Prevailing Medical Opinion
By: Ryan Donahue
Somewhere in the United States, sometime at the end of the 19th century
“I’m afraid there’s no other alternative, Mrs. Culper. If little Clara wishes to ameliorate the headaches, she must have her long hair cut short.”
The words rang in Gertrude’s ears as she processed the information. Dr. Harding packed his medical instruments as he prepared to leave. He continued with his recommendation.
“I would encourage you to take the girl to a barbershop, or to do it yourself. Cut it quite close to the head for the best effect.”
“I’m sorry, doctor, I don’t understand.” Gertrude’s expression was blank with shock.
“It’s a simple problem, Mrs. Culper. Clara’s long hair is pulling down on her scalp, cutting off blood flow to her brain and giving her terrible headaches. This is supported by the latest scientific theories.”
Gertrude looked confused and stammed, “But…I….I thought that you said only last year that long hair anchors the scalp and prevents headaches…”
“That was last year’s theory, Mrs. Culper. Science has advanced considerably since then. These things change very rapidly, Mrs. Culper, but your Clara would greatly benefit from my advice.”
Gertrude wasn’t convinced. “Has it worked before, doctor?
Dr. Harding nodded, closing his bag and retrieving his hat.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Culper. Just earlier this week, I visited the Leary family, where three of their little ones were ill with a fever, as well as the symptoms of your Clara. Acting quickly, I borrowed a pair of Mrs. Leary’s sewing scissors and whacked off her girls’ braids. It took a few minutes, but in the end, six braids were on the floor and three girls were feeling better already. They might miss their hair for a while, but they thanked me for it. Naturally, I would recommend a barber in town to do the deed for Clara. Thank you, Mrs. Culper, and good day.”
With that, Dr. Harding put on his derby hat and showed himself out of the house. Gertrude gazed after him for a long moment, then nearly collapsed onto a nearby chair. What did this all mean? Dr. Harding’s words echoed in her head, and she mulled them over in her mind. It seemed so strange to consider cutting Clara’s hair as an antidote to her headaches. The girl, about 14, had beautiful long dark brown hair that reached her knees, almost 3 threet long in total. Gertrude, who had thick curly hair that reached her hips when let down, would brush Clara’s hair, and the hair of her younger daughter Emmeline, in the evening at bedtime and in the morning at the start of the day. Both girls had lovely long hair that Gertrude loved to brush, braid, and put up.
The thought of having to have Clara’s lovely hair cut short, and the prospect of telling her so, filled Gertrude with dread. How would she break the news to the sweet girl? Clara had suffered for so long with the headaches that she had declared her intention to do whatever Dr. Harding prescribed. But she didn’t know that the doctor had prescribed something very difficult to accomplish. Gertrude massaged her temples, trying to calm herself. She was a sensible woman who trusted the latest scientific advances, but she cared so much for her daughters that the matter gave her cause for great distress.
Meanwhile, from around the corner in the kitchen, little Emmeline, who everyone called Emmie, had listened to the exchange between her mother and Dr. Harding. Emmie couldn’t believe her ears. Cut Clara’s hair? It wasn’t fair at all! But Emmie was not so much thinking of the waste it would be to destroy such lovely hair, but rather at the injustice of that same treatment not being applied to her. See, Emmie had no such headaches, but her struggle was instead against her hair, which she had always despised. It was thicker than Clara’s, and prone to tangle and fraying. Though her mother doted on Emmie’s hair, the girl never liked having her light brown hair long, as it presently rested at her thighs. More than anything, Emmie wanted it all cut off, like the descriptions she had heard of in the newspaper.
One more than one occasion, Emmie had mentioned to her mother that some fashionable women in town had very short hair, shorter than their ears. Gertrude took little to no notice of the remarks, and instead reassured her daughter of the beauty of the latter’s hair. Put out by this, Emmie would fold her arms and return to her fantasies of having all her hair cut off. In contrast, Clara loved her hair and never wanted it cut short. Now, as Gertrude sat on the chair, recovering from the news, Emmie began to plot how she would convince her mother to allow her to rid herself of the burden of her hair.
