Hair and freedom, then and now

I’m very fond of this passage, from a post by New Kid on the Hallway, about a class she’s teaching:

Perhaps my greatest concern, though, is that these responses are cementing in my students their sense that “I’m so glad I live in the modern world where we’ve solved all these problems.” It is a class all of women, who have self-selected to take this class, so they probably don’t consciously think that everything has been solved and women now have it completely hunky-dory. But unconsciously, I think that message surrounds them, and it’s hard for them to resist it. And reading about how a Calvinist consistory sought to excommunicate a woman and her whole household because the woman wore her hair in curls certainly, on the face of it, encourages them to think, “Wow, we have it SO much better now!” To which I want to say: Okay, in most (not all!) churches today, you are not going to be excommunicated for how you wear your hair. Does this mean that hairstyles don’t mean anything today? Do you think you’re really free to wear your hair however you like without consequences? What do you think would happen if you got a buzzcut, for instance? How do you think people would react? Do you think that on a job interview, employers would react to you differently if you had hair below your butt that hadn’t been cut in 10 years than if you had a nice little neat shining bob? Why was it courageous for Melissa Etheridge to get up at the Grammys and perform on stage without hair? I mean, yes, if you pressed me, I would say that women have greater freedom of expression (in terms of hair, at least!) now than in the 16th century and I’d much rather live now than then. But I want my students to have to think about it and decide that for themselves, consciously, rather than making assumptions.

As “Rana” wrote in the comments to New Kid’s post, it’s important to distinguish between “better” and “best.”

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

63 Responses to Hair and freedom, then and now

  1. Pingback: Ancarett's Abode » Little Whigs:

  2. 2
    ms. b says:

    Hairstyles mean a whole lot. Trust me, I’m the girl who grew out her buzzcut because she couldn’t get a part time job and was getting kinda tired of having stuff thrown at her in the street/on the bus.

  3. 3
    Crys T says:

    Being a veteran of the Punk Wars, I can safely say that few things freak people out more than unconventional hairstyles.

    I know, someone will pipe up saying, “Yeah, but that was a long time ago, too” so I will say now that that person should try walking down the street her/himself with a truly radical haircut and just see what response you get from people. Especially if you’re female: I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had things thrown at me.

    What I found interesting–and this was in the mid-90s, btw–is how hair colour affects people’s reaction to you: when I had black hair, everyone thought I was scary; when it was bleached out white, all of a sudden I was “sexy”; when it was pillarbox red, people were extremely aggressive towards me; when it was green, I had lots of people coming up to tell me how “cool” I was; and when it was blue or purple, people stared & pointed, but pretty much kept their mouths shut.

    Even tattoos and (some) piercings are seen as less threatening than “weird” hair.

  4. 4
    Amanda says:

    Women’s hair is one of those things that causes anxiety across all sorts of cultural boundaries. It’s really quite odd that it would be hair, if you think about it. But I have to concur with the previous commenters. When I dyed my hair blonde, the moaning and wailing I got from friends, especially male friends, was really quite startling. And it was just because people didn’t think of me as having a “blonde” personality.

  5. 5
    Sarah says:

    I was just a blonde this weekend for a play and wore a wig. When my brown hair wasn’t showing through people were all agape. And I really did feel different. – to the extent I was having fun playing the part.

    And as someone who’s buzzed her head twice I’ve seen reactions from the horrified to mundane. In HS it was “confirmation” I was a lesbian, or at the very least extremely weird and in college No one really cared.

    A couple times the first time an African American woman with very short hair would come up and say she liked it. I liked it too – the way it left just my face.

    Hair is damned interesting. But I found even when I was bald, it was more how I dressed and acted that determined peoples’ treatment of me. The hair was secondary. That’s just me though. I would treat it as incidental like I’d run into the razor one day; that was my goal to make it seem like that; and often I’d get away with it. Other people are more deliberate or face discrimination. I say yes that is brave…

  6. 6
    Emily Care says:

    Whew. Thanks for the update, Amp. Glad you are safe.

  7. 7
    mythago says:

    And then there’s the whole issue of gray hair.

  8. 8
    Andrew Reeves says:

    Well, if I can chime in for a bit, I ought to at least mention that if as a man I were to walk in for a job interview in jeans, a T-Shirt, tennis shoes, and hair that had not been brushed, I would probably not get the job. The person being quoted is, IMO, really asking questions more on the whole nature of culture and grooming rather than how a culture treats women.

    On my lazier days, I certainly think that our backwards cultural constructs that mandate things like shaving, combing one’s hair, and dressing nicely are oppressive. Which is why I usually show up to class in “unkempt vagabond” mode. If, OTOH, I am going to be presenting a conference paper, I’m definitely going to give in to The Man.

  9. 9
    Q Grrl says:

    I don’t understand your correlation. Are you saying a woman with a buzzcut is the same thing as a man who doesn’t groom himself? If you are, you just proved the whole point.

  10. 10
    Crys T says:

    “hair that had not been brushed”

    We’re not only talking about hair that looks unkempt, Andrew. Shaved/closely clippered hair is about as neat as you can get, but if you’re a woman with that sort of cut, you’re likely to get verbal or even physical abuse for having it.

    Some “radical” cuts can be technically smooth and groomed as well, but you’re going to catch hell for having them as well.

    As far as men go, ever since really long hair moved from being the exclusive preserve of damn hippy freaks to being just as likely to be found on beer-swilling redneck types, men just plain do have more hair freedom. Not to say that a guy showing up for an interview with a purple and green Mohawk, no matter how pristine, would be likely to get the job. But the requirement for women to *always* look traditionally “feminine” are stricter than those requiring men to look “masculine”.

    And yes, Mythago, the question of grey hair is important as well: it’s still perfectly acceptable for a man to go naturally grey, even prematurely. That’s not saying that the man in question necessarily likes to, but he is not going to face the pressure a woman in his position would.

  11. 11
    karpad says:

    I’d even wonder which group would have an easier time getting hired with a blue and purple mohawk.
    You’d probably have to conduct such an experiment near a college, but it might be worth finding out. and if in facta man with crazy hair has a significantly easier time finding a job and/or not getting things thrown at them, it would make the conclusions of this debate more profound.
    but that’s dream thesis. I doubt anyone here cares enough to go through with that much work.

    also: what the hell kind of asshole throws things at people for disapproving of their physical appearance? seriously. Unless your skin is green, you’re 8 feet tall, and they’re afraid you’re going to smash the little girl who lives by the mill, that seems like a goddamn stupid overreaction to, well, anything.

  12. 12
    luke says:

    Of course if you are green and 8 feet tall, people are quite unlikely to throw anything at you, just in case you decide to smash them instead. And I wonder if fear is also the reason that man with crazy hair have less things thrown at them than women with crazy hair.

  13. 13
    Sally says:

    I don’t know. In high school, my brother wore his hair long, dyed it funny colors, and occasionally wore eyeliner. And although I was pretty routinely harassed for my unconventional appearance, it couldn’t hold a candle to what he went through. I don’t want to get all PHMT here, but guys who defy gender conventions do have to worry about sometimes-violent homophobia.

  14. 14
    Trish Wilson says:

    My hair is now down to my waist, and when I’ve had interviews in the past I’ve been told by people working in employment agencies to wear it pulled back off my face or in a ponytail. I usually wore it in a French braid if I’ve had an interview. Otherwise, I prefer wearing it down. It seems that big hair in an interview doesn’t do wonders for an applicant.

  15. 15
    zuzu says:

    How timely! Just last night I was in a store, and the clerk who fetched my item and wrapped it for me without looking directly at me addressed me as “Sir.” I suppose the short haircut on the tall and big woman canceled out the fact that I have large breasts, a face like a doll’s and I was wearing a BRIGHT PINK COAT. I mean, really.

    The *only* time anyone calls me Sir is when I have short hair. It’s astonishing how much that can matter, even when you’re wearing feminine clothes and jewelry and makeup.

    It’s also astonishing how much ownership people, even people who are not close to you, take in your hair. I’m someone who is always growing and chopping the hair when I feel like a change. And even though short hair suits me better and makes the angles in my face stand out, I always, ALWAYS take crap from people who whine, “Why’d you cut your haiiiiiiir?” The biggest offenders are men, since women seem to recognize the value of a good cut even if they’re afraid to cut their own hair. As for color, I used to color my hair auburn and I would get stopped on the street and told how beautiful it was. When I changed it to dark (partly because I wanted a change, mostly because I’d overdone it and it was turning brassy in the sun), I got complaints from people I worked with. I guess they had redhead fetishes.

    I watch makeover shows a lot, and it’s always amazing to me the different attitudes men and women with long hair have about losing it. With men, they’re concerned about an image or looking like a banker, or wistful about how long it took them to grow it and what those years represented. With women, it’s all about how much their femininity is tied up in the hair. And even when the hair is all split and frizzy and shapeless, they are afraid of scissors. And almost every time, they like the result.

  16. 16
    Sen says:

    And what about hair on legs/armpits?

  17. 17
    zuzu says:

    I had a friend in college who very determinedly let the hair on her legs and armpits grow, but she had to keep pointing it out because she was a redhead with white body hair.

    Actually, that reminds me of another hair-ownership thing with her — she really had the most gorgeous straight, shiny long copper hair. And wound up cutting it off when her boyfriend dumped her because he’d been so into the hair. She realized after it was cut that the stylist hadn’t just let it fall to the floor but gathered it carefully so he could sell it.

  18. 18
    Andrew Reeves says:

    What I meant is basically that there are all kinds of cultural constraints on what we do with our appearance. The quoted text I think erred in portraying cultural constraints as mainly applying to women. People of *any* gender are going to have problems if they have an appearance that transgresses social norms. If you are a woman, it is a bit easier to push outside of the accepted norms, but then there are other areas in which women have a lot more sartorial latitude than men.

