At the beginning of Anne Tyler's 1983 short story "Teenage Wasteland," we meet the main character, Donny, as a very young child. He is described as having "very blond hair—almost white—cut shorter than other children's." The author begins her story in this way, with Donny's hair cut shorter than other children, as a subtle and nuanced reminder to the reader that this is a time in the child's life when his parents are in full control.
As the story progresses, we will see that the parents, Daisy and Matt, lose control over their son. Moreover, Donny himself will be literally and figuratively lost. In other words, as the story moves along, not only does Donny's appearance undergo a change, but his entire life—and his parents' lives—will change as well.
After numerous traditional attempts to help their son through the difficult teenage years, the parents finally resort to a seemingly atypical tutor to help with Donny's academics. However, the tutor, Cal, seems more interested in tutoring Daisy and Matt on how to be parents. He says to them,
I get the sense . . . that this kid is feeling . . . underestimated, you know? Like you folks expect the worst of him. I'm thinking we ought to give him more rope.
With an almost svengalian hold on the boy, Cal becomes less of a mentor and tutor, and more of a bad influence. Donny's metamorphosis has begun.
We read that Donny's appearance has changed: "his hair grew darker, and he wore it longer—past his collar even. It hung in lank, taffy-colored ropes around his face . . ." The ropes of hair not only suggest that he is unkempt or following a counterculture but also metaphorically imply that he is now roped off from his former life. It is also Tyler's clever way of subliminally steering the reader back to the tutor's remark about giving Donny more "rope."
Donny's childhood appearance juxtaposed with his teenage appearance is the visual that reveals to the reader the story's sense of poignancy and loss.