Saturday, August 24, 2019


A mother-daughter language spoken through long hair
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Sasha Aslanian, left, her mother and young daughter, Kaia, show off their hairstyles. (Photo by Jan Painter, courtesy of Sasha Aslanian)
Look around at the pairs of mothers and daughters you see this Mother's Day weekend. Now look closely at their hairstyles. Notice anything? Producer Sasha Aslanian recognized a pattern in her family, starting with her mother.

St. Paul, Minn. — I called my mother the Lion Lady. I would watch her get ready for dinner parties in the 1970s, when I was about 4. She would comb out her long, blond hair and tease it until it looked like a lion's mane. Then, she would swoop it into French twist. When she put on her long, sleek hostess skirt, shimmering lipstick and jewelry she was breathtaking -- and not even 30.

She kept my hair long too, although at light brown, I couldn't hope for that lion-halo effect. In fourth grade, I broke away and went for the short, feathered "Kristy McNichol" haircut preferred by my cooler friends.

A 45-minute routine with a curling iron each morning kept my hair glued back from my face in two limp rolls. I kept it up for three years, until I overheard a conversation in our kitchen that changed my look forever.

My mom's friend Kathe was over for coffee. She taught English at my junior high, and she was talking about the sensation a popular girl in my class had caused when she delivered her prize-winning speech at a neighboring all-boys' school.

"The boys just loved Karen," Kathe gushed to my mother. "Of course, boys just love long hair."

I grew mine out.

My long ringlets were fun -- my friends loved to put their fingers through them. The only drawback came in 8th grade at a school dance, when one of the boys in a punk band threw a raw steak at the crowd and it got tangled in my hair. Someone still claims to have my hysterical reaction on video, as I'm picking the meat pulp out of my frizz.

My daughter, Kaia, had inches of silky blond hair that needed grooming. Suddenly, I was responsible not only for my own hair, but someone else's.

Even after I passed out of boy-craziness to long-term girlfriend and finally wife, I hung onto the long hairstyle. It was no longer something to attract men, it was simply a part of me. Then I became a mother.

"Look at the mop o' hair on that one!" my Welsh obstetrician whistled as he handed me my wide-eyed daughter. My mother stepped up to the bed and said through tears, "She looks just like you. I carried you home from the hospital with ribbons in your hair. Most girls had to have bows taped to their heads." At least I had not brought shame to the family by needing tape.

My daughter, Kaia, had inches of silky blond hair that needed grooming. Suddenly, I was responsible not only for my own hair, but someone else's.

I was surprised by the number of wellwishers in the following weeks who assured me Kaia's hair would fall out. "Mean-spirited," I thought, and felt smug as her hair stayed put.

Her hair grew into soft wisps of strawberry blond that I could fashion into pigtails when she was less than a year old. As she entered toddlerdom and smeared food on the top of her head to signal the end of each meal, I did begin to wonder about the wisdom of long hair on toddlers.

Even her day care mom helpfully suggested bangs one day. I quickly snuffed out the idea -- "I like to see her whole face!" Then I realized the problem. I had given my daughter my hairstyle.

As I rush to apply makeup before work in the mornings, Kaia seems more interested in unscrewing the sink legs or eating my lipstick, but I know that I'm already shaping her ideas about beauty and what it means to be female. Kaia watched me, as I watched my mother. A secret mother-daughter language is spoken through long hair.

In the meantime, a photographer friend suggested she'd like to snap some photos of Kaia's first haircut. "First haircut?" I gasped. Let me think about it.

Sasha Aslanian is a producer for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Her daughter, Kaia, got her first haircut on her third birthday.