Lauren C. Ostberg, nonfiction contest winner, speaks about “On Hair”
I’ve wanted to write an essay called “On Hair” since 2006 or so. I researched it in a disorganized, fairly passive way for a few years — looked it up in the index of The Golden Bough, reread Samson and Delilah, pretended to be Rapunzel on a turret in Central Park, that kind of thing. When I sat down to actually write it, my list of possible topics was ludicrously broad — how, exactly, did Bluebeard relate to my split ends? Why did I find myself particularly susceptible to the charms of people complimenting my eyebrows?
So I moved onto more focused research that would pull me out of my own (consciously idiosyncratic) experience: facial hair. Casual interviews are particularly useful to me, partially because they get me out of my head, but also because they mask my social ineptitude. For about a year, I had three go-to questions about beards, and, coupled with my tape recorder and reporter’s notebook, that was sufficient license to strike up a conversation with anyone in my eyeline.
Anytime I’m writing (or even thinking) about physical appearance, I acknowledge that I’m really dealing with self-presentation, which, in turn, is tied up with gender and sexuality. My brand of feminism is not much more sophisticated than the “whack-a-mole” approach to discrimination that I mentioned in my essay. I serve the feminist cause by being a powerful, purposeful woman, not by trying to figure out my position in and relationship to a collective experience. I’m not one to talk theory, or really participate in broad-based activism, but I am prepared to attack any barriers, socially imposed or otherwise, that get in my way.
“On Hair” is mostly about me trying to get over the barrier of physicality, especially in the gaps where “intellectual appropriation,” my preferred strategy, won’t fill in the gaps. In a further grasp at intellectual appropriation, I guess, I’m writing letters about my experience as a nude model for a friend who, in exchange, is writing me letters about her webcam performances. We’re still working on the analysis and presentation-for-publication of these letters, but it’s been very illuminating to have another set of body-mind relationships to explore, not to mention different ideas about sex, power, and feminism.
My most enduring feminist influence is probably Eavan Boland, an Irish poet who made a project of reanimating the “heaving-bosomed faeries” and raped Queens of poetry written during the Celtic Revival. I wrote my senior thesis on a few of her poems that imbued these once-passive characters with agency; I was also really delighted by the way she slipped between the mythological past (women on the River Styx) and the domestic present (Dublin suburbs), because poems like “The Pomegranate” were visceral and accessible enough that I could share them, and the ideas contained in them, with my mother.
Though Boland’s project is explicitly a feminist revision, she, like me, seems less interested in collective, embodied experience, and more interested in intellectual exploration. The final stanza of “Anna Liffey” begins with the phrase “In the end/ it will not matter/ that I was born a woman” and ends with “in the end/ everything that burdened and distinguished me/ will be lost in this: I was a voice.”
I hope that I am, too. Thank you for reading.
Did you enjoy what you read? Share your thoughts with Lauren C. Ostberg by commenting on her post. To read her story visit our Subscribe page to request a copy of our newest issue! Look forward to poet, Anne Marie Rooney, post on Wednesday.