SHEITEL (n): $3000 strawberry blonde hairpiece employed by Orthodox women to preserve short matted hair for their husbands’ sole viewing. – Ortho Diction
A few weeks ago a Facebook friend, known as Ortho Diction, shared a glossary of terms he created. One which I found particularly humorous was his definition (see above) of a sheitel. It’s funny because it’s true. Even those of us who try to maintain a healthy head of hair under our wigs, still end up with our “outside hair” looking better than our “inside hair” most of the time. When your hair is only uncovered in the early morning or late in the evening it’s all too easy to get lazy about styling a natural mane that never sees the sunlight.
Today I happened upon this older article by Frieda Vizel called, On women shaving all their hair. In her article, Vizel recalls a poignant memory of being forced to shave off her hair as a young hasidic wife. She details how the community used her son as leverage to get her to comply with shaving off a growing head of hair by threatening to expel him from cheder and warning another local school not to accept him if she tried to circumvent the system. In the end, she reshaved her head, but the event heralded the death knell for her membership in the hasidic enclave where she was born and raised.
Vizel writes –
“But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless, because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.
I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.”
What struck me about this quote is that the same vulnerability exists in non-hasidic communities too. While there are women who enjoy the mitzvah of hair covering, there are many who feel confined by it. I’ve read of frum women who waited a long time to find their bashert and see hair covering as a much coveted right reserved for married women. Some older singles look forward to the day when they will purchase their first sheitel/head covering with immense longing for its greater significance – that they will finally be married women. Hair covering separates the women from the girls in orthodox Jewish society.
However, many other women either secretly or outwardly make it clear that hair covering is, to put it mildly, not their favorite mitzvah. I remember going to a lecture given by a very yeshivish rebbetzin who spoke about her puzzlement regarding women’s complaints over keeping the laws of taharat hamishpacha. She was a kallah teacher and found great beauty in the laws governing intimacy between spouses. She said that if Hashem suddenly decided that we could eliminate one women’s mitzvah of our own choosing, her first pick would be getting rid of sheitels!
I have had conversations with so many non-hasidic women who are unhappy about having to cover their hair. They cover not for themselves but to comply with the standards of their families, husbands, in-laws, friends, shuls, day schools, or those of their general community. It’s easy for the modern orthodox or yeshivish women who cover their hair to recoil in horror at hair shaving stories, since this is not the custom in those segments of orthodox society. Although the most common rationale I have heard for hasidic women shaving their heads is so that no hair will accidentally form a chatzitza (barrier) in the mikvah, one of the obvious reasons must also be because shaving a woman bald ensures that she won’t ever be tempted to remove her head covering in public. However, even orthodox women who don’t shave off their hair, find that after covering for a lengthy period of time, natural hair can become so unpresentable that they would also be ashamed to reveal it publicly.
Sometimes having ugly hair is by design. For example, one time a friend and I decided to create the perfect “hair covering haircut.” We did find it, but unfortunately, it was hideous. My husband was devastated when he saw my long wavy hair had been replaced by this kisui rosh cut, shaved up short in back and slanted down to near shoulder length angles on each side. The short shave in the back prevented “camel hump;” a common problem when wearing longer hair in a ponytail or bun underneath a wig. The longer front and sides allowed for wearing snoods and scarves without short pieces sticking out, the way they do when a woman has an all around short hair cut. It was a look that I would have been embarrassed for the general public to see, but it worked well on a practical level.
Another time, after growing my hair back out, I was working downtown and wearing a sheitel for many hours each day. The center comb that attached the wig to the crown of my head had worn away into sharp points. Since it was my only wig, and I was a busy working mom, I didn’t have time to get to a sheitel macher and get the comb switched out. I continued to wear the painful wig until it pulled out a small front section of my hair where the comb had left me with a scabby red bald spot. It was quite an attractive look, as you can imagine. Certainly it was a time in my life where I looked better in my wig than in my own hair. Eventually, after fixing the comb and deciding to purposely uncover my hair at home as much as possible to give my follicles a break from confinement, my scalp healed and most of my hair grew back into the irritated spot. That area is still more sparse than the rest of my hair; a reminder of the price paid for years of hair covering.
Ortho Diction’s definition of the sheitel is ironically true. Often, an orthodox woman looks better with her wig on, than with it off. Her husband, who should be seeing his wife at her best, often sees her at her worst. Just as hasidic women would be ashamed to reveal their bald heads in public (not so much because a married woman should keep her head covered, but because she would be ashamed of her appearance), likewise, many women from non-hasidic segments of orthodox society would be ashamed to reveal their matted and damaged hair to the public eye. Surely, the cliche about “saving our beautiful hair for our husbands” is proven false by this common reality. Essentially, we all belong to the same hair club for women.
I made a commitment to myself several years ago that I would always make an effort to keep my own hair nice enough, that were it to be uncovered, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have it seen in public (at least not after a good wash and flat ironing). I want to cover my hair because I choose to do so, not because I have to do so out of shame over what I’m covering. Unfortunately, many of us are forced into continued hair covering, not only by community enforcement, but because we have ruined our hair by the practice. In this sense, we really are no different than the hasidic women we “pity” who shave all of their hair off.