Losing Melanin

Photo: John Mount

“You don’t dye your hair, do you?”

I don’t know where that question came from. I had been sitting at the kitchen counter, transcribing my parents’ ghost stories over toast and my morning coffee, when my mother popped that on me.

“Yup. For years, now.”


She sounded so shocked that I had to replay the question in my mind. She asked me if I dye my hair, right? Not if I strip for a living?

“I didn’t start coloring my hair until I was in my fifties,” Mom said.

I have a few years to go before that happens. Plus, I’ve heard this line from Mom before. My sister and I both think she’s exaggerating.

But Mom believes what she says. A little later, I heard her talking to Dad in their bedroom. Have you ever seen a Mexican telenovela? An Indian soap opera, or a Filipino one? They tend to be much the same — American ones, too, I imagine. Loving daughter is diagnosed with fatal disease, or devoted son is framed for terrible crime. Cut to Momma and Poppa; Momma wrings her hands and asks, Why? Oh cruel world! Why? — while dramatic music wails in the background. Mom’s soliloquy was just like that, without the horn section.

“Bakit?” Mom asked. Why?

“Why does she have to color? How can she have so much gray hair already? I was fifty before I had so much gray.”

I blame my father. I’m pretty sure he started coloring his hair before fifty. Not because he didn’t want gray, mind you. He just wanted the gray to come in correctly. A distinguished man, you see, goes gray from the temples back, like Dr. Strange — not from the middle part out, like he did. Me, too.

Or, I can blame my gray on not owning a hairdryer. My mother always told me never to braid or tie my hair when it’s wet, or the hair will turn white. I’ve never heard this belief from anyone else. I suppose it’s a Bikolano superstition. I have read that sleeping with wet hair will turn it white. I think Mom told me that one, too.

What else?

Pluck a gray hair and more grow in its place. Two, three, even ten depending on who you talk to. My favorite phrasing of this belief: “don’t pluck a gray hair because two will come to its funeral.” I’m sure that I’d heard this belief as a child, but it must not have been from Mom, because I have memories of watching her at her dresser, plucking the odd white hairs. She must have been in her thirties, at the time — so there, Mom.

There’s the ghost story cliché of hair turning white from fear or sudden shock. The “old man” from Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom comes to mind. I’m sure I’ve read other such stories, but at the moment none of them are coming to me.

Going gray from stress: there is some evidence for this, apparently. Vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause temporary loss of melanin production in your hair follicles, and stress probably correlates with eating poorly. And stress is associated with increased production of age-inducing free-radicals, the boogeyman of the twenty-first century.

Gray hair is considered a good thing in Islam: light for the faithful on the Day of Resurrection. Gray hair shouldn’t be plucked, but apparently it can be dyed — though not black. I’m in trouble.

Nothing to do with gray hair, but another common belief is that one must guard against losing the clippings from haircuts, or hair that falls out. This is either to guard against witchcraft (voodoo style), or to keep birds from using your hair to build their nests. Apparently the tight weaving of your hair into a bird’s nest will give you headaches.

Richard Lieban, in Cebuano Sorcery, mentions a Cebuano version of representational magic (“voodoo-style”) that incorporates the victim’s hair (or nail clippings, garments, or other personal effects). It’s called la-ga. The sorcerer wraps the victim’s hair in a leaf from a certain tree, and boils it with the appropriate ingredients. The victim’s symptoms: high fever, body swelling, heart attack, vomiting, perhaps discharges of blood. Death, if the sorcery isn’t reversed.

Here’s an especially interesting twist on the hair loss superstition:

My granddad was an unofficial barber among his neighbours. One of the men who came to get his hair cut insisted on collecting all of the cut hair from the floor. He would put it all in an envelope and then tuck it in between the stones of the wall near his house.

He believed that, when you die, and if your entire body including hair is not all “accounted for” (i.e. is not all with you and cannot be found anywhere), your soul will roam the earth trying to find it. So he was terrified at the thought of someone throwing his hair shavings in the fire and his soul being in purgatorial turmoil over it for all time.

I don’t think that’s an official Irish cultural belief though… It was probably only that one strange guy who believed it. He might have the last laugh though – his soul was easily able to collect all the envelopes and file them away correctly in the Soul Repository Office, without any hitches, while others are rooting through the bins outside various barber shops, wailing into the wind… .

I found that anecdote in this thread of cultural hair superstitions. You ought to click through, it’s fun to see the variety of different beliefs, and the variations and contradictions among the themes.

6 thoughts on “Losing Melanin

  1. LOL. Our crazy parents…

    I remember my dad asking me to pluck his gray hairs out when I was about five, so he would have been in his early forties. My mom would tell him that he would go bald, not that more gray hairs would appear. She never warned me about tying or braiding wet hair, or sleeping with it wet. Hmm.

    1. I suppose Mom might have confused the tying wet hair superstition with something else. I’ve definitely never heard it from anyone else. Going bald does seem like a more likely outcome from plucking out hairs….

  2. LOL, well have you heard the one about going blind when you sleep with wet hair? All these that Auntie told you is very much the same things i heard when growing up, especially the one’s about tying or braiding hair when its wet (it must be why i’ve got a lot of grey hair) and plucking grey hair would make it worse as they come back double the amount (which I am guilty of again). But I don’t think its just a Bikolano superstition as most of my Filipino friends here grew up hearing and believing such things. But, whatever the true cause maybe, I just blame it on stress :)) I find I’m more stressed out here than when I was back home hahaha.

    1. Oooh, hadn’t heard the going blind one! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who’s heard the “tying hair makes it gray” belief. And if your friends know it, it isn’t just our family, either. Auntie Odehl just isn’t telling Becca what she needs to know! 🙂

      Stress. Yes. I hear you …

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