Years ago I read a blog by Juno Dawson. I think it was a blog, anyway, but honestly this was ages ago, and I had no idea who Juno Dawson was at the time, and I only found the thing because I was trying to find a particular Point Horror book for my daughter. It could have been an advert for her local hairdresser for all I know. Anyway, I found the blog, and through it the book, and I also discovered someone who would go on to be one of my daughter’s favourite authors, so it all worked out rather well, really. What stood out for me about the blog (if it was a blog) was that she talked about the concept of hair long enough to sit on, and about the way that seemed to turn up a lot in books at one point, and about how impractical it would probably be to have hair like that in reality. So here, for reasons that may or may not eventually become apparent, is my blog on what it’s actually like to have hair long enough to sit on. The first thing you should know is that hair “long enough to sit on” is not really as long as you might think.
The phrase conjures visions of a great, thick, princess-y, even sweep of hair, hanging down to somewhere around about mid-thigh.
There are certainly people out there with hair like that, or even longer, but long hair tends to thin out and taper off towards the bottom, especially if you’ve been growing — and thus not cutting — your hair for so long that it’s grown far enough to become one with the upholstery.
So hair that is long enough to sit on doesn’t always look long enough to sit on, at least at first glance. For me it’s the fine, tapered point that ends up forever trapped under someone else’s legs, not a great shining width of the stuff.
It also doesn’t have to be all that long: to be long enough to sit on, all hair really needs is to be just that awkward little bit longer than bottom-length. Grow your hair just a little more than the average idea of long hair* and you too can find yourself unexpectedly trapped by your own rear every time you sit on a chair.
Except not really, because once you’ve done that a handful of times you tend to develop a habit of pulling your hair over your shoulder when you sit down, to keep it out of the way.
Or you just pin it up. Which is its own set of problems, since that much hair — even if “that much” isn’t as much as you might think — is an awful lot of hair to get under control. Both of my children also have hair long enough to sit on, and both of them do ballet. I’ve got very good at compressing huge amounts of hair into ballet-buns that only look a little bit like the first scout force for the Attack Of The Mushroom People.
My point is that hair long enough to sit on can be a pain in the neck — literally: those ballet buns are heavy — but it’s not quite as much of a pain as you might imagine. The thing is that, as with anything in life, you learn to handle it, and you make accommodations.
You learn to sweep your hair over the back of the pillow when you go to bed, so you won’t wake up strangling yourself, or pinned in place by your own hair. You learn to condition thoroughly, to abhor two-in-one shampoos, and to pose like the washed-out blonde lady from a shampoo ad whenever you take a shower. Wet hair tends to tangle between the legs, otherwise, and there are some places that conditioner really shouldn’t go. You learn that whenever you buy an ice cream, no matter which direction you face, the wind will always, somehow, be behind you. Although that one might apply to everybody. Ice cream cornets seem to have a magnetic attraction for hair, new clothing, and tarmac.
Anyway, I’ve wittered about my hair for long enough. It’s time to stop talking nonsense and get to the point.
Because my hair, of course, is allegorical. Not my actual hair. My actual hair is exactly what I’ve just described: long, straight, barely controllable, and fine enough that it splits when it’s cut, no matter how sharp the scissors may be. No one is likely to look at my hair and decide that they’re actually looking at the plight of the Eider duck after a sudden boom in the duvet business.
But I’m afraid we’re in allegory infested waters all the same.
Time to talk about writing for a change.
If I, a person with — as I’ve explained — long, fine, straight, sit-on-able hair, want to write a story about a person with short, thick, curly locks, or about a person with no hair at all; there are probably some aspects of that person’s lived experience that I am going to get wrong.
They might not come up in the text, and they might not be particularly important to the narrative if they do, but all the same, there’s a gap in my knowledge.
The same goes for those same people writing a book about someone who has hair like me: they might not know how to brush it, carefully, starting from the bottom, or the amount of conditioning products it uses, or how long it takes to dry.
Because I am not them, and they are not me, and our lives are not, in this particular case, the same.
I might have to be careful, when I write about their hair, or the lack of it, to avoid phrases that I wouldn’t even know would be considered hurtful.
I’m unlikely to call my bald character “slap-head” even in jest. I know that some kinds of curly hair can be a focus for racial abuse, and I know enough to try to avoid those things, but do I know every word that has ever been thrown out in spite? What about claims that baldness is a sign of virility? How could that hurt or otherwise affect bald women?
It’s at that point in the proceedings that I’d want to call in a sensitivity reader.
I wouldn’t ask a sensitivity reader to look at my book just because a character had short, bleached hair.
Not unless it was somehow vital to the plot.
Probably not even then.
In a situation like that I’d probably just do my best, read a few articles on hairdressing, perhaps talk to a few friends with the right lived experience, avoid any obvious pitfalls, and write.
But replace the hair with a Muslim character, a trans character, a character with Parkinson’s disease…
At that point, no matter how much research I had done, I think I’d want someone to take a look at it, before it went to print.
Someone who knew that life from the inside, and could point out the problems I couldn’t even begin to imagine, or tell me when my imagined difficulties were all too simply overcome.
Better yet, several people, because no two lives are the same, and perhaps there are people out there who prefer to coil their allegorical hair around their neck, instead of posing like a shampoo ad in the shower.
So that’s why, in a week or so, once I’ve got the first rough draft tidied enough that I won’t literally just snatch it back and run away, I’ll be asking a few people to take a look at The Wolf-finder General, and tell me what I’ve missed, what I didn’t know, and how I can make it better.
Because it’s that or tear my hair out, wondering what I’ve got wrong.
And that could take a while: there's a lot of it.
I have no idea what the average idea of long hair is, because I'm inside the wall of long haired existence looking out**, instead of being on the outside looking in.
**Always difficult, when there's so much hair to get in the way.