  19. 19
    Julian Elson says:

    Well, I think the danger of complacency instead of activism (“We’ve already accomplished so much: we can relax a bit at trying to end social injustices now.” vs. “We’ve got so far to go: we can’t stop now.”) must be weighed against the optimism that such perceived progress can create instead of hopelessness (“We ended slavery, we enfranchised non-property owners, we enfranchised women, we ended coverture, so who the hell’s to say we can’t end the wage gap or rape underreporting?” vs. “There’s always been injustice. There was injustice a thousand years ago, there is now, and there will be a thousand years in the future. It’s human nature.”). I’m not sure that young women viewing themselves as part of a narrative of progress and amelioration of social wrongs is a bad thing.

  20. 20
    La Lubu says:

    Andrew: point taken. But I think you’re missing part of the point here. If you are male, you have to exert some effort towards stepping outside those cultural bounds. If you are female, it is practically unavoidable to wander outside those bounds just by living…even when it comes to something as inconsequential as one’s hair.

    We’re not supposed to have our hair too short. We’re not supposed to have our hair too long. Depending on the fashion of the day, our natural hair texture or color could instantly be considered “wrong”, which can and does have an impact on job interviews and promotions. Even outside the workplace, our natural hair color can be “wrong”, depending on circumstance. As many women here have pointed out, folks will make assumptions and treat one differently based on hair color alone….even if it isn’t “punk”.

    A man can have the same haircolor from the age of three to the age of eighty-three, or even older. If a woman tries that stunt, she’ll have repercussions. Our hair length is supposed to be circumscribed by age. And gray hair supposedly makes men more “distinguished”, while it supposedly makes women more “extinguished.” Bah!

    Hair may be a social or cultural issue for a man, but it can be political for women. Ask any black woman who felt/feels like she can’t wear her natural texture on the job…or in life. Folks will assume a woman’s politics based on how she wears her hair. Remember the sensation Angela Davis’ afro caused? Any woman whose hair doesn’t meet the (literal) gold standard of WASPdom is supposed to work at changing it. Maybe that’s not political to you, but it is to me….my hair comes from my ancestry, and if I’m being pressured to change it, I can’t help but think that’s a reflection of how my very ancestry is regarded.

    Society considers a woman’s hair as intimately tied to her sexuality. On men, it’s just hair…hell, men don’t even have to have hair. The length of a woman’s hair is considered to be a sign of whether she is lesbian or straight. And some conservative religious groups (not just Muslim) require women to cover their hair. Hair has an imagined power on women that it does not have on men.

  21. 21
    silverside says:

    Especially in the 60s, long hair on men generated a lot of anxiety about proper sex roles, and whether these men were in a sense WOMEN, which, of course, is absolutely taboo.

    Although long hair on a man is somewhat more acceptable on a young man today, especially if he does not have “adult” responsibilities (in college and/or sings in his own rock band), I have a feeling that a well-dressed, well-groomed professional man with an immaculate resume would still have a hard time getting a credible job in many fields if his hair was below his shoulders. Maybe in something “creative.” But certainly not in investment banking and the like.

    Interesting, however, that long hair is not associated with gay men, although very short hair is associated with being a lesbian. Also, all this stuff is wrapped up in age. We expect younger women to have long hair in order to be sexy and attractive, but if you’re over 50 with long gray hair to your waist, people are going to wonder why you don’t have a more “sensible hairdo.”

    And we haven’t even BEGUN to touch what a sensitive issue hair is in the African-American community, and all the things that hair signifies.

  22. 22
    Crys T says:

    “guys who defy gender conventions do have to worry about sometimes-violent homophobia.”

    And women who defy gender conventions don’t? Look, I not only routinely had things thrown at me–including bottles, glasses and rocks–and was on the receiving end of verbal abuse to the point where it became routine (and I do mean probably upwards of 6-8 times per day), there were occasions where I was threatened with violence (often including the threat of rape) and even several times where I was physically attacked. I’ve had cars full of guys stop so one of them could jump out and punch me (gee, anyone here wondering why I can sometimes be so aggressive???).

    Yeah, the punk guys got hassled, too, but it wasn’t in the same nonstop way. Usually with them, it was either the passing catcall or when their abusers seriously wanted a fight.

    “It seems that big hair in an interview doesn’t do wonders for an applicant.”

    Yeah, even if you’re going to have “properly” long “womanly” hair, it still has to be withing some weird bounds of “attractive” styling. Bizarre.

    “When I changed it to dark (partly because I wanted a change, mostly because I’d overdone it and it was turning brassy in the sun), I got complaints from people I worked with.”

    Interesting response. It’s sort of similar to my experience: black hair=scary for some reason. It reminds me of an interview Kristin Hersh did years ago when she noted that she had been a natural blonde all her life and been considered an airhead, but when she dyed her hair black, all of all sudden she was seen as a moody, serious “artist”.

    “If you are male, you have to exert some effort towards stepping outside those cultural bounds. If you are female, it is practically unavoidable to wander outside those bounds just by living…”

    EXACTLY!!!

    “Any woman whose hair doesn’t meet the (literal) gold standard of WASPdom is supposed to work at changing it.”

