Hair and Femininity: I Cut My Hair and Opened My Eyes

BlogHer Original Post

As a child, I had long braids that I refused to cut, much to my mother's chagrin. I fancied myself Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a teenager in the eighties, I was a spiral-permed, ratted, claw-banged glory. In college, I shoved my ponytail through the hole in the back of my ever-present ball cap or let it pour out from under my do-rag. (I looked more Axl than gangsta.)

After college, I embarked on a fifteen-year fight with my hair. It's very fine -- so fine I can fit my entire ponytail into the smallest hair bauble or elastic band. My hair, when long and uncurled, resembles the head elf in the movie version of Lord of the Rings. The boy elf. The hot one. It looked good on him, not so much on me. So I resigned myself for many, many years to one of the best styles for fine hair: the chin-length bob. And during the entire reign of my chin-length bob, people I met always thought they already knew me, because I looked exactly like half of the upper Midwest.

Frustrated, I tried to grow it out again. I did The Rachel in the late '90s. It looked terrible on me. You could see through the layered parts if the sun was strong. Why did I do it? Boys. Men, I guess they were, but I still thought of them as boys. Boys liked long hair, and I wanted to be liked by boys.

G.I. Jane movie poster

Credit Image: Wikipedia

But when I really thought about it, I wanted to be the girl with the short hair. I wanted to be Helen Slater in The Legend of Billie Jean. I wanted to be Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. I wanted to be Demi Moore in G.I.Jane.

I wanted to transcend my hair.

The Legend of Billie Jean

Credit Image: dreamsjung on Flickr

But I was scared. I associated a woman drastically cutting her hair with a big fuck-you to the world: That's what women did -- I thought -- after a break-up, after leaving home, after quitting a job. It wasn't something you did at four o'clock on a Thursday just to see what it would look like. Plus, OHMYGODMYHAIRWHATIFITLOOKSHORRIBLE?

Reality Bites movie poster

Credit Image: Wikipedia

When I met my husband, my hair was one of the asymmetrical late-nineties bobs that is shaved in back and long in the front. It was really short, but I didn't think of it that way because I could still tuck the sides behind my ears. I maintained that my hair was not really short until the day earlier this year when I gathered my courage and told my stylist to cut off what I'd started to think of as dog ears hanging down the sides of my head. After years and years of trying to get my hair to be bigger, pouffier, more flattering, more SOMETHING, I decided to take the leap. My hair wasn't making me look fatter or skinnier or complementing really anything about me -- it's never been my best feature, it is just my damn hair. I felt good about it, I reminded myself, as I crumpled my picture of Michelle Williams in my sweating fists.

My stylist paused as she was about to cut it off and asked me again, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, cut it." I was annoyed with her for asking again, for making this such a big deal. But it is in American culture apparently a huge deal for a woman to cut her hair as short as a man's.

Suzanne Reisman wrote here on BlogHer a few years ago about her own short hair:

When I cut my hair short almost three years ago, I didn't mean to send any messages; I just wanted to look nice. Since then, however, I seem to be radiating some signal that I am a lesbian. If I am confusing people, I do not mean to, so apologies for any mix ups. However, I certainly hope that I am projecting that I am a dried up prune. An anonymous letter writer posed the following question to therapist Pamela Stephenson Connolly in The Guardian: Is it true that a woman with a short hairstyle is subconsciously indicating that she does not want sex?

You should really read the whole post. I wasn't completely surprised to learn how many people think a woman with short hair doesn't want to get laid, but man, hello, and WTF?

Jolie O'Dell writes about cutting off her platinum-and-blue hair:

When the world sees you differently, so you, too, see the world differently. When you cut off your hair and are perceived as less feminine, you start to feel more butch, more powerful, more level with your male peers. How you perceive yourself doesn’t necessarily change — nor should it — but you become acutely aware that you are perceived differently. People interact with you differently, and your opportunities for interaction change.

I have to say, I do feel different since that first big cut. It's not less feminine or less sexy -- it might actually be more. Now that I spend oh, let's see, zero amount of time worrying about my hair, I feel more confident. My hair's not going to fall, or separate, or lose its curl. It's not going to frizz or blow around. It's just there, like a highlighted blond hat. And I have never once been confused for a man. Imagine it!

I have been confused for someone much younger than I am. With a hat on, so much of my neck is exposed that I do feel smaller, more childlike. The reaction of salespeople when I'm alone and wearing my little hat is funny. When I look up and they see my crow's feet, they often recoil in surprise, and I am not exaggerating. Especially if I'm buying wine.

But my short hair can also make me feel bigger, taller, more direct. With no hair in my eyes, I feel more capable of looming when I want to. Because I understand our cultural norms, I do realize my hair is sending a bit of a no-nonsense message, which I sometimes lean on. It's easier to hold eye contact. If you're looking at my face, there's nothing around it to distract you. There's nothing else to look at. Just me.

I have not been as conscious of people's perception of me since high school. I see images of women my age in the media and realize I don't look like the cascading-locked movie stars, not that I ever did. But I don't look like the thirty-to-forty-year-old sitcom characters, either. They still have long hair. My hair more closely resembles women decades older than I am in length, if not style, than it does that of my peers.

But, for the first time, I feel like my hair suits me. My face has changed shape since I was in my twenties. It's got sharper angles now. I remember hearing that Justine Bateman went off on critics who said she looked old by saying her face now matched the way she feels inside. I feel like that about my short hair. I've never been a siren. I've never been an earth goddess. I've never been an innocent in the woods. If sporting hair that requires a cut every four weeks makes the world perceive me differently, then that's interesting, I guess. And anecdotally, I'd say it's true. But "different" has not meant "bad." If I don't present the same as other 37-year-old moms, then perhaps -- for the first time -- I'm easier to remember.

And I can see you seeing me, because there's nothing blocking my view.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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