The next time you wander through your local drugstore, take a good look at the hairbrushes—the quantity, the type, the things they claim to do. There’s a hairbrush to “smooth and add shine” from Conair, a brush to “reduce frizz/retain moisture” from Revlon, the “Quikstyle” brush with “absorbent microfiber bristles” from Goody. Rectangular brushes with plastic ball-tipped bristles, the obligatory wood-handled brush with 100-percent boar bristles, the strange construction with a refillable strip of argan oil wedged in the middle. The options collectively resemble a modern snake-oil vendor’s cart, promising that their handles and spiky bits will Tame Frizz, Add Luster, Style with Confidence.
Quietly, these hairbrushes play a role in shaping their users’ identities. In various places and at various times in history, hair has been seen as a signifier of status or a means of identifying with a certain community, something to show off or something to hide. Consider the political statement once inherent in the Afro, or the fraught nature of dreadlocks. In some cultures, women’s hair is completely covered; in others, it might be shaved altogether. In the West, how hair looks, feels, flows, shines, moves, even smells, is often inseparable from popular notions of female attractiveness.
When I was in high school, I had straight brown hair down to my waist. It was prone to frizz and probably full of split ends, but it was thick and shiny and good hair, and I was horribly vain about it. Before I finally chopped it off to chin length when I turned 18, my boyfriends were entranced with my hair. They loved the way it swung loose and slid across my shoulders, the way I sat at my dressing table winding pointless, tiny braids down its length. But mostly, they loved to brush it. It always felt odd to me, sitting there as a boy ran a brush slowly from my scalp to my waist, his marvel almost palpable and strangely non-sexual. It felt like the sense of wonder a father-to-be experiences as he places a hand on his wife’s pregnant belly.