national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014


Nicolette Ward  • 
University of Iowa

I invented the humblebrag when I was nine years old, although you’ll never hear me talking about it.

“J.J.—my hairdresser—J.J.,” I clarified at the lunch table, with a chuckle I hoped would suggest that I was both embarrassed and better than they were, “says that I have natural highlights. It’s like, what does that even mean?”

It meant I had sleek blonde hair that shone prismatic in the warm Nebraska wind. The Springsteen song practically wrote itself. It meant brushes and combs, scrunchies, barrettes, pigtails, ponytails, braids. It meant others patting my head as though they could not help themselves. It meant there would always be a place to hide.


I didn’t realize I was profoundly unhappy with myself until I was twenty and saw an antidepressant ad in a magazine heavy with pictures of beautiful models. Depression, represented here as an empty, floating, Muppet-eyed robe, is pursuing a mildly annoyed career woman down a sidewalk. Aside from the fact that the robe is flapping open, giving Depression the appearance of an invisible sexual marauder, I was stricken by how comfortable Depression looks— a fluffy terry-cloth malaise. The woman, on the other hand, is starched and fashionable, frowning as though the neighbors spotting her with an anthropomorphized garment might kill her promotion chances.

The message is nonetheless apropos in the magazine’s context: to resist Depression, Stagnation, and the Urge to Allow Her Soul to Flip Through Daytime Television in a Metaphorical Bathrobe, the modern woman clicks away in tall, fashionably impractical shoes, heel-toeing her way toward fulfillment. If the ultimate sadness is represented by the antithesis of glamour, I am ultimately sad. Cosmo promotes the “fun, fearless female [!!!!],” and I have a closet of inexpensively purchased party dresses with the tags still on.

One might find it difficult to respect the opinion of a publication that believes without irony that I as a reader truly need four new ways to use Epsom salts. Still, in the spirit of “they have a magazine and I don’t,” I was willing to allow Cosmo to make me a better woman because it had a clear course of attack. The pitch works because its message for happiness is cohesive, all-encompassing, and capitalized for maximum effect on the cover:


The women in the pages of Cosmopolitan are happy because they are sexy. Here is Cameron Diaz displaying the peach-plump of her breast in a snakeskin halter, smiling ecstatically. Here are shiny Amazons with tropical-breeze thighs, twirling gaily in flirty (and affordable) Old Navy skirts! Such fun it is to be pretty that they scarcely notice the dump truck filling their empty dancing pool with innumerable colorful plastic balls! If I would only try a little harder to reject the robe, I, like the women in these ads, could have a martini glass filled with bracelets and loose jewels. “Put on your happy life,” an ad begs me, as though I could pull it ready-to-wear over my head like the $20 Bongo minidress (pg. 66).

Because the issue did not feature a “Tips for Lifelong Self Respect!” section, sexiness was an adequate substitute. It was certainly not a trait I associated immediately with myself, and Cosmo specializes in elaboration on the concept. In one issue, the following things are identified as sexy: upcoming Cosmo website features, The Office star Mindy Kaling’s biography, all-male underwear fashion shows, dessert dates, actor Steven R. McQueen (grandson of the ’60s heartthrob), a beverage of equal parts vodka and super-hydrating lychee syrup, table settings you can try, and new ways to eat cupcakes.

And of course, the pixie haircut.

“Men love this flirty and mischievous cut,” read a caption. “Confident chicks don’t need to hide behind long hair!” The accompanying photo featured a luminous waif with a slick swath of cropped hair. Her European-looking companion’s face contorted with an expression of either contrived rapture or arousal. They tangled by a river. It was beautiful. It was free. It possessed the conditional honesty of a great ad—the whispered, “This Could Be Your Life, If.” This woman’s hands could never climb into her hair to hide themselves from attention or appraisal.


It is a tic I have had since my youth; vulnerability causes my fingers to twist a nest in a patch near the crown of my head, thatching and knotting and hanging until the fear has passed. When I was five, my mother discovered a patch on my head I had worried completely bald.

“You need to stop the hair-twirling thing,” she said, pressing ice to the spot as though it were a wound. “Don’t you want to look nice?” I did. God, how I did.

I retreated inward behind the pretty veil of my hair. My hair’s absorption of my social hardships caused it to dry and darken, and to hold the sturdy knots that grew there. It wreathed my face, growing and gnarling with fuss. It broke brushes, swallowed pins innumerable, stole the gum from my mouth, and, as though trying to escape my twitching fingers, coated the surface of all my possessions. My photographs show no slim-trousered men, no easy grins. My hair fills the frames edge to edge with mousy brown that grows wider as it grows longer. Here in the stack is my childhood, knock-kneed and pageboyed, scraping its bangs over as much skin as can be covered. Only shots later, a teenager who’s pulled center-part drapes over her expression. Since 2006, my readers can see me modeling insecurity, turning fiercely from a camera flash to push hair over my retreating profile.

That Cosmo used the term “sexy” to describe both the pixie cut and artfully folded napkins gave me pause, but Sharon, with whom I scheduled an appointment, made it her job to ease my worries. At the time of writing, she is the only person who has spent the first 20 minutes of our acquaintance rubbing me. I had unwittingly agreed at some point to pay 50 dollars for this privilege, likely when I was pretending I had not asked, “You mean nine in the morning, yes?” during scheduling. The Conditioning Cut package I’d purchased involves an accessibly good-looking woman massaging your scalp and arms with a sandalwood cream while you stare at a pleasant photograph of Nepalese children hugging.

Sexiness, to Sharon, is a liquid. It can be purchased in the form of a cream, shampoo, gel, treatment, or masque, in rows and rows of minimalist bottles that come prepackaged for Christmas, with proceeds benefiting the Nepalese children. She rubbed some into my scalp while she assured me, “The hair you have now, it’s just too much. It’s like, ‘Where are you?’” To emphasize her point, she hid my face with a damp fistful of hair. I was only missing for a moment before she cut it away.

The shank of hair fell heavily into my lap.

Long, thick hair is regarded as a sign of fertility and youth, with female beauty correlated with greater hair length by both men and women. Maya Angelou once said, “I would say that hair is a woman’s glory,” a reference itself to a passage in Corinthians: “If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.” It is amazing the things you recall having picked up about hair when your hair is being picked up. When, heavy cultural symbolism about your worth as a woman aside, most of what once constituted your head lies in curling-wet, impeccably conditioned snips, waiting to be picked up by a mossy-looking broom and taken out as tomorrow’s refuse.

Sharon allowed most of my hair to slide down the black slicker and rest in my lap, and because I was a sexy, cosmopolitan woman, I did not string it between my fingers one last time to soothe the distress of the sheer displaced weight of it. To do so after it was cut from me seemed eerie, like stroking an extracted tooth or an excised tumor. Sharon, returning from a back room with two Diet Cokes, found me staring at my lap in open-mouthed, physical betrayal. My hair and I might have argued for hours over the precise meaning of the term “mine” had Sharon not politely invited me to “put that on the floor.”

She, a stranger, held my naked face between her moisturized hands and showed it to me from all angles in the mirror. The new head had a certain lightness to it. The eyes eyes seemed to balloon in the face, floating giant along the now-buoyant cheekbones, and there was no hair to tumble from my shoulders when I nodded that yes, it is very Mia Farrow, if you say so.


It is a disappointing fact, neglected in print by Cosmopolitan, that being Sexy is very similar to not being sexy. It could be a testament to the permeating gestalt of Sexiness that when you first acquire it, you will scarcely notice. Unfortunately, Sexiness does not preclude eating or using the toilet. One still wipes the white film of dried saliva from the corner of one’s mouth upon awakening. I turned in early, as I had when I was not Sexy. I wore the same baggy pajamas, brushed my teeth in the same toothpaste-speckled mirror. I did not gain the immediate look of erotic freedom that characterizes the interesting and attractive. I did, however, begin touching the robes I passed hanging in stores, stroking the arms briefly and whispering, “I will come back for you.”

Or I did, until my absolution at a party.

She was the kind of woman who threw her head back when she laughed or touched people on the shoulder when she spoke to them, and no one hated her for it. The cheap basement track lighting threw a terrific corona around her hair, which poured like molten gold to her shoulders. The hair had a holy, stained-glass quality, fracturing both light and time. She was the Ur-Cosmo, and she approached me.

She began her blessing with the phrase, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but”—a phrase which here means, It will be embarrassing for the both of us if you interpret my sentiments exactly as I mean them—“but the short hair looks great on you! I think I’d look like a total dyke if I tried it, but you really pull it off!”

She turned and walked away with the special glow that accompanies humoring the pitiable. It is the grin from which emerge the words, “Natural highlights. What does that even mean?” It is the expression she will someday wear when her friends congratulate her for smiling at a homeless man. For now, she crosses to the dimly lit stairs and ascends, whispering to herself, “Nailed it.”

I, a grounded pixie, watch her rise, and soothe myself in the new way that my hands have learned: pushing my hair up, away, back and back and back, so that the last thing the girl and her gold see is the full brunt of my brand new, my very own, my disrobed cosmopolitan face.