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Monday, October 25, 2010

The politics of hair
Posted by Jill | 5:48 AM
Last week I posted a Sesame Street video featuring a clearly African-American Muppet singing about how she loves her hair. A few days later, I heard a segment on NPR featuring the man who wrote that song for his daughter, and about the highly emotional response that many women of color have had to the video.

Hair seems to be more fraught with emotional resonance with women than it does even for men, who have long tried to be creative about the hair loss that comes with middle age. And it doesn't matter how old you are, hair is perhaps second only to weight in the emotional baggage it often carries.

I never had great hair. Photos of me as a child show your standard-issue blondish child-hair, cut in the obligatory page-boy-with-bangs Scout Finch look that was inevitable in the early 1960s. I came to adolescence just in time for the flaxen-haired folk singers like Joni Mitchell, and spent years trying to tame my hair into being long, straight and fine. We did this by rolling the crown on two giant rollers while wet, then wrapping the hair around our heads and securing it with giant clips, and sleeping on it. And for about five minutes after getting up in the morning, my sister and I had straight Joni Mitchell hair -- until we stepped outside. Any humidity at all, and it clumped right up.

My mother has always had really thick hair. Even at 83, her hair is still quite thick. My sister has thick hair like hers, only hers is coarse and not-quite-curly -- the kind of hair that others have at times when it's fashionable, managed to have with body waves and perms. My head shows archetypal male pattern baldness genes -- thick around the sides and thin on top. I've been through many hair iterations in my life. There are lame and failed attempts at the Farrah Fawcett 'do of the 1970's, sleek pageboys, the long, wavy luxurious look of my high school graduation photo which lasted about as long as it took to take the photo. There's the chin-length perm that I hoped looked like a late 1920's wavy bob but didn't, the short, poodly perm that's cropped close on the sides with curls on top, and finally settled into the short cut I wear today.

Until I cut my hair short, hair care always took at least a half-hour in the morning, what with blow dryers and curling irons. The perms gave me my first taste of hair care freedom -- just wash, pick, and go. But when my hair started to go gray, not in a nice salt-and-pepper way, but rather, changing color from a kind of autumn wheat shade to a dull mouse brown with gray wires coming out of it, I went the dye route via my hairdresser -- the one thing I'm not frugal about, for all that he gives me a good price for my hair care by virtue of having been his client since 1986. The color is darker than my natural shade, but has some bottle-red highlights that border on purple, which makes me feel kind of punk-rockish. In the morning, it's wash, comb, and go -- a virtue when you have the kind of schedule I do.

My first short cut was a botch job, and I remember sitting in my therapist's office crying as if I were Samson and Delilah had just cut my hair off. I hadn't wanted it this short, and I felt as if I'd been de-womanized somehow. The therapist, who had long, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, talked to me about the joys of Really Big Dangly Earrings, and for the most part, that's the route I've gone since.

With middle-age has come even more thinning on top, but the short cut keeps me from having broad areas of no hair. There's no combover here, but the short hairs cover the top of my head nicely. I'm sure I'll end up as one of those old ladies who has the four remaining hairs on her head teased into voluminousness to try to cover the baldness, but I'll worry about that when I get there.

It took me a long time to get to some peace with my hair. Sometimes I still wish I could wear it long, but I'm OK with it as it is. At 4'10" tall, hair that's too long creates a look reminiscent of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family anyway. My hair is what it is. The hair of other women is what it is. I'm fifty-five years old and I long ago learned that I'm not the center of the universe and most people I pass by in my day-to-day life aren't even looking. And I don't understand why it's necessary to waste perfectly good keystrokes on screeds like this, from last Thursday's New York Times:
MY mother hates it. My sister worries about it. My agent thinks I’m hiding behind it. A concerned friend suggests that it undermines my professional credibility. But in the middle of my life, I’m happy with it. Which is saying a lot about anything happening to my 55-year-old body.

I feel great about my hair.

I have long hair. I’m not talking about long enough to brush gently on my shoulder — when I tilt my head. I’m not talking about being a couple of weeks late to the hairdresser. I’m talking long. Long enough for a ponytail with swing to it. Long enough to sit against when I’m in a chair. Long enough to have to lift it up out of the sweater I’m pulling over my head. Long enough to braid.

What’s worse (to my critics) is that my hair is graying. Of course it is. Everyone’s hair is graying. But some of us aren’t ready to go there. That’s fine with me — I’m not judgmental about dyes. In fact, I find the range and variety of synthetic hair color to be an impressive testament to our unending chemical creativity. I’m particularly fascinated by that streaky kaleidoscopic thing some blondes do that looks kind of like Hair of Fawn. For my own head, I’m a tad paranoid about smelly, itchy potions.

No one seems to have any problems when a woman of a certain age cuts her hair off. It is considered the appropriate thing to do, as if being shorn is a way of releasing oneself from the locks of the past. I can see the appeal, and have, at times in my life, gone that route. Some women want to wash the men (or jobs) right out of their hair. Others of us have to have at them with scissors. Again, I do not judge. Go right ahead, be a 60-year-old pixie.

Uh, what was that about judging?

The author of this drivel, Dominique Browning, goes on to point out a bunch of crap about long hair that no one seriously believes anymore, particularly about how men find long hair sexy. I have no doubt that most men do, though the preponderance of women in the local A&P still in their yoga pants pushing shopping carts full of children tells me that long hair is not necessarily a prerequisite in the allure department, and let's face it -- once you get into your fifties, that horse may still be in the barn, but the kid at the local gas station isn't going to be asking you out anymore.

I really hate to tell Dominique Browning this, but most people really don't give a shit whether she has long hair or not. I suspect that this judgmentalism she writes about is coming from the messages playing in her own head that have been given her by her judgmental mother and sister, not by others. We're too busy worrying about our weight to even notice.

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Anonymous Kathi said...
"Waste perfectly good keystrokes"? "Drivel"? Strange that after reading your site for so long, this is the post that causes me to speak up but I got a kick out of that piece about long hair. My friends and I have expended quite a few keystrokes discussing hair for the past few days and it's been a nice break from the discouraging political scene. Most of us are aging women with longish hair, who have experienced well-meaning family, friends and hairdressers trying to talk us out of our locks as "unbecoming" on middle-aged women. While I'll admit the subject is not exactly earth-shattering, it's not as frustrating as discussing weight or why Republicans have lost their minds. I've always thought of a short cut as a "pixie" look, even when I've had one. It's a description, like "Joni Mitchell hair", not a judgement. LOL! Lighten up a little...