Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Nonfiction About Hair

Some of my favorite books fall under the genres of microhistory or immersion journalism. Diving deep into a topic, the stranger or more obscure the better! I fell down a rabbit hole about books about hair recently, and boy, oh boy, is it a weird and cool rabbit hole.

Here we have the history of hair removal, personal essays about hair, history and commentary on Black hair, and a look at the wig industry.

Are you sitting down? Do you have a towel around your neck, a cup of water? Because these books are gonna blow you away. Tangle your brainwaves. Weave in facts you never knew you wanted to know. (I’m sorry.)

Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca M. Herzig.

This is a heavy look into the science and history of hair removal — from shaving as punishment in Guantanamo Bay to getting routine Brazilian waxes. We get to see the techniques for hair removal, the types of people throughout history who have cared about removing their hair, and what people assume about people who don’t tame their hair, like those reckless young women who don’t shave their armpits (*waves*). This is the most science-y one here, and it’s probably the best if you’re just wanting one book about hair.

Verdict: Buy.

Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession by Elizabeth Benedict.

Hair is a symbol of identity: social status, sexuality, politics. This collection of short essays by women about their hair and what it means is just lovely. We hear from women across the globe, telling the history of their own hair coupled with the history of hair in their cultures. We hear from women who lose their hair from chemotherapy. We hear from women who spent their childhoods wishing their hair were anything but what it is.

Verdict: Borrow.

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd, Lori L. Tharps.

Oh my goodness, you guys, this one is so good. We get the whole history of Black hair in Africa and beyond, with portraits of hairstyles through the years, and advertisements for Black hair products. We get interviews with tons of men and women about their hair and the implications of wanting “good” hair, hair that’s straight and smooth. We get the story of politics in Black hairstyles. And there’s a chapter in here that’s basically a letter to White people about Black hair and hair routines, and it is perfect.

Verdict: Buy.

Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo.

Ever wonder what happens to hair when it’s not attached to a head? It’s made into ropes and wigs and clothes and all kinds of things. Tarlo interviews people across the world who work with hair, either turning it into something else, or collecting it and keeping it safe. But this book is more about the wig industry than anything else, which is a bummer.

Verdict: Bypass.

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