    Which is another crucial point. I hadn’t thought of the hair issue that way, but it’s true: it’s not even enough to just not be “extreme”, you’ve also got to fit into the rapidly-changing, arbitrary parameters of what is considered fashionable at the time, whether these suit you personally, physically or culturally.

  23. 23
    alkahest says:

    zuzu wrote:

    The *only* time anyone calls me Sir is when I have short hair. It’s astonishing how much that can matter, even when you’re wearing feminine clothes and jewelry and makeup.

    I find this quite interesting, because I have a somewhat different experience – I often get mistaken for male despite having armpit-length hair. It would be interesting to look at what exactly makes people perceive both you and I as male despite having very different hair styles. Grant it, I dress exclusively male, consider myself a androgynous dyke, and am fat enough that it could be hard to tell whether my chest is male or female – but one would still expect someone with long hair to be pretty much seen as female. The interplay of dress style, hair style, and personal bearing in people’s perception of gender would be fascinating to look at.

  24. 24
    Robert says:

    Perhaps hair in the state of nature conveys large quantities of useful but unarticulated information, information which we have evolved to process. “Playing” with the parameters could set up cognitive conflicts in the viewer, and the confusion then could cause a negative reaction.

    I don’t know that this is true, but it could be true. Certainly the undeniable strength of the reaction seems out of proportion to the size of the stimulus; sexism seems an inadequate explanation. (The man who throws things at someone with odd hair appearance doesn’t throw things at someone with nontraditional work patterns.)

  25. 25
    alkahest says:

    Robert wrote:

    Certainly the undeniable strength of the reaction seems out of proportion to the size of the stimulus; sexism seems an inadequate explanation. (The man who throws things at someone with odd hair appearance doesn’t throw things at someone with nontraditional work patterns.)

    Well, yeah, but these two situations (having short hair and having a non-traditional work pattern) are quite different because one is plainly visible (short hair) and the other takes at least some personal knowledge (how does one even start to know if the woman in the power suit walking down the street works 60 hours a week or is a house wife going to the PTA meeting?) and I think that people are less willing to injure someone they personaly know and/or have to deal with for more than the period of time it takes to throw a rock at someone.

  26. 26
    Sally says:

    “And women who defy gender conventions don’t?”

    I didn’t say that. I just said that men who defy gender conventions get shit, too.

    Normal-looking men didn’t usually fuck with punk guys, because punk guys looked tough. But my brother didn’t really look tough: he was a skinny guy who wore all black and makeup. Punk guys may have been weird, but they were hyper-masculine, and so they didn’t challenge gender conventions. Punk women (at least in the days of hardcore) did, and that’s why they came in for more shit. But I promise you, guys who defied gender conventions, rather than just being unconventional, really did have a hard time of it. Where I grew up, gay bashing was a tolerated activity. My mom had an acquaintance who had to have his leg amputated after he was severely beaten outside a gay bar. My brother, according to conventional guys, looked like a fag. He really did risk violence every time he left the house. And for what it’s worth, I didn’t. I got lots of verbal harassment, guys yelling things at me from cars, clerks trailing me around stores, etc. But I was never, not once, credibly threatened with violence. And I dyed my hair black, white, fire-engine red, purple, and blue.

  27. 27
    Myca says:

    I tend to think that this is one case (unlike the Blame thread, IMHO), where PHMT is just serving to derail the conversation. YES, it’s true that there are unreasonable appearance based standards for men too (and I say that as a guy with long hair who’s NOT cutting it and who is therefore NOT getting a high-paying job any time soon), but the day-to-day scrutiny I face based on my appearance pales in comparison to what almost any woman faces, whether she’s got an unconventional hairstyle or not, whether she’s punk rock or not, and whether she’s well-groomed or not.

    —Myca

  28. 28
    Sally says:

    (The man who throws things at someone with odd hair appearance doesn’t throw things at someone with nontraditional work patterns.)

    Are you sure? Tell that to a woman who’s worked construction. There’s a reason that women in traditionally-male occupations are much more likely to be sexually harassed than women in traditionally-female ones, even if the woman in the traditionally-female occupation works in an otherwise all-male workplace.

  29. alkahest, when I read your quote: “despite having armpit-length hair”, my first thought was “huh? armpit hair is short…”

    But now I get it ;o)

  30. 30
    La Lubu says:

    Sally, I do work construction (journeyman electrician; almost seventeen years) and I don’t think that’s true. I think the women I know who work in an office environment are much more likely to deal with sexual harassment, and I think it relates to issues of power and entitlement. I entered the trade in the eighties, and by that time, preventing sexual harassment was part of the apprenticeship curriculum. Contractors were also keen on avoiding lawsuits, and so many developed anti-harrassment policies and were quick to fire transgressors. The workers on the jobsite are not generally people with a lot of power, so the message was learned; sexual harrassment is not worth a firing. Dynamics are different in the office world, and employees there can have higher rank, and thus more ability to avoid consequences.

    Sex discrimination is a whole ‘nother ballgame.

    (sorry to derail; I just feel the need to jump in here, since so many of my fellow tradespeople aren’t represented in the blogosphere!)

    Crys T: I second the black-hair-is-scary thing. I’m a black-haired Sicilian in the majority blond Midwest and when I was growing up, my mother was regarded as scary by the neighborhood kids because she had black hair “like a witch”. Think about it….what color hair did all the witches have in children’s stories? Now, I’m grown up, and men who aren’t grown-up yet ask me such shit as “are you a dominatrix? c’mon, I won’t tell anybody! with that hair, you’d make a good one!” Sigh.

  31. 31
    alkahest says:

    Barbara Preuninger wrote:

    alkahest, when I read your quote: “despite having armpit-length hair”, my first thought was “huh? armpit hair is short…”?

    But now I get it ;o)

    Heheh. It should read, perhaps, “despite having hair a few inches past my shoulders.”

    :-)

  32. 32
    Sally says:

    Interesting, La Labu! I’m pretty sure that there’s data that suggests that women are most likely to be harassed in traditionally-male occupations (not just blue-collar ones: stock trading as well as construction), but maybe it’s out of date. I knew a woman who worked construction in the 80′s, and she said that the guys were constantly shoving Hustlers in her face and demanding that she tell them which pictures she liked best. There was a lot that was shady about her work situation, though, so maybe it would have been different in a more above-board operation.

  33. 33
    rabbit says:

    I’ve never had anyone ask me to put my waist-length hair back for an interview before like Trish has, but that’s probably because I’m still young enough to get away with it…and also probably because its very neat, even if it is long. I have, however, felt that as a heavy girl (not even really ‘fat’…) I have a really hard time finding flattering professional-looking clothing. So I end up going to interviews in things that don’t fit or flatter all that well or things that make me look much older than I am. When I was hired at my current job, after working for the head of construction as a temp, I was moved out to a construction site (which is fine with me, I love the more casual workplace) because the boss said he wanted someone ‘more professional’ for his permenant assistant. I think it was largely because of how I dressed. Which worked out fine, like I said, but to the point: it is much more important for a woman to be attractive in looking for a job that it is for a man to be attractive. A man has to be neat, but a woman also has to be at least a little concious of style. Which is crappy for people like me who would rather wear jeans to pretty much everything.

    (Also…I, too, get the ‘no hair cutting!’ whining when I mention cutting my hair. Course, stylists are overly pushing in getting me to cut it, which makes little sense to me)

  34. 34
    Samantha says:

    My hair is almost always punky colored except for 2-3 months a year I get long African hair braids woven in. I noticed in NYC that when I got my hair put into African braids I got considerably less street harassment (I’m an attractive white woman, late 20′s).

    A specific incident sticks out in my mind. The day before getting my hair put into long hot pink and lavender braids a man riding past me on his bike said to me, “Nice tits”. Two days later I was walking past a man sitting in a parked car and as I braced myself for the usual invasion of my sexual privacy he said, “Nice braids”. My prior experiences hadn’t led me to expecting that so it took me aback for a second, then I gathered myself and thanked him. I wonder now if that man noticed my hesitation responding to him and understood it as the usual defensive emotional wall women in NYC put up to mentally protect themselves from men’s constant barrages?

    It got so that I looked forward to getting braids in a big way beause it significantly reduced the crap I got from strange men, especially black men. And it’s purty colors too. :)

  35. 35
    biztheclown says:

    I am a 29 year old white guy in Chicago. I have grown my hair long and about 8 months ago I dyed two long red stripes into my hair. I have to tell you, my life has changed dramatically. My interactions with strangers out in the world have taken on a whole new set of rules.

    The differences in how people react to me break down by age, race and gender.

    The biggest effect is on young square white men. It took me a while to realize what their response was. All I knew was that they acted goofy. I finally realized that their response was terror. I scare the crap out of these guys. You know that little dance you do when you and another guy are about to get into the same line? I have not “lost” one of these confrontations since I dyed my hair.

    Another big effect is on African Americans, both men and women. They are much much more likely to engage me both verbally and non-verbally. One guy followed me for blocks in our cars so he could point at my hair and give me a thumbs up. African American women have stopped me walking down the street to talk to me. Let me assure you that this never happened before.

    Older people are even more universally appalled by me than before. Older white women tend to make big ostentatious mistakes calling me “ma’am” and then offering equally melodramatic apologies.

    I am convinced that it is less a “punk” response than a gender outlaw response. I have seen women with the stripes done like mine, but not other guys. I have no doubt that my hair would stop me getting any number of jobs.

    None of this is to dispute that women’s problems with this kind of thing are much greater and their choices more viciously circumscribed. Just to share my experiences.

  36. 36
    Moebius Stripper says:

    Some time ago, I remember reading a blog post somewhere that linked to an article on appropriate office attire for women. Most of the infractions made sense – don’t flash cleavage, don’t wear shortshort skirts, don’t wear sleeveless tops – but then, right in the middle of that list – don’t wear long hair loose. This was the first time I’d seen any indication that my long hair (usually worn loose) was in any sense on par with sexy and revealing attire. (I mentioned this to some straight male friends of mine, who agreed with me that unrestrained long hair is not nearly as distracting to them as skimpy clothing.)

