[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