Blonde, bald, braided or baubled: hair as femininity object and transformative symbol

[image credit: Weekly Wire.]

Noodling around the net, I found that hair has recently been a lively topic at the Girl-Wonder forums. This post by Mississippienne is titled “When you get old, lop off all your hair”:

“My mother is 55 years old and she has long, long blonde hair down to her butt. All the men she meets love her long hair and beg her never to cut it. But all her female friends are on her to cut it off short, and one of them tells her, “You’re too old for that hair — it’s young person’s hair.” She enjoys her long hair, since it makes her feel sexy and beautiful. We were discussing this the other day, and my opinion was that there’s this feeling that when you get old, you’re supposed to lop off your long hair, depriving you of your sexuality and your femininity in a symbolic sense. I’m not saying that you can’t be sexual or feminine with short hair, but that long hair is connected to those traits traditionally.

Does anyone else feel the same pressure to cut off their hair as they age as she does?”

Female head hair is intimately tied up with the Western performance of femininity, and with life-course transformations. Hair is read as a a fetish object, a sign of conformity or non-conformity, a racial identity signal, a religious symbol. There are layers upon layers of hair stereotypes and cliches: a long-haired “pretty” blonde white woman with her hair blowing in the wind, a mother cutting her hair short after the birth of first child, a lesbian with short spiky hair, a goth with black/bright-coloured streaks in her hair, a black sportswoman with cornrows, a middle-aged politician with a conservative short hairdo, a fictional Mormon polygamist dubbed “The Braid” by neighbours, a surfie with dreadlocks, a woman with cancer who has no hair, a grey long-haired ageing hippy-crone. In all these cases, hair may be read as a positive or a negative symbol. What one person may see as a reprehensible rejection of conventional femininity, another may see as a symbol of a woman’s power.

What most women don’t have is the luxury of not caring at all. From childhood we may have long hair that our mothers fuss over, combing and braiding and putting diamante-studded clips into; or we might maintain a short ‘do, either embracing a “tomboy” image, or resenting not being “allowed” to grow our hair out. We wash, and dye, and straighten, and curl, and cut, and braid, and weave, and spray, and flip, and ornament. What few of us have is the luxury of simply not caring, and if we are in that position, we’ve generally worked hard to overcome the socialisation of our youth.

La Doctorita muses about dyeing her hair here: “beauty myths and punk rock chicks”:

before this lapses into a complete people-i-don’t-know-must-really-care-about-the-mundane-details-of-my-life kind of post, let me get to my feminist point: all these considerations made me think about what was holding me back from dyeing my hair. there are the practical concerns, of course: it might look dumb, it might clash with all my clothing, as it grows in i’ll get a charming skunk-like stripe of roots down the middle of my head. but i realized there’s a much more profound worry: i am afraid of losing the privilege i get from being able to conform to patriarchical beauty standards.

As Heart said in the comments, this is personal-as-political feminist process. La Doctorita has pulled herself up in her tracks and unpacked her hair-programming, dissected and laid bare the societal construction of “pretty” as confined by a narrow window of patriarchally-approved hair-maintenance.

A Women’s Space post is still stuck in my head from four months ago. When the mainstream media were screaming about Britney Spears’ “obviously crumbling” mental health after she *gasp* shaved her head, Heart held a contrary view: “Feminism, Hair, and Britney Spears, Gloriously, Empoweringly Bald”. Read the whole thing, as Heart covers some of the meanings of women’s hair through history, but to pick out one excerpt:

“I think Britney Spears shaving her head is a very positive statement. I love it. I think it confirms what I believe to be true about her: that she is beginning to come into her power as a woman. I also think it is a hearty and resounding “fuck you” to everybody who has used her, exploited her, fetishized her, idolized her, objectified her, worshipped her, hated her, despised her, whacked off to photos of her (real or fake) *, sprained their fingers in their mad searches for the infamous “Britney crotch shots,” dismissed and trivialized her, made fun of her, violated her, mocked her, and attempted to humiliate, degrade and silence her. It might be a big fuck you, too, to the ex she is currently divorcing, who, in true asshole fashion, has announced he’s going to fight for custody of their kids. She’s letting the whole world know she is her own and she knows it; therefore, she will do what she likes, and she doesn’t care what anybody thinks. She’s becoming her own woman.”

Hair cutting or shaving as womanly transformation is a common fictional trope. Shaving or cutting hair may be construed as a women coming into her power, shedding traditional dictates of submissive femininity: the shaving scene in G.I Jane; Joan of Arc. It may be a revenge scenario, stripping that woman or girl of her feminine beauty: the Brady Bunch Movie when Jan dreams about cutting Marcia’s hair off while she sleeps, Mommie Dearest where a mother cuts her daughter’s hair in a fit of rage, the episode in Friends where Rachel convinces Ross’s new girlfriend Bonnie to shave her head. It may be institutional degradation: Mr Brocklehurst ordering severe haircuts for Jane Eyre’s Lowood school compatriots with naturally curly (hence sexually ostentantious) hair. It may be a sign of rebellion, madness, or despair, a woman “amputating” her femininity: Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. And how many girls gasped in horror when Marilla of Green Gables chopped Anne’s hair off after she inadvertently dyed it green? The punishment for a girl’s “vanity” is losing her “crowning glory”.

I don’t want to tackle the fetish side of things just now, but did you know there’s a whole “Internet Hair Database” devoted to haircuts in film and television? Neither did I. Now I do.

Everyone here probably has a hair story to tell. I’m listening. (Bear in mind this isn’t an armpit/crotch/leg hair discussion; I feel we’ve done those a little to death in the femiblogosphere just recently.)

Categories: gender & feminism

14 replies

  1. I’ve had a lot of different hairstyles in my life: it was long until I went to school, when I said I wanted it cut short (and then got called a boy until it grew out again – my mother’s choice, I don’t remember being at all bothered by the comments!) It stayed long with an ugly straight fringe and pulled up into a ponytail until I got to secondary school – and then the experimentation started. It’s been long, short, fluffy, ‘Purdey’ (as in The New Avengers), Mohican, even asymmetric at one point.
    Now it’s a bit of a mishmash. It’s shortish on the top (couple of inches) with two shoulder-length sidelocks in front of my ears, while the bit at the back almost reaches my knees (I wanted to see how long I could grow it!): I keep the long bit plaited, doubled over and clipped to the top of my head to keep it out of the way. The ‘style’ has been like that since 1995. The only colour I’ve ever used on it is henna, though I stopped using that in the late 80s, and I started going grey in my late 20s (I’m now in my 40s). I’ve never had it permed: every perm I’ve ever seen has looked off-puttingly like poodle fur!
    Care – I wash with Lush Cosmetic’s Karma shampoo bar when I shower (daily). Once a week I take out the plait and wash (and sometimes condition), then replait while my hair’s damp. I simply can’t be bothered with anything more complicated than that.
    Oh, and the last time I went to a hairdresser was 1991, just before my wedding. I’ve cut it myself since.
    … shutting up now…

  2. I’ve always been suspicious of the Samson story. It seems to me that it has generally been women who have been deemed to lose their power when their hair is cut. I do my own, like Joules. I hate strangers messing with my hair.

  3. The person who cares most about my white hair (which is roughly half of it) is my mother. She dyes her own hair, but my lack of dye betrays the artifice. Having her own white hair would make her look old, but her daughter having white hair makes her even older. She cares enough to offer to pay for my dye job.
    But I kinda like my white hair. I used to dye it, it’s been blue, purple, red, streaked with blonde, short and spiky, down to my elbows, and pinned up 19th century style. Apart from not particularly wanting to dye it at the moment, I find it difficult to get to a hairdresser often enough to keep it looking good. Having inch-long exposed roots is so much worse than no dye at all.

  4. I have long, thick, butt-length hair. I love my hair, and I hope that when I’m fifty I’ll still have it. Ten years ago I had very short hair. My parents always encouraged me to have short hair, but never really forced it on me. When I got my hair cut short from shoulder length on a school trip, most of my peers thought my parents would be mad at me, but the truth is they were pleased. After that first cut though, I didn’t like it.
    It’s interesting, but since I’ve grown my hair long, I’ve had HEAPS of men, friends, strangers and lovers ask me to promise never to cut my hair. At first, I promised freely, since I don’t plan to cut my hair, but now it kind of creeps me out– like they see my hair as being long for their benefit. Occasionally I’ve had people touch my hair without permission, because they like the way it looks– very invasive.
    I have to admit, though, that at least part of the reason that I like my long hair is that it makes me feel feminine, but in a natural way– my hair grows because it’s part of me, it’s not something I put on. Having long hair makes me feel good, and undoubtedly part of that is because it gives me a sense of identity within a patriarchal structure. I’m not giving it up though– my hair is mine before it belongs to any man.

  5. I was just commenting this morning (as I was drying my hair) that the men I work with always comment on my hair when I wear it down. But never when I wear it in a ponytail or a bun or any of the other easy-and-out-of-the-way styles. They are policing my feminine behavior, making sure to give me positive reinforcement when I toe the patriarchal line of feminine beauty standards. It’s like they think I simply don’t know the rules and are just helping me out – because accepting the fact that I reject most of the standards would make me too icky to even contemplate.

  6. I don’t have to cut my hair, it’s shrinking as I get older but I dye it red and have for 35 years because I like it and I’m the one who counts. Also long means I can put it up, short means I look like SideShow Bob because it loves humidity.

  7. My hair is long, and cut all one length. Generally I wear it back in a plait (because it keeps the wretched stuff out of my eyes, and stops it tangling beyond recognition). I tend to get it cut when I remember, or when the plait gets too “endy” for words. I’ve been wearing my hair like this for about oooh…. close on 20 years. I used to get it dyed (darker colours, mostly black or dark red) but lately I’ve been leaving it to just grow out to the natural colour (a fairly reddish dark brown, now interspersed with growing amounts of grey, mostly around the temples). It’s a nice easy style to maintain, it means I don’t have to think too much about what to do with it, and I can get away with playing around with different styles should I so desire. But the default style is a single plait down my back.

  8. Thankyou all for sharing your experiences. Something that has come out of the conversation here and at my personal blog is women with long hair choosing certain styles (particularly a braid) to reduce the more creepy manifestations of the male gaze, as well as to reduce daily maintenance activity. I’m wondering whether this dynamic is similar to what Dervish describes in her experience of wearing a headcover? [see the trackback]. What do you think?
    I remember my first encounter with a hair fetishist, years ago. I had long hair at the time – down to between mid-back and bum – straight & mousy-brown. I had it rolled up into a baseball cap when we met (a university-based small-group social setting, playing pool), and he treated me as “one of the guys”. An hour or two later, I took the cap off and shook my hair out, and the room changed palpably. From then on the guy pursued me intently. I confess I hadn’t given hair as a sexual object much thought before then; it came as a bit of a surprise at the time.

  9. I have to confess, that being a woman who covers has made life much easier when it comes to hair and fashion. If I’m having a bad hair day (and frankly my hair needs a lot of ‘work’ to make it look anything resembling one of those Pantene models) doesn’t matter too much and I can still float around the house and pretend I’m Farah Fawcett (yeah right) when the hair actually does obey my will for once. All-in-all it’s only my business who sees my hair, which I have to admit I do like.

  10. Hey to whoever wrote this post;
    I’d really love if you would e-mail me. I’m not sure who to get in touch with you as I can’t figure out your e-mail address, but I’m a Women’s Studies major writing a research paper/impact study about the tracing the development of long hair as an arcane symbol of femininity, trying to tie together how gendering the female body in this way leads to our disempowerment….that’s it in a nutshell, and probably severely under-developed because I have had such a difficult time finding any intelligent resources! And this is a research paper, so simply my opinion won’t do…
    I really enjoyed this post, it seems to be on a linear train of thinking that I am on, and you are the first person I’ve found on this line! I found you through Google… if you see this, or anyone does and knows how I can contact the author please let me know. I’d love to discuss this topic further, and figure out how to credit you with any citations.
    I’m so glad I came across this…

  11. On the right hand side of the page, under the photo is a blue box. In that blue box it says “The Hoydens blog etc etc” and underneath that is a line read more or contact. Hit the read more or contact link which will take you to a new page. At the top of that page are tabs, go to the third one which says contact and you will find a message box to type your message in then hit send. This post was written by Lauredhel.

  12. Hi Maribeth,
    My name’s on the post, and contact details are linked a couple of times on this page. Glad you enjoyed the post. Please remember that it would be courteous to seek individual consent from the women who have told their stories here if you wish to use them as primary research.

  13. When Mr Purrdence and I shaved our heads for cancer research a couple of years, many of the people I know got into a tizzy. It was perfectly alright for Mr Purrdence to shave his short hair, in fact, he was considered to be brave and heroic. What about me, with thick hair that was past my shoulder blades at that point? “We’ll pay you NOT to shave your head!” they said. “You’re crazy!” they said. “But your hair!” they said. I actually felt quite hurt and angry that I was not supported.
    The last year a male friend of ours with long white blonde hair did the shave. Did people go “oh, isn’t he brave?” You betcha.


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