  37. 37
    zuzu says:

    I was thinking about this issue some more today and it occurred to me that I could think of at least two religious groups that forbade men from cutting their hair — Rastafarians and Sikhs. (I don’t know what the women of these groups do wrt their hair). Does anyone know the specific reasons behind this? Does it have to do with spiritual power or something like that? I’m also curious as to why Sikh men cover their hair.

    As for women, I live in Brooklyn and see a lot of Hasidic women around, all of whom wear wigs or hats to cover their hair once they’re married. If I’m not mistaken, they shave their hair on their wedding day so that their husbands are the only people who see their hair thereafter. And I remember reading somewhere that Catholic nuns used to do the same thing when they took their vows.

  38. 38
    karpad says:

    This whole conversation is more than a little surreal. I don’t doubt the word of anyone who’s spoken up, but some anecdotes are so stupid as to be laughable. not that it might not have been horrifying, upsetting, or even frightening at the time (as sexual harrassment frequently is), but the though processes running through the perps head must have been something strange.
    id: “I should grab at her ass”
    superego: “why the hell would you do that? what the hell makes you think that she won’t just up and slap you? or get upset? or report you to that cop standing on the corner? none of those sound very good.”
    id: “well, look at her! she has long hair. plus, I think I saw her a few months ago, when her hair was dyed pink.”
    superego: “how does that have anything to do with anything?”
    id: “well… I… c’mon! sexual harrassment is fun!”

  39. 39
    Avenir says:

    I had short hair for about three years in college- I cut it myself to save money (also, out of laziness). It was never shorter than one or two inches, and I always left it unstyled. I also wore ‘boyish’ women’s clothing- women’s khakis instead of tight jeans, women’s button-ups instead of tanks. I considered myself androgynous.

    When I saw graduation approaching and realized that my andro-style was inherently casual, I decided to grow my hair out and learn how to style it up the way women do. As soon as it got long enough to appear ‘feminine’, my life changed. When I had short hair, I was somehow invisible to other people. They looked past me- no eye contact, no nods, no smiles. I’m the kind of person for whom invisibility is comfortable, so it was a shock when my hair began to get long and suddenly it seemed like I was always being looked at. Guys would smile, women would make eye contact. Male employees would give me random discounts at shops, and I started getting harassed by drunk fratboys- something that never happened before. I feel less safe, now that I’m more visible.

    Another thing: my girlfriend had short hair when I did, and we often got harassed just for walking arm in arm together. “Lezbos!” “Dykes!” called from cars, etc. For the two years that we’ve both had long hair, we haven’t been harassed a single time, not once! Not even when we’re walking hand in hand, or with an arm around the other’s waist. We joke that we could be having sex in the street and passerby would would comment about what good friends those two obviously heterosexual women seem to be. It’s all in those six extra inches of hair, I guess.

  40. 40
    mythago says:

    zuzu, I don’t believe the shaving thing is very common.

  41. 41
    Crys T says:

    “Perhaps hair in the state of nature conveys large quantities of useful but unarticulated information, information which we have evolved to process.”

    Robert, in the “state of nature” both women’s and men’s hair grows to look THE SAME….unless the man in question is going bald.

    “Punk guys may have been weird, but they were hyper-masculine, and so they didn’t challenge gender conventions.”

    Sally, you’re thinking of 90s/00s punks, not original 70s/80s punks (a lot of whom would be called “Goths” nowadays, but that was certainly never a word we ever used), many of whom certainly did play with all sorts of gender conventions, including boys wearing lots of makeup and “feminine” clothes.

    “But I was never, not once, credibly threatened with violence. And I dyed my hair black, white, fire-engine red, purple, and blue.”

    Well, without seeing actual photos, it’s hard to judge whether or not your styles could have been considered threatening to your time and place.

    “what color hair did all the witches have in children’s stories? Now, I’m grown up, and men who aren’t grown-up yet ask me such shit as “are you a dominatrix? c’mon, I won’t tell anybody! with that hair, you’d make a good one!”?

    Even *I’m* shocked by the ignorance of people in those stories!!!

    “A man has to be neat, but a woman also has to be at least a little concious of style.”

    Which, just by pure coincidence, also happens to equate a bit with looking “attractive”.

    “You know that little dance you do when you and another guy are about to get into the same line?”

    Biz, now this is really intriguing. When you talk about “losing” one of these dances, I’m feel the same sense of utter bewilderment as the first time my younger brother mentioned public toilet penis etiquette! In all honesty, I think most females here have no idea what you’re talking about, but I for one would love a bit of explanation. And I’m not being snarky, either: this stuff really does fascinate me.

  42. My fiancee is a man with longer hair. That can sometimes be a hindrance for him. But he’s young and a software engineer, so it’s a little more acceptable in that profession. You know, the stereotype of the Gen X/Y computer geek with long hair. He’s also a musician (and people usually assume he is just because he has long hair). He keeps his hair neat, though. In all honesty, he looks a bit like the middle Hansen boy did in ‘Mmmm Bop’ days. Haha!

    I have long blonde hair, and people usually assume I’m stupid. Last year, I wore my hair in braids for about 3 months. My peers in the College of Business treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes. Seriously. It was like I was a dirtball or had some disease. As soon as I took the braids out, I was the dumb bimbo again.

    Keep in mind that long hair is a hindrance for women once they start to climb the business ladder. The most successful women tend to have above-the-shoulder styles. Think of your typical congresswoman or Carly Fiorina. Having a Pam Anderson hairdo is only an advantage when applying for first-level jobs.

  43. 43
    Sally says:

    I’m not playing the “punker than thou” game with you, Crys. I said “during the era of hardcore,” and that’s what I know about. Where I grew up, there was a radical shift to hypermasculinity that occurred around 1981 and that wasn’t really challenged until Riot Grrl and Nirvana ten years later. (And by that time I was fed up and had left the scene.) I’m not making that up, and I’m hardly the first person to notice it. The punk guys I knew in the 80s didn’t look like 77 punks, and they didn’t challenge gender conventions. The guys who did challenge gender conventions got beat up.

    I’m the first to admit that for basically-conventional people, women have to work much, much harder to achieve an appropriately feminine appearance than men do to be appropriately masculine. But you brought up people who deliberately flout convention. And I don’t think that a guy in lipstick is going to have an easier time of it than a woman with a buzz cut.

  44. 44
    Crys T says:

    “I’m not playing the “punker than thou”? game with you, Crys.”

    And I wasn’t playing it with you. I interpreted your reply to my post as meaning that punk males had *never* defied convention. The only reference you made to hardcore was to women punks during that era, not men.

    And anyway, during the hardcore days, I knew more than a couple of guys who wore makeup. And that isn’t an “I was a punk before you was a punk” statment, either, just a statement of my personal experience.

  45. 45
    Stella Maris says:

    >But the requirement for women to *always* look traditionally “feminine”? are
    >stricter than those requiring men to look “masculine”.

    Huh. That’s interesting. My perception is the opposite: that I as a woman have far greater leeway in my appearance than men do.

    I can have hair of any length from an inch to a yard; I can dye it any color from platinum to raven; I can wear pants, skirts, dresses, or shorts; and I can wear any color in the rainbow — all while remaining at least minimally compliant with professional standards. (Granted, I work in a “creative” profession, and I exploit the latitude that gives me to the fullest.)

    But I’ve always felt sorry for men because their choices for self-expression in appearance seem so much more limited.

  46. 46
    Joan says:

    I could think of at least two religious groups that forbade men from cutting their hair ““ Rastafarians and Sikhs. (I don’t know what the women of these groups do wrt their hair).

    Rastafarian women also wear dred locks (I don’t know if they are forbidden to cut them, though). When they go out in public, or when they have company in their homes, they must wear a head wrap to cover their locks.

    I’ve gotten a lot of criticism in the past for not straightening my hair (I’m a black woman). I wear it in braids now (no extensions, just my own hair which comes past my shoulders), but when I wore it unbraided and just natural, people really used to talk.

  47. 47
    Samantha says:

    Stella, that an interseting point to bring into this.

    My perspective on it is that it’s a matter of Alpha and Beta groups. Women are allowed more latitude in what they can wear such that ‘masculine’ clothes are acceptable for women where ‘feminine’ clothes are still not readily acceptable for men because men are the Alpha group and women are the Beta group and everyone knows it.

    As a white woman with occassionally ‘black’ hair, I’ve thought a lot about why so many more black women wear their hair straight and blonde than white women wear theirs in cornrows and black braids. I think of the hullabaloo when Juliette Lewis wore her hair in cornrows to the Oscars and was widely booed for the fashion don’t, but has a big deal ever been made about black women with long blonde locks?

    I think there’s a premise that everyone wants to be more Alpha so Betas mimicking Alpha styles is understood as as a way of ‘leveling up’, but why would Alphas want to mimic Betas, to ‘level down’? Outside of white people, mostly white men, who adopt ‘gangsta style’ as a way of trying to bolster their idea of street cred (and there’s a whole ‘nother thread), it’s generally understood that it is better to be like Alphas more than Betas. Think also of the way Japanese cartoonists draw their cartoon heroes so frequently with blonde hair and blue eyes, or the way blondes are far overrepresented in TV, movie and other media. There’s a hierarchy of hair that posits blonde at the top and not-blonde beneath.

  48. 48
    biztheclown says:

    “Biz, now this is really intriguing. When you talk about “losing”? one of these dances, I’m feel the same sense of utter bewilderment as the first time my younger brother mentioned public toilet penis etiquette! In all honesty, I think most females here have no idea what you’re talking about, but I for one would love a bit of explanation. And I’m not being snarky, either: this stuff really does fascinate me.”

