The Myth of Sif and how Hair Makes Men Stupid
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
hi! i've been pecking away at this for months and absolutely nobody wants to publish it, so here you go! lesson is: never try!
When I was in my twenties, I was at a San Francisco beer garden-type bar, sitting at a picnic table with a group of friends. It was a rare warm afternoon, someone’s birthday, the bar wasn’t crowded, and we were all happy. A few men sidled up to the table and one asked my name. When I told him, he slurred, day-drunk, that I looked like “a sexy grown-up Shirley Temple.” Now, sure, my hair is very curly, I’ll give him that. But everything else about that observation fills me with second-hand embarrassment so deep that I am writing this from my underground bunker. To make just a single observation about why this is the creepiest pick-up line anyone has ever tried on me: at the time, Shirley Temple was an octogenarian which means… she was a grown up already. I went inside for another whiskey and didn’t come back outside until he had moved on.
I have the kind of hair that makes men stupid. I have watched men turn to liquid around it my whole life. As a kid, maybe 6, on a now-shuttered small town Long Island Main Street, a photographer who owned a little shop saw me walking with my dad down the street and insisted on pulling me in for a modeling shoot. The focus is, undeniably, my hair, styled at the time with thick BoHo bangs and shag layers. In every shot it’s visible, down to my waistband.
It started there, and it goes on like that. A few examples: I’ve spent a great deal of time in my life on stages, in various capacities, and I can tell you that no matter how flawlessly I performed on any given evening, the first thing someone will talk to me about after a show is my hair. Two drinks later and the same dudes are begging me to let them touch it or to let them fuck me or to let them photograph me. I’ve had managers admit to giving me jobs because of my hair. I carry my hairdresser’s business cards around in my wallet, because I get asked so often who cuts it. My last salon, and this is true, had to create a referral program specifically to reward me for the business I brought in. Someone, once, at a going away party, wrote a card—to my hair. Dear Amy’s Hair, it said at the top. I know this sounds like a brag, and maybe it is, but it’s also an often bewildering reality I’ve lived my whole life despite my otherwise relative basicness. It grows only more surreal with age.
I’m not alone. Stories about the physical and metaphorical weight of hair have been told since time immemorial. You’ve heard of Medusa, with her snakes, and her exaggerated female authority, turning men to stone. What often goes unmentioned about Medusa is that she was raped by Poseidon, which prompted Athena to turn her hair to snakes, rendering her so hideously ugly that men, ya know, just couldn’t even.
Or perhaps you’re familiar with Rapunzel, locked in her tower, whose future of love and freedom collapses with the shearing of her seemingly-infinite locks. Yes, Rapunzel gets to have a beautiful voice, but it’s her HAIR that enables or prevents her eventual rescue.
My favorite is Sif. We know two things about Sif. First, Sif was the wife of the storm god Thor in Norse mythology. The second thing we know: she had long, beautiful, flaxen hair.
The description of her hair has prompted scholars to write that she was a symbol of abundance, her hair evoking a field ripe for harvest. It makes sense: Thor is the god of thunder and lightning, wind and rain, the weather both fair and tumultuous that impacts crops and yields. He controls the elements; she is a physical embodiment of the opulence for which he is responsible. His pride and joy.
When trickster god Loki (and Thor’s brother) sneaks up behind her and cuts her hair off, Thor flies into a rage, threatening to break every bone in Loki’s body. Thor demands that Loki replace her hair with a golden headpiece and new tresses. This leads Loki to the caverns of the dwarves, the expert craftsmen tasked with creating the crown and repairing Sif’s beauty. While the dwarves are at it, they also make this hammer that boomerangs when thrown, you might have heard of it. Loki gives the new weave to Sif—and the hammer to Thor.
At the center of the creation of the most enduring symbol in all of Norse Mythology sits two grown men fighting over a woman's hair. Despite her essential role in this story, we don’t know whether she was a scholar or a thief, a wine aunt, an aspiring DJ, an influencer, or anything at all, so few are the descriptions of anything beyond her long, beautiful hair, and the rage Thor felt at seeing her without it.
The English painter John Charles Dollman painted Sif in 1909. She’s sitting on a step in a marble room, her hair so long it reaches almost to the end of her robe, which is splayed out on the ground past her feet. She is adorned with bracelets and a flower crown. Her head, though, is turned over her right shoulder, and the only real glimpse we get of Sif is a shy profile: one eye closed, hand in front of her mouth, the painter and the subject both hiding her face. It’s her hair that is central to the portrait. It's surprisingly not dissimilar from a lot of my amateur childhood modeling shots.
My hair is longer now than it has been in almost fifteen years: the first thing I did when out of my mother’s influence was cut it from my waist to my chin, give myself a little bang. The hairdresser who cut it shook nervously, removing only two inches at a time because she was terrified to do it, rendering donation of all that hair impossible. She’d cut, half style it, ask if it was okay, and I would say “shorter please,” hold up the inspiration photo again, and she’d spritz me with water and repeat the process.
For all that work, it came out crooked and boxy. I looked like a Lego person. But I didn’t care. There were cheekbones under there! A jawline! I was 22, and I felt tough and cute for the first time, giraffe-necked and unstoppable.
My hair is long now, hitting my bra strap for the first time in 13 years. Healthier now, too, because I coddle and condition it, I pay good money for organic products, even do a weekly scalp mask. I found an expert stylist who understands my desire that this all be a fun and lighthearted part of my personal brand, that sometimes I want to carve a potentially irresponsible amount of layers into it and have it be no big deal. She styles it big, like, so big I can’t believe it—three kinds of dryers—and laughs while she does it. I come home and take pictures for hours because I’ve never seen it look like this. After years of brutal relaxers and trying to hide, tame, change, and eventually eliminate it altogether, it feels good to let it do what it wants to do. It just wants to take up space, a feeling to which I think we can all relate, and I refuse to tell it no ever again because of the garbage men (not to be confused with garbagemen, most of whom are fine) in the world.
Which, yes, I am also grooming hair that attracts garbage men like a beacon: if I’m wearing it down, I’m getting hit on. I’ve had them touch it at bars, tell me unprompted that they want to pull it, smell it surreptitiously on the subway. They cross the street to ask me about it, they approach me while I’m crying in parks, they shout from halal carts.
A normal day in my life: earlier this summer, I had an afternoon free, and so I sat on a barstool on the sidewalk outside a fish place for a late lunch, enjoying some sun and a very good book. My face was down in my novel, my body folded up on the stool, elbow on the bar. The only thing visible was my hair, and my left arm. A man was sitting two stools over, and immediately began asking the “meaning behind” the one visible tattoo I have on my forearm. When I turned to look at him, he was sporting a sleeve of a vaguely botanical nature, covered in what was definitely just scrawled art with no great story behind it. I said, “I like the colors,” and went back to my book. He was clearly mad but after muttering, “Well you’re a decisive bitch aren’t you? Gorgeous hair though,” he left me alone.
Moments later, a car pulled up behind me and parked (in midtown Manhattan!), and a man came and took the seat immediately next to me, between myself and the first guy, who was still seated there. Car Guy asked me something I ignored about whether he would get a parking ticket, ordered a seltzer, and then asked me what I do “to make my hair like that.” I vaguely considered forcing him to sit through a play-by-play of my entire grooming routine as that is what he deserved, but instead I just said “I’m married,” and continued reading. He left without paying before his seltzer arrived. The bartender, delivering his seltzer a few moments later, was very confused and then very apologetic when I explained and, bless him, left me with the seltzer (and wound up comping me two more cocktails).
In these moments I feel like I am only my hair, that it defines me completely and the woman underneath it is meaningless. Consider: the cries of shock and despair when I revealed my first bob to my mother. I snapped a picture of myself on the balcony of my apartment with my flip phone and sent it to her. She called immediately and wailed into the phone—actually crying—asking how I could do such a thing.
Or, the lamentations of old boyfriends when I confessed that I wanted to try something short, begging me to reconsider. Or, the strange men who see my hair as an invitation, ignoring or not seeing anything else about my left ring finger or body language. None of them care about the woman underneath, the woman who was tired of spending half her meager early-twenties income on drugstore conditioner, the girl who was so, so hot in summers, the adult who wanted to be seen for her talent and hard work and creativity rather than the dead protein on her scalp.
Also consider: I was never called a dyke when I was dating a woman and identifying as a lesbian—I was called a dyke when my hair was short, by men making sure I knew I was unfuckable.
In the background of the painting of Sif, of course, is Loki sneaking up on her, her future of Being Acted Upon By Men creeping over the wall, just outside her periphery. The only explanation I can find on the internet as to why Loki cut Sif’s hair is that he knew it was Thor’s most prized possession, that he would be taking something from Thor principally—Thor robbed of the living, breathing evidence of how great a man he is. By taking from Sif such a powerful signifier, he (Loki) is hurting Thor by proxy. Remember: it is Thor who insists on Loki replacing Sif’s hair; there is no mention of what Sif wanted.
Think of Rapunzel: rescued thanks to her ability to draw men in with her hair, a long and shiny ladder to her future of being loved and free. Then, left to wither in the sky once she’s shorn. Think of Medusa: the loss of her hair granting her safety from men: men who no longer wanted to fuck Medusa would literally just die.
Men feel some warped kind of ownership over a woman’s hair, and over her appearance, her femininity, her abundance and fertility. Strange men want to possess it; familiar men want to control it.
That first hairdresser, the one who cut my length off the first time? She refused to do it until I showed her a text from my husband confirming he knew it was happening. She’d been accosted by angry husbands in the past, she told me, and I believe her. If you’ve watched basically any reality show with a makeover component, you’ve seen the woman begging the hairdresser not to cut her hair short so that the man in her life will still find her attractive, will not be angry at the trickster god with the scissors changing everything about her. Crying because the man standing behind her is taking away her power, and the man in her life will punish her for it.
After about a decade of never having hair past my chin—a decade of being, for the most part, blissfully invisible in the world of men—I began to have dreams about long, luxurious hair. In one, we were leaving the house and I said “hold on, let me just put my hair up,” and then I did a slow motion flip like Ariel on the rock and secured it in a perfect, effortlessly messy top knot.
Once the dreams started, I began to miss the rituals: the blowout for an occasion, the workout braids, the days when it just comes out right. I remember how soft it felt in the dreams, how weightless, how ludicrously frivolous it all seemed.
Eventually, after months of this, I decided to grow it out again. The idea of what I could look like as a grown-up seduced me into believing this was a no-big-deal decision. Perhaps my subconscious knew I was ready to re-enter the world of terrible men, even a little excited to tell them to fuck off, instead of giggling shyly at their encroachments like I did in my twenties. No, you can’t just take a photo real quick. You absolutely may not touch me. No I will not stand here while you pepper me with questions to try to keep me from walking away.
I like to imagine Loki coming back with the new hair, making Sif more beautiful than before. Not because she has hair again, but because she learned to live without it—learned it doesn’t define her. I see her staring at her reflection, blinking back at her giant eyes, her cut-glass collar bones, her face transformed and brand new. I imagine Sif receiving the gift of her crown, new floor-length hair attached, taking a stroll around Asgard and telling men to keep their fucking hands off of it, that she’ll cut it again if she damn well pleases. That a woman can be her own trickster god.