It’s been about three days since I last had to cut out a knot of hair. It was a good one too, right on top and always accessible; whether my hair was up in a tousled bun or loosely pinned back, I knew just how to find it. But because it was on top and not underneath and to the side like the usual knots, I had to cock my head to get to it, which was awkward, and I got caught doing it.
“BFB,” my boyfriend says to me — our code phrase to let me know that I’m drifting off into an episode of “Body-focused Behavior.” Every time he says “BFB,” I always respond with a confounded, “What did you say?” partly because he snaps me out of my twisting, knotting trance, and partly because I think for a moment he’s calling me his BFF.
Hair twisting has been pervasive in my life for the past 10 years or so, but it grew out of other tactile hair fixations. In middle school when my hair was pulled up in a ponytail, I enjoyed searching for the little lumps and bumps between my hair and my scalp. I discovered that loading up a perfumed puff of Pantene Mousse on my hair and crunching it out was far more satisfying than eating popcorn while watching a movie.
Over time, I figured out an even more gratifying habit that I could enjoy at any time, with no need for a ponytail or mousse, by twisting knots into my hair. Usually, my right hand reaches up to the right side of my long, curly hair, isolating a wispy section of strands. Then my left hand holds the section of hair a few inches from the end, while my right thumb and index finger twist the bottom few inches of hair until it forms a wire. I reach up to feel this wire very frequently throughout the day and night. As I continue to twist, more sections of hair get swept up in the wake of the tangle, heightening the sensation of naughty pleasure— knots like these are “bad ones.” Sometimes, while lying in bed, my left hand will reach around the back of my head to find the knot from behind. When I am alone, and only then, I will run the knot around the rim of my mouth, and lick it.
Tickling and fondling these little knots of hair feels like an intimate way of coming to know my own body. The fingers’ knowledge of the body is pre-verbal, and exists in a kind of secret covenant outside time. The way my fingertips search the surface of the knot mirrors the inner search happening within. Quite literally, all I have to do is lift a finger to start twisting, and I can enter a quiet, brooding inner landscape. Absolutely nothing happens on the outside except the twisting, twiddling, stirring, and twining of my fingers in my hair.
Hair twisting offers me a way to be in constant contact with myself.
This self-enclosure takes the edge off feelings of discomfort, especially in social or interpersonal situations involving conflict or heightened stress; it can also protect me from feelings of boredom due to idleness, as rubbing the nibs and points of hair sustains my attention. I never fall asleep twisting, but I’m never fully present either. “Portable knots,” (knots cut out of my hair and stored in my pockets for more discreet fiddling) work especially well in social situations.
But this self-enclosure often leads to feelings of imprisonment. I tend to become fixated on a knot that I’ve started, and what may have begun as a pleasurable distraction often results in feeling distant, tangled, and engulfed by the current of my inner world. The knot becomes a thicket separating me from the outside world; I become Sleeping Beauty, out of reach in her tower.
“BFB,” says my boyfriend again, and I snap out of it, half irritated, half relieved.
Freud might suggest I’m seeking to recreate the feelings of original, maternal union with my fingers, just as a baby aims to recreate the scene of original nourishment by sucking at its thumb. Freud also suggests that a healthy libido reaches up and out toward the world, and a narcissistically oriented libido turns back in on itself. I agree with Freud; there’s something infantile about the twisting part of me, the part that recoils from external reality and prefers to stay bound up in the safety of my inner world.
I’ve always been ambivalent about “playing outside.” As a child, rather than going outdoors, I preferred playing alone in my basement, with make-up, Barbie dolls, coloring books, records, or fabric. In fact, I didn’t really know how to play outside. Peeling sticks on the front porch with my dog was the main outdoor activity I enjoyed. I was tactile and artistically oriented, avoiding any activity that involved exerting myself physically (no wheels, fields, or balls). I found the kinds of group activities children are expected to enjoy difficult and painful in comparison to the magic I could create alone, with my fingertips.
Hair twisting permits me to quietly turn away from the physical world and enter my magical one. At least that’s part of what perpetuates the habit. I’ve also wondered if my private pleasure is a kind of masturbatory instinct gone awry, as if I’ve found a polite way to fondle myself in public. Perhaps my instinctive desire to touch myself was deemed taboo or over-stimulating, and got rerouted to my hair, which I affectionately play with but ultimately mutilate, like a child’s favorite teddy. When hair twisting, as when masturbating, I am sealed in a bond with myself, engaging in a repetitive motion to produce a desired sensation, also generating fantasy, or at least daydreams.
Unfortunately, there’s no orgasm in hair twisting. In fact, there is no end at all. That is the lure and the dread of it. In the new edition of the DSM, body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) have been moved from the umbrella of Impulse Control Disorders and are now included in the chapter on Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. BFRBs are characterized as causing significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning, and marked by repeated attempts to decrease or stop the behaviors.
Examples include: nail biting, lip biting, and cheek chewing—behaviors sometimes referred to as “pathological grooming.”
Twisting hair into a tangled wad is not listed, though it certainly qualifies as an offshoot of Trichotillomania (hairpulling disorder), also included in the chapter, along with hoarding, excoriation disorder (skin picking), and body dysmorphic disorder.
Is my hair twisting behavior somehow more valid because it’s mentioned in the DSM, or less valid because it’s merely an afterthought of OCD? On the one hand, I feel validated because “what I do is in there.” The DSM is powerful. It names. But on the other hand, its names are sterile, and make me think of lab coats, fluorescent lights, assessments, and insurance codes.
While it may help us identify our symptoms and reassure us that we have something wrong with us, the DSM hinders us from understanding other dynamics that might also be at play, such as the connection between our psychological symptoms and motifs in mythology and folklore.
After all, there is something archetypal about the connection between women, hair, sexuality, and twisting, or spinning. Sleeping Beauty, in most versions of the tale, turned 16-years-old, pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, and slept for 100 years in a tower protected by a thicket of twining trees and briar. The miller’s daughter in the story of Rumpelstiltskin was also trapped by spinning, imprisoned by the impossible task of spinning straw into gold. Rapunzel was trapped in a tower too, and renowned for her letting her hair down.
A woman caressing her tresses can be flirtatious, seductive, or playful. She can also be dangerous.
As with the Sirens of Greek mythology, her sensuous hair can be a web used to lure and trap enraptured men. Pre-Raphaelite male artists were fixated on this kind of double-edged femininity, characterized by the femme fatale archetype. Painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was especially preoccupied with the image of a full-lipped woman fondling her hair with a far off gaze. On the back of his second portrait of Lilith (Adam’s beautiful but sinister first wife, according to Talmudic legend), Rossetti inscribed the following passage from Goethe’s Faust:
Beware of her fair hair, for she excels
All women in the magic of her locks;
And when she winds them round a young man’s neck,
She will not ever set him free again.
At this time, social gender constructs were undergoing a major shift. Women were finally being acknowledged as sexual agents in their own right, instead of merely “household nuns,” according to historian Bram Dijkstra, in his ambitious work Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (1988). Women’s increasing agency threatened male autonomy.
For painters like Rossetti, the canvas became a space to illustrate, and perhaps worship, the idols of this fear and fascination. In many depictions of the turn of the century femme fatale she is portrayed as simultaneously revealing and concealing her sexual intention; she’s mesmerizing—but silent, threatening and seductive, yet still soft and luminous. She was a goddess painted by anxious men, but who could blame them? Her image has haunted mythology, religion, and literature across time and culture. There is something truly alluring about these women.
Of all the flowers, it was the narcissus with which Hades lured Persephone to the underworld to be his queen, but for only half the year. The Lady of Shallot was sick of shadows, but only half-sick. These beautiful and melancholy women are half-alive, and half-dead, rather like hair itself, which is regarded as a sign of fertility and vitality; take a closer look, however, and you see that only the root follicles under the scalp are alive. The actual hair itself is dead.
Twisting my hair may very well be a regressive habit, an unproductive outlet for libidinal energy that could be put to better use. In this sense, it’s what the DSM says it is—a body-focused behavior that causes “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” like nail-biting or nose-picking. Yet hair-twisting conjures up very different associations than these distasteful habits. In the inner world, these differences are crucial. My fingertips have learned to read the knots in my hair; they are the braille of my imagination, the sustenance of my silent reverie. Absorbed in the inner world of my hair, I’m entombed in the tower, a spinning, twining, slumbering, gazing sea-siren writhing beneath the surface of the water. If I were ever fully “cured” of my hair-twisting habit, I’d lose this visceral connection to my archetypal lineage. To twist my hair is to devote my loyalties to the underworld queens, who fertilize my inner landscape in return. But, like the curious sailors who heard the Siren call, I fall victim to her tangled web again and again. My inner self takes a secret half-pleasure in spinning traps for my outer self to fall into, which leaves me deadened to the dull world, bathing in the currents of the sea within.