    So say you’re at the gas station and you, a guy, have picked up your soda and are walking towards the counter. Another guy is over to the side and has just finished filling out his lottery tickets. You didn’t see each other at first, but now, at the counter, you both realize that you’re heading for occupying the same space. A kind of hesitating, jockeying for position goes on that results in one person going first. How is it decided? Well, it’s complicated and entirely dependant on how the man in question deals with this sort of thing. One can be very aggro about it or very deferential. Still, it entails sizing up the other person. Men do this all the time, every day. (ask one.) At the gas station, walking down a crowded street, waiting for an elevator.

    As far as my example goes, since I got the red stripes in my hair, young square guys, even aggro looking ones almost automatically defer and let me go first. I guess so they can keep an eye on me…..

  49. 49
    Stella Maris says:

    Samantha, yes, I think the Alpha/Beta piece is at the heart of it. But what puzzles me is why it works in the direction it does. You might think just the opposite: that the group that was dressing “up” would be more circumscribed and more harshly punished, because they are symbolically claiming a higher status than their own.

    In other words, in this area at least, the tightest limitations and the harshest punishment seems to be reserved for those who relinquish the symbols of privilege, not those who claim them.

    I don’t mean in any way to minimize the punishment women receive for gender noncompliance. As a short-haired woman who frequently dates butches, I have both received and observed some of the crap that masculine-looking women get in this culture. But when I walk into a rough bar wearing chinos and a button-down shirt, I mostly get ignored. Whereas a man who walked into the same bar wearing makeup and a dress would stand a real risk of getting his ass kicked.

  50. 50
    FoolishOwl says:

    In other words, in this area at least, the tightest limitations and the harshest punishment seems to be reserved for those who relinquish the symbols of privilege, not those who claim them.

    I think it’s more the case that it’s the expression of solidarity with the oppressed that’s outrageous, as well as the implied rejection of the belief that the dominant group should be emulated. It’s implicitly subversive.

    The ruling class ideology in the modern world is that “anyone can grow up to be president” — that is, that this is an open and free society in which anyone can achieve high status, and should strive to do so. Of course, very few people actually can, but the message is that it’s the fault of the individual, and if they’d only try harder… etc., etc.

  51. 51
    zuzu says:

    I think of the hullabaloo when Juliette Lewis wore her hair in cornrows to the Oscars and was widely booed for the fashion don’t,

    To be fair, one reason she was a fashion don’t was that the braids were uneven and badly done and didn’t go with the dress. But back in the 70s, when Bo Derek wore braids for 10, it was a big thing. Though it didn’t catch on, even though the response was positive.

  52. 52
    La Lubu says:

    Stella: It’s true that women have more fashion options than men, but the flip side of that is that we’re ‘required’ to use those options! And if our option is low-maintenance, casual, and natural, there are repercussions for us. Men can be low-maintenance, casual, and natural and not think a thing about it. That’s the rub for me, as the women who prefers jeans and t-shirts, and my natural unlightened hair (without a hint of blonde!) sans thinning shears!

    The men might have the hard, fast boundary past which they can’t fashionably go, but for us the boundaries are ever shifting and hard to keep up with. Our clothes and hair ‘have’ to vary sometimes several times in the same day, let alone over a period of years! And I regard that as a pain in the ass, frankly.

  53. 53
    Crys T says:

    Biz: thanks for the explanation! Wow, and to think that there are people who scoff if it’s suggested that women and men actually have different cultures!

    La Lubu wrote: “Stella: It’s true that women have more fashion options than men, but the flip side of that is that we’re ‘required’ to use those options! And if our option is low-maintenance, casual, and natural, there are repercussions for us. Men can be low-maintenance, casual, and natural and not think a thing about it”

    Exactly. And also, yes, the options available to women are seemingly varied, but you must at all times maintain a standard of “femininity”. That is, you can have short hair, but it has to be cut in a sufficiently “soft” way so that it doesn’t look butch. Also, as someone else pointed out, veryt long hair is an option, but only if you’re under a certain age: after that, it has to be above shoulder length or shorter or you are criticised. And you can have the colours you like, as long as you like colours that say “style” and not “I don’t give a fuck” or “revolution”.

  54. 54
    La Lubu says:

    Crys T. : And don’t forget, with all these “choices” open to us, every “choice” we make in regards to appearance is supposedly saying something deep and fundamental about us. Men don’t have that baggage.

    Take fingernails, for example. If a woman has short, unpainted nails, it’s supposed to mean something. On me, it means, “I don’t feel like wasting money on nail polish” and “especially since I work at an occupation where they would just get chipped”. But folks instead make assumptions on my level of femininity and sexuality because my nails are unadorned. When I have short hair, it usually means, “it’s summer! It’s so fucking HOT!” but is again taken to be a “statement” of some sort.

    Men have to work hard to cross the boundaries. We don’t.

  55. 55
    Joan says:

    Stella: But what puzzles me is why it works in the direction it does. You might think just the opposite: that the group that was dressing “up”? would be more circumscribed and more harshly punished, because they are symbolically claiming a higher status than their own.

    But everyone knows that no matter how much the Beta tