Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rebecca M. Herzig's "Plucked"

Historian Rebecca M. Herzig is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College. Her books include Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America and, with Evelynn Hammonds, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, and reported the following:
Landing on the first page of the book’s fifth chapter, “Glandular Trouble,” Page 99 introduces us to a young woman “of the bearded lady type,” whose doctors tried to treat her unwanted facial hair by surgically removing her adrenal glands. The surgery triggered a swift decline in the young woman’s mental health. She began to suffer debilitating hallucinations and was able to recover only after extensive psychiatric treatment. Still, the physicians declared the surgery a success: the patient emerged “with only slight hairiness of her face.”

The passage announces the main topic of the chapter (the rise of hormone-based therapies for unwanted hair growth), while encapsulating several of the book’s larger themes, including the surprising invasiveness, even violence, of practices of hair removal; the astonishing range of medical and scientific professionals’ investment in “excessive” body hair; and the ongoing preoccupation with evaluating and tinkering with women’s bodies. In its brevity, the passage also necessarily leaves out some of the book’s key themes, such as the centrality of ideas about race to scientific and medical studies of body hair: the experts who preceded these glandular surgeons were obsessed with racial variations in hair growth. Plucked traces those interlocking themes, while remaining centered—like the opening paragraphs of the fifth chapter—on particular experiences of suffering and hope.

But back to the test: does this single page reveal the “quality of the whole”? Yes and no. Page 99’s account of the young woman’s terrifying hallucinations after her experimental surgery does provide a clear glimpse of the broad, unsettling consequences of seemingly insignificant acts of separating flesh from hair, self from other. Yet the very subject of hair removal also presents a more general challenge to the “Page 99 Test,” in that hair removal (I have learned) strikes many readers as a topic unworthy of sustained attention: “Wait, hair removal? Seriously?” Only once readers move beyond that first look, from page 99 to page 100 and 101 and so on, do the more fascinating and consequential features of the subject begin to emerge. So with respect to Plucked, I might reverse Mr. Ford’s sturdy adage: read the whole book, and the quality of page ninety-nine will be revealed.
Learn more about Plucked at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue