, and just wish, as men always have, that she would leave her hair alone. They always liked it better the way it was, even though the way it was might not have been natural either.

For a great many women, a weekly visit to the beauty parlor is in the same category as eating, breathing, or paying the gas bill. But if the hair is naturally very soft and fine — in a word, disastrous — the resulting coiffure cannot last a whole week. The difficult bouffant styles of the past few years produced an explosion of new home-care hair products. A glance in any drugstore will confirm this. (A long hard look will bowl you over.)

What it also produced was the biggest thing to hit the hair business in a hundred and fifty years — the resurgence of the wig. I myself would not like it. I think it would give me a nasty turn to walk into my bedroom and see a head of hair sitting around by itself, but more intrepid (and wealthier) women than I may have not only one but several, in assorted colors and styles, taking their turns at the beauty parlor to be shampooed and set.

When my mother had typhoid fever in 1924, she was forced to wear a wig for a year while her own hair was growing back in, and I want to tell you that for secrecy, the Manhattan Project had nothing on that wig. Only the wigmaker knew for sure, and when suspicion dawned, my father, my sister, and I were all sworn to secrecy in a midnight ceremony with our names signed in henna.

As if all this were not enough in the way of neurotic preoccupation with hair, there continue to be home remedies, passed along from woman to woman or from hairdresser to customer, compared with which Grandma’s home remedies for a cold or fever were the last word in the scientific approach. When I was small, it was hot olive oil, and every female child had to submit to having hot olive oil rubbed into her scalp after a shampoo. Please don’t ask me what it was supposed to do. “It’ll make your hair less mousy” was the best I could get out of my mother. She didn’t know. No one knew. They just hoped it would do something. After that it was a shampoo made with a home brew of camomile flowers. Then everyone had her hair singed to seal in the vital juices, which presumably were leaking out. Then there was the violetray machine, which was supposed to put life in your hair. Whatever it was, though, it was always because your mother hoped it would somehow make your hair less mousy.

There is nothing in the way of groceries that some women will not shampoo into their hair with high hopes. Beer is the favorite. It is said to give the hair body. (“Body” is today’s criterion of hair beauty, and hardly anybody’s hair has it naturally.) Eggs, lemon juice, vinegar — you name it. Somebody, somewhere, is urging you to try it in a rinse. If I were to mention that I had rinsed my hair with sour cream, not one person would laugh, and at least eight would try it before tonight. I once read in a magazine the suggestion that you save your leftover dead champagne for hair rinses, and though I’ve never tried it, I can’t forget it. I’ve wanted to try it — I thought it would have a certain cachet to mention it casually among my friends — but I just never seem to accumulate much leftover dead champagne.

Well, what’s the difference? It isn’t what a woman does to her hair, it’s simply that she do something. Anything she does, she is convinced, can only improve it.