After some time, Gertrude composed herself and walked in Clara’s room, preparing herself for the trial of revealing what must be done. Clara, the brunette angel she was, lay on her bed, resting after the attack of sharp pain that prompted the call to Dr. Harding in the first place. Clara looked up at her mother and smiled sweetly.
“Mother! What did the doctor say? Will I get better?”
Gertrude returned the smile halfheartedly, as she felt heavy inside. The mother brought herself down on a chair at the side of Clara’s bed, and she began to stroke the girl’s hand.
“Yes, my dear Clara, you are going to get better.”
“That is wonderful, mother! Will he give me medicine?”
Gertrude’s eyes began to fill with tears as she gazed on the child’s hopeful face. Gertrude shook her head.
“No, my dearest, not exactly. The doctor…he…” Gertrude was at a loss for words. She couldn’t explain the situation in a way that would soften the blow. Taking a deep breath, Gertrude finally broke the news.
“My little Clara, Dr. Harding told me that the best way to relieve your headaches is to cut your hair short.”
Clara’s face gradually fell, her smile replaced by a look of loss. Her eyes reflected melancholic disbelief.
“My hair? But mother, what does that have to do with my headaches?”
“Dr. Harding believes that the strain on your scalp is drawing blood away from your brain, or something to that effect. Shorter hair would relieve that pressure.”
As Gertrude explained that the doctor had said, she realized that it made little sense to her. But, then again, she didn’t read the most recent medical journals, nor was she proficient in current prevailing medical opinion.
Clara tried to work it out her in mind, becoming desperate at the thought.
“But…surely there can be some other way! Some other medicine, or procedure…”
“Clara, the good doctor wouldn’t have mentioned it if he wasn’t sure it would work.” Gertrude’s tone was calmer than she felt, as if she was trying to reassure herself.
“Please, mother, I don’t want to have my hair cut short. Please, I will do anything else, he can take my blood if he wants. Don’t let the doctor cut my hair!”
Gertrude’s heart almost broke from poor Clara’s pleading. She bit her lip, trying to compose herself as an example for her daughter.
“The doctor won’t do it, Clara, he recommended a barber. Oh, Clara, I am sorry that this has come to pass, but I want you to get better soon. Please, I beg you, let go of your hair.”
Gertrude ran her fingers of Clara’s silky locks, which fell over her shoulders onto the bed. Clara sniffed, holding back tears. Gertrude felt a wave of sympathy for her daughter, and she leaned in and kissed her daughter on the forehead.
“Now, rest for a while. I will bring some soup later. I love you, my dearest.”
Clara nodded, staring at the bed in silence, as Gertrude left the room. Softly closing the door behind her, she turned to see Emmie, her other daughter, standing in the hallway as if waiting.
“What is it, Emmie?” Gertrude asked, wiping a tear from her cheek. Emmie crossed her arms, a serious expression on her face.
“I heard Dr. Harding say that Clara’s hair should be cut.” The phrase was stated as a declaration. Gertrude hesitated, then nodded.
“Clara doesn’t want to have her hair cut, mother.”
“Clara must, if she wants to get well.” Gertrude replied. Emmie’s expression didn’t change.
“Well, if Clara’s is going to have her hair cut short, I want mine cut as well.”
Gertrude blinked, clearly not understanding. Why would Emmie want to have her hair cut?
“I beg your pardon,” Gertrude managed weakly.
“It’s not fair, mother. Clara loves her long beautiful hair, and she must have it cut. I hate mine, and I can’t.”
“Emmie! Don’t say such a thing! Your hair is lovely.”
“My hair is a rat’s nest, mother! You said so yourself last week!”
Gertrude was taken aback. “I only said that in frustration when I was combing it. Oh, Emmie, I didn’t mean it, I love your hair.”
