Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hair color, feminism, junior high school, paradox, and me (please comment)

So suddenly I want to color my hair.

My natural hair color is a dark chocolate brown, which I always liked very much, especially because it's unusual when combined with light-colored eyes (mine are slate blue). I've been going gray since I was 21, which is close to 17 years now; currently I have streaks of nearly white hair at both temples, plus an all-over sparse (but thickening) mix of silver threads among the dark. My hair is baby-fine, and, in the tropics, wavy almost to the point of curl. Grown long, it is flyaway and insubstantial, but with the right short cut it has body and life. With the white at the temples, it has a certain amount of dash, in fact.

I've never colored my hair before, for a variety of reasons, foremost among which, it must be admitted, are laziness and thrift: I never wanted to be bothered keeping it up, nor spend the money it costs to maintain artificial hair color.

Rex's position is that I shouldn't dye it for the same reasons he shouldn't wear a toupee to cover his bald spot: because it's silly to feel badly about what is real and natural. This is a position I largely endorse. For one thing, he is sexy as hell, and I've never known him with hair. For another, like him, I am not amused by jokes about the tragedy of turning 30 (or 40, or whatever), nor am I very sympathetic to midlife crises that result from the widening of the gap between long-held fantasy and progressive reality, especially since the fantasy, in such cases, probably wasn't all that sustainable to begin with. The inability to understand how a person who isn't 21 can be attractive (or how a person who isn't at the pinnacle of their earning power, or their career, can be successful), isn't a tragedy of passing time; it's a failure of imagination.

And there's this other thing, too, the feminist angle. I remember being very surprised, in high school (I went to boarding school), to meet girls from the South, whose mothers had taught them to apply makeup, and who wouldn't go out without it, because nice girls always took the trouble. As the daughter of a mother who never used a lot of makeup, but more, growing up in a small and remote New England logging town, I always understood that nice girls didn't, or if they did, they didn't much. Later there was an increasingly feminist undertone to the idea: the thought that wearing makeup (and shaving one's legs, underarms, etc.) was un-feminist, because it meant pretending to be someone you were not. There's more to this, and it lies in the transition from elementary school to junior high: the moment when everything changes, for girls at least.

Flashback 1982. I was not especially attuned to fashion, boys, etc. My best friend and I spent a lot of our time in the woods, identifying edible plants and building elaborate fantasy worlds based on the novels we read. We played a lot of D&D. My mother, to her eternal credit, never pushed me to model more conventionally feminine behavior. I think she was more interested in us being who we were.

But gradually I noticed things: pegged pants, denim blazers, skinny neckties. Girls in gym class ridiculed me for not wearing a bra. I started wearing one. They mocked me for not shaving my body hair. I started shaving, badly. They ridiculed me for wearing "high-water pants," which I didn't understand. I cut my waist-length hair into a short, feathered hairstyle over the summer of 1984. On the first day of eighth grade in the fall, a small knot of girls backed me against the lockers and accused me of trying to imitate the two Vickis (the Heathers of our school, both dark-haired like me). They told me they'd make sure that nobody was fooled. It was garden-variety harassment - junior high is a painful experience for any thinking person - but it stung, and in particular, it left me with a strong sense that I shouldn't try to be like other people, that I shouldn't try to make myself attractive, because I would only fail, and fail in a way that would be publicly ridiculous. I remember going to the seventh grade dance (before I cut my hair) in a white oxford-cloth button-down shirt with a skinny necktie in turquoise and black, with my long hair in a ponytail on the side of my head, wearing a white newsboy cap, big dangly white earrings, acid-washed, pleated-front jeans, legwarmers, and ballet flats. I spent most of the evening in the bathroom weeping, unable to bear what I thought must be the ridicule of everyone who saw me, but wanting so badly to be part of what I thought everyone else was part of that I couldn't bring myself to leave.

Looking back, I am radically pissed off about this, not so much for what I went through at the time, which, as I say, was pretty much par for the course of junior high, but rather for what it caused me to miss out on over the years that followed. I became so convinced that it was impossible for me to be part of any normal social group that I talked myself out of all the kinds of experimentation that you're supposed to do in high school: experimentation with identity, experimentation with relationships and emotion. It didn't help that I went to prep school, where they kept us too busy to experiment much anyway, and where there was a pretty big gap of experience and social class between me and some of my classmates. When I think back on the friendships I didn't follow up on, the outings I didn't enjoy, the life I chose not to fully live, it makes me furious. And it's still a residual problem to this day. The voice of instinct - you do not belong; this is not for you to enjoy - still echoes in my head. And it's been such a fucking waste.

I have a picture of myself taken on Cape Cod in the summer of 1984, in the backyard of Aunt M's house in Brewster, when we were visiting my cousins. AtlanticMo and her sisters were fascinated to discover that I'd never worn eye shadow or mascara, and didn't know how to apply them. So they made me up, with blue eye shadow (1984, remember?) and raccoon-style eyeliner, curled lashes and mascara. In the picture, I'm holding my cousin C, who's nearly two, and smiling shyly, showing my braces. I remember seeing this picture and thinking it was dangerous. It seemed important never to let anyone see me like that.

It's not a dangerous picture, of course: it shows a dark-haired thirteen-year-old in '80s-style glasses, wearing too much makeup, a little shy and awkward, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and hefting a curly-haired toddler. In the picture, I look like exactly who I am, or who I was at the time. And, looking back, I realize what I should have done. I should have let Mo and the others, who were fond of their eccentric rural cousins, teach me how to make myself up. I should have taken them up more often on trips to the mall and pizza at Sbarro's (Coming from such a small town, it had never occurred to me that you could go to the mall, or to a restaurant, without your parents). They were willing to make room for me in their normality: I should have let them.

Which brings us back to the feminist angle: because although of course there is a feminist argument to be made against cosmetics and body modification, against changing ourselves to please others, there is also a feminist argument in favor of doing what pleases us with our bodies. And at this point in time, I think the argument for pleasing myself has more power than the argument for letting the gray hairs fly free, as it were. It's not that I don't like the gray; it's striking, interesting even. It's that under all the other reasons for not coloring my hair before this (laziness, thrift, feminism), the voice that says this isn't for you: other women can do it, but you stay away is still hiding. And I'd like to give it the metaphorical finger.

I think.

What if I hate it?

It's only hair, right?


Anonymous said...

You should color your hair or not, wear makeup or not, wear flannel shirts (weather permitting) or not, as it contributes to your comfort and positive sense of yourself. Mostly comfort. One does need some sensitivity to the outside world, of course. A person might want to think twice about the personal or professional consequences of magenta hair, piercing one's nose, or skin tight white satin jeans.

atlanticmo said...

I couldn't agree more, "It's only hair".
p.s. Thanks for saying I was normal.

Tommy said...

I won't comment on your suggestion that atlanticmo is normal. This reminds me of the brouhaha, especially from bricken, when mo got a short haircut these many years past.
People are right about taking things like this lightly, but I don't think you do "taking things lightly." and getting massaged by people into an imitation of it doesn't really work. I believe that for you everything is important.
Full disclosure: I could be seriously accused of the sin of projection here.
By the way, I don't think you should colour.
Uncle T

Melinda Hsu Taylor said...

this is a great piece! I loved it and could totally relate to it.

however, one interesting omission is the fact that your mother's hair turned gray at a similarly early age. I only point this out because when you first started to see strands of gray, you basically explained to me, without surprise, that you were your mother's daughter (genetically at least), and that you thought it was pretty cool. Which I absolutely agree that it is; but I also absolutely agree that there is NOTHING WRONG with choosing to go in another direction from mom. Especially since trying hair color would be a fascinating experience for you no matter how it turned out. And it really is only hair.

On a separate note, you might be interested by a book I picked up recently (haven't read it yet, but plan to soon) about mother-daughter relationship-building and social imprinting during adolescence. It's called "The Mother-Daughter Project." I'm not suggesting that you had a bad relationship with your mother; to an outside observer like me, it seemed you got on quite well. But it's an interesting book as far as revisiting the challenges of adolescence, and thinking about one's own potential parenting style.

Ronald van Loon said...

It's not for you to enjoy - how much more Calvinistic can you get! Being the regular adonis and fashion icon that I am, I'd like to offer you Van Loon's First Law: You can either "A", but you also cannot "A". It's a choice - your choice, to be exact.

...Don't go changing...

I recognize some of the ridicule of one's peers when one doesn't fit in with the hype of the times. I know I didn't. I just couldn't be bothered. I was fortunate enough that people respected my indifference to the subject. It's Ronald - 'nough said. It's also less of an issue if you're male. In this society you still have certain standards to live by. As such, Rex's comments do not really apply.

... to try to please me ...

Moving from the pedantic and putting you in the spotlight: you have a certain classic beauty and a youthful mind which also shines through. You can either augment that beauty by coloring your hair. Or you can choose other subtle ways for enhancement. A slight change in clothing style might bring forward the more confident, mature you.

... just the way you are ...

Whatever you do, do it because you would be comfortable or pleasurably uncomfortable with it.

.... hmmm mmm mmm ....

And choose something reversible.



Natalia said...

"I shouldn't try to be like other people, that I shouldn't try to make myself attractive, because I would only fail, and fail in a way that would be publicly ridiculous."

Ah yes. Junior high!

I personally oppose putting effort into one's hair (laziness, thrift, feminism).

I also know that people materially benefit from looking as if they have put in effort (i.e. "put together" = "professional" in some minds, "professional" of course thereby being code for "can afford an expensive haircut"). So having bad hair always makes me feel a little like I'm sticking it to the man. I say do it if it will somehow get you a raise, which would also be sticking it to the man.

Otherwise, I mean... this is academia. If your hair is anywhere this side of Einstein you're probably doing better than most of your colleagues anyway.

But you're right: it's just hair.

SEB said...

Wow, excellent comments all.

Melinda: On being my mother's daughter, she did color her hair once or twice at home (before we met you - I was still in elementary school and fascinated by the whole process, which involved shower caps and rubber gloves and stuff). Then she decided it wasn't worth the trouble and she wasn't going to do it again. Which might well happen to me (laziness, thrift, feminism) so I may still be walking in her footsteps, as it were.

Natalia: I had to laugh because one of my colleagues actually looks very much like Einstein (that is in fact how he was described to me when I came for my on-campus interview, when he had to pick me up sight unseen - "He looks just like Einstein"). There is, however, a certain argument that is often made, that art historians should care about what things look like, including themselves. Among my two proximal female colleagues, there is an example of each point of view (academic low-key vs. art-historian stylish).

Between these two positions there is a version of female academic style involving long skirts, eccentric hair, and chunky ethnic jewelry that I could possibly occupy, but which I in fact feel an inexplicable need to avoid. It works for some people, but I don't think I'm ever going to be one of them. Somehow it seems tied to the fact that I'm probably never going to be painfully thin either; but I feel the need to err on the side of "smart urban," when I remember to err on a particular side at all, and not give in to my repressed inner medievalist/SCA member. So you can probably count on me never coloring my hair a flaming henna red, for example. Probably.

T.R. Lingley said...

As your brother I remember not fitting in or wearing the right clothes in Middle school as well (corduroys and turtlenecks, anyone?), I wonder whether growing up in a more urban setting might have helped us to socialize more easily and find groups to fit in with. Small town maine kids could be unkind to those who did not fit in...