“Well I don’t!” Emmie nearly shouted. “I want it short! And if Clara is going to have her hair cut, I want to as well.”
Gertrude shook her head sternly. She was already going to lose one daughter’s hair, she wasn’t going to let herself lose another’s.
“No, Emmie, I won’t allow it.”
“I am your mother, I don’t have to explain it to you.”
“It’s not fair!” Emmie stamped her foot and stormed off, probably to the backyard to sulk a while. Gertrude huffed in indignation, running a hand over her tied-back hair. Emmie was a free spirit, a girl who never wanted to do the same things as the other girls. This wasn’t the first time Emmie had complained about her hair, but Gertrude had expected anything like this. With a cluttered mind, Gertrude stepped into the kitchen to join the housekeeper Aina to begin making supper.
The next few days passed uneventfully, though Gertrude was still worried about Clara and Emmie. Her husband Robert was shocked at the news, but he agreed that Dr. Harding would know best. Robert was the kind of man who cared little what his wife and daughters did with their hair, as long as it made them happy. Gertrude neglected to inform Robert of Emmie’s desire to cut her hair for this very reason. Gertrude wasn’t emotionally ready to allow Emmie to cut her hair, as she wasn’t yet ready to accept poor Clara’s fate. The doctor’s prescription was bad enough, but the thought of having Emmie’s hair cut as well was too much for Gertrude to bear.
But, at long last, the time of indecision came to an end. Clara’s headaches had grown worse, and the poor girl could hardly bear it. In tears, Clara begged Gertrude to have it cut off; Gertrude, after much thought and anguish, finally relented. Mother and daughter got dressed the next morning and set out for town on foot. The whole journey would take no more than half an hour, so Gertrude and Clara began the trip at an even pace, making sure not to exacerbate Clara’s headaches. Unbeknownst to them, Emmie watched their departure and, after donning a jacket and peaked cap with her hair tucked underneath, followed behind at some distance.
Gertrude and Clara reached Frank’s Barbershop by mid morning, and already the place was fairly busy. Frank and two other barbers were occupied cutting the hair of males clients. A woman waited in the shop, her hair resting below her shoulders and in need of a trim. Gertrude led her daughter to the wooden chairs on the side of the shop, waiting for their turn. Clara wore her hair down, with part of it tied back with a red ribbon. Gertrude looked forlornly at her daughter’s beautiful hair, knowing that it would soon be carelessly cut from Clara’s crown. Swallowing her sorrow, Gertrude turned her attention to Frank, who had just finished with his client, a middle aged balding man who paid and left the shop.
“Next customer, please.” Frank called out, shaking the white cape free of hairs. Gertrude stood up slowly, gently nudging Clara as she did so. The girl sighed, then stood up as well.
“Yes, Mr. Frank, is it?” Gertrude began, her voice shaking slightly.
“Just Frank, ma’am.”
“Oh, uh, yes, Frank. My daughter Clara here needs her hair cut.”
Even as she said the words, Gertrude’s throat tightened in dread. Clara looked at the ground, silent but nervous. Frank looked at the girl’s lovely long hair, neatly arranged behind her head.
“I can do that, ma’am. Have a seat, young lady.” Frank indicated his chair, and Clara dutifully climbed aboard. Gertrude stood nearby, close enough to watch but far enough to keep her distance. Frank threw the cape over Clara’s body, completely enveloping her in the plain material. He carefully lifted Clara’s hair from under the cape, letting it drape over the white cloth. Once again, Gertrude gazed at her daughter in distress, consumed by sadness over the loss of such beautiful hair.
“How short would you like it, ma’am?” Frank asked. Gertrude took a moment to compose herself before responding.
“Quite short, Frank. Dr. Harding prescribed a short haircut for little Clara, who suffers from the most dreadful headaches. To stop them, I fear that Clara must have her hair cut short.”
Frank nodded in agreement. It was a common enough cure for chronic headaches, no matter what doctors prescribed. Unbeknownst to Gertrude, Frank had cut short the hair of many girls and young women who suffered from headaches and other pains related to long hair. The barber was adept at relieving clients of their long locks. He knew that it would be quite traumatic for little Clara. As a result, Frank resolved to remove the length without exposing poor Clara to too much of the process. The barber spun the chair around slowly, turning Clara away from the mirror so she couldn’t see. Smoothing the girl’s lovely long locks, Frank reached for a pair of scissors on the counter.
While Frank was preparing to cut, Emmie crept up to the doorway of the barbershop and peered around the corner. Trying her best not to be seen, Emmie watched as Frank the barber held his scissors at the level of Clara’s hair. With a deliberate motion, Frank began to cut. The crunching of the scissors through Clara’s locks was soft yet deafening; the sound was all Emmie could hear. Clara looked resigned to her fate as she felt the tug of Frank’s grip. No longer, however, as after a few seconds the tress of hair came free from Clara’s head and rested heavily in Frank’s hand. The barber quickly dropped the hair on the tiled floor, where it lay in a silky heap.
Gertrude’s eyes welled up with tears. She almost couldn’t bear the sight of it but she knew that she had to stay strong for her daughter. Another daughter, whose presence remained unnoticed by her mother, stared in awe at the pile of lovely brunette hair on the floor, and at the next length of hair Frank was already cutting into. The scissors slowly sliced the hair, leaving the length no more than a few inches long. Mesmerized by the sight of all that hair cut off at once, Emmie could hardly wait to have her own thick hair shorn in such a manner.
Frank proceeded grimly, not enjoying his unenviable task. Clara’s mood remained the same, though the longer the cutting progressed, the more she wanted it to be over. Gertrude watched in despair as Frank approached the final, and thickest, section of silky hair at the back of Clara’s head. Just as Frank approached the last strands of hair with his blades, Gertrude reached out her hand and called out: “Stop!” The barber paused, looking at the woman in confusion.
“Ma’am, it’s too late to turn back now. I’ve cut almost all of the…”
“Please, save this last piece for me, if you would.” Gertrude produced a length of twine from her the folds of her dress. Frank looked at the string, then nodded and took it from her proffering hand. Tying the last portion of hair tightly with the twine, Frank finished the deed and cut the last traces of long hair. Clara sat still, unsure of what she would look like. Frank carefully put the incredibly long tress of soft brown hair into a thick coil and placed it into Gertrude’s grasp.
“For you, ma’am,” Frank said.
“Thank you,” Gertrude replied in a hushed tone. She ran her fingers lovingly over the smooth texture of the hair, still warm to the touch. It was a tender moment for Gertrude, in mourning and remembrance for the hair that Clara once had. But as Frank pulled the chair around to face the mirror, the teenage girl saw her reflection for the first time. Clara’s expression changed from dismay to keen interest. She liked the short style, even though she had dreaded the prospect of how she would look. Frank continued snipping here and there, sending small bits of hair falling onto the plain white cape. Clara turned her head ever so slightly to admire the new style.
Gertrude, who had up until this point seen the haircut as a tragedy, noticed Clara’s change in demeanor. She had to admit that the shorter hair favored Clara’s face structure and her delicate ears. Although she was still young, Gertrude could tell that Clara would break many hearts during her courting years. Emmie noticed as well, seeing how short hair suited her older sister very well. Frank adjusted the cut so as to not make it to masculine; indeed, the barber modeled the cut after a longer version of the Rose Cleveland hairstyle from some years ago.
At long last, Frank was finished with Clara’s cut. He brushed off a few stray locks of cut hair before removing the white sheet from over the girl and whipping it off to the side. Clara sat in the chair for a moment, brushing the hair with her fingers. Her eyes glinted with happiness as she examined the new style in the mirror.
“Oh mother, I really do like it!” Clara exclaimed, jumping down from the chair and almost skipping over to her mother. Gertrude was perplexed, not expecting the cut to look so flattering, or for Clara to enjoy it. The mother reached out her hand and touched the newly shorn waves of dark brown hair. Clara grinned broadly.
“It does look quite nice, Clara.” Gertrude admitted. She turned to Frank the barber, still holding the tress of Clara’s hair in her hand, and asked: “How much for the haircut, sir?”
“20 cents, ma’am.”
“Here’s an extra 10 for your trouble. And thank you.” Gertrude paid the barber, placing the coins in his hand. Frank nodded in thanks and deposited the coins in a nearby till. Gertrude looked down at her daughter, who was still smiling. The mother gazed at the hair she was holding, thinking of when it was still attached to her daughter’s head. She would keep the hair in a box or wrapped up in paper as a keepsake, as others did with the hair of loved ones.
Emmie remained behind the doorway as she saw her mother and sister approach to leave. Dashing away quickly, Emmie hid behind a nearby crate while Gertrude and Clara emerged from the barbershop. Emmie observed Clara walk jauntily down the pavement while Gertrude still stroked the long thick lock of Clara’s hair, looking somewhat shaken. More resolved than ever to cut off her hair, Emmie waited until her relatives passed in the opposite direction and rounded the corner, out of sight. Then, Emmie made directly for the door.
Entering the shop, Emmie saw the remains of Clara’s hair littering the tiled floor around the nearest barber chair. Tremendous lengths of gorgeous hair lay in soft piles. Frank the barber was in the process of sweeping the lovely locks into a heap before he lifted the hair in a bunch and threw it into the ashcan. The barber turned to look at Emmie, who was dressed like a boy with her coat and peaked cap.
“How can I help you?” Frank inquired. Emmie looked at the barber, nervous but
“I would like my hair cut short, please.” Emmie knew that the barber would guess her gender instantly, so there was no need for a pretension of being a boy. And besides, it was not uncommon to cut a girl’s long hair short, as it had just occurred a few moments previously. Frank shrugged and motioned to his chair.
“Hop on, young lady.” Emmie doffed her cap, letting her mass of thick, light brown waves cascade down her back to her thighs. It was beautiful hair, but Emmie looked forward to this day when she could cut it all off. Emmie climbed onto the chair, situating herself comfortably for the coming haircut. Frank threw a clean white sheet over Emmie and fastened it neatly behind her neck. The barber brought the hair from under the sheet, letting it fall behind the back of the chair. At this point, the other barbers and customers in the shop were buying absolutely no mind to the girl in the chair, even less attention than before.
Frank stepped behind the chair and readied his tools. He noted the girl’s determined expression and seeming eagerness to have her hair cut short. Frank also saw some resemblance between Emmie and Clara, the girl from earlier, but he made no mention of it. It could hardly be a coincidence, especially considering the fact that they both arrived to have their tresses shorn, but it wasn’t worth bringing up. Frank was a barber, not a detective; his job was to cut hair, not investigate coincidences. So, with the professionalism of a seasoned barber, Frank began to cut.
The light brown hair, thick and bushy, put up a terrific fight against the sharp steel of the scissors. Emmie didn’t even wince as the hair that had been with her all her life was methodically severed from her scalp. The first fistful of hair fell away from Emmie’s head, almost three feet long. Frank carefully dropped the mass of hair onto the floor, where it made a soft thud as it made contact with the black and white tile. Emmie exhaled through her nose, relieved that she made it past the first cuts. She wouldn’t have changed her name regardless, but it would have been more painful. Frank immediately started on the next section.
The next several minutes passed much the same as the first snip. Frank sawed through the long lengths of hair and threw the shorn locks on the ground. Emmie stared into the mirror, emotionless. She was full of spite and defiance against her mother for forbidding her to get a haircut. Clara’s transformation emboldened Emmie to do the deed. Now, as her hair was cut off and nonchalantly tossed aside, Emmie was more sure of her decision than ever. The heaps of hair grew in size and thickness, and before long, Frank snipped away the last remaining strands of long hair.
Emmie’s face lit up when she saw herself in the mirror with short hair. Her previous stoicism fell by the wayside as she surveyed her new look. It was all she had ever hoped for. Frank trimmed the remnants, making it shorter than Clara’s hair but somehow even more stylish. Before long, Frank had completed his task. The severed hair was piled on the floor, forgotten by Emmie. Unlike with her sister, Emmie wanted to be rid of the memory of her long locks. Frank liberated Emmie from the white sheet and dusted the girl’s shoulders with a brush. The girl fished a few coins from her pocket, paid the barber, and, without a word, eagerly jumped through the doorway and raced home. Frank exhaled for a long moment before grabbing a broom to dispose of the abundant hair on the ground.
Gertrude and Clara had been home only for a short while when Emmie burst into the house with her new haircut. Gertrude was shocked, but Clara echoed the grin of her younger sister.
“Emmie! My heavens, child, what did you do to your hair?” Gertrude was incredulous. Emmie put on an expression of defiance.
“I cut it, mother, same as Clara.” Emmie replied.
“I really like it.” Clara piped in, for both herself and for her sister.
“Oh Emmie, how could you? It was hard enough to watch Clara shorn so.” Gertrude gestured with the long ponytail of Clara’s hair, though the original owner seemed hardly concerned with it.
“I wanted to cut my hair, mother. And I didn’t want to let Clara have all the fun.” Clara giggled at that, and Gertrude looked between her daughters in despair.
“Do you like it, mother? Clara asked. Gertrude bit her lip, conflicted.
“Well, yes I do,” Gertrude admitted. “But…it’s just so…so…different.”
Emmie nodded vigorously.
“I love it, mother. And I think Clara does too.”
“I really do, mother.” Clara assured Gertrude.
After a moment of hesitation, Gertrude admitted her true feelings.
“Yes, I think it looks nice as well. It’s just…” Gertrude stopped herself. She did not wish to divulge her true thoughts to her daughters. The suddenness, the lack of control, and the finality of it all was what Gertrude dreaded. It wasn’t “losing” Clara’s beautiful hair, after all; her hair was still beautiful, just shorter. And Gertrude would always have the long ponytail to keep. It was a fantastic style that suited both girls very well. Gertrude set the lock of hair down and ran her hands through the hair of her two beaming daughters.
“I love you, girls. I am so proud of you.”
“Thank you, mother!” Clara and Emmie said together, agreeing on something for once.
Robert received a shock when he returned home to his shorn daughters, but he genially mussed their short hair and expressed admiration for the new cuts. Clara and Emmie were both very pleased, and they embraced the ease of maintenance for the hair. When their hair grew too shaggy, they learned how to trim the hair around the neck and ears. Clara’s headaches disappeared and never bothered her again. Gertrude, meanwhile, thought long and hard about her own beautiful hair. Hers was curly, all the way down to her hips, and it hung in ringlets around her shoulders and down her back. Still, she toyed with the idea of doing something different.
One evening, after the girls had gone to bed, Robert and Gertrude were reading in the living room by the light of the fire. Gertrude absentmindedly toyed with a ringlet, curling it around her finger and letting it bounce back to its original shape. Her thoughts turned to changing her hair style. Setting her book down, Gertrude brought the mass of curls from behind her back to over her shoulders. They hung heavily down into Gertrude’s lap. She stroked the length thoughtfully.
“Robert, dear.” Gertrude called softly to her husband. Robert grunted and responded without looking up from his book.
“I’m thinking about changing my hairstyle.”
Robert’s brows furrowed, and he made a face of consideration. “That could be very lovely, dear. The girls love their hair short. When were you thinking of having it cut?”
Aware that Robert was still reading his book, Gertrude held up a thick, curly ringlet and gazed at it thoughtfully. Her gaze moved to a pair of scissors laying on a nearby table. Gertrude reached for the scissors, picked them up, and inserted the ringlet between the blades at the level of her neck. Feet of hair were in jeopardy.
“Oh, I am thinking right about…now.”
And with that, she closed the blades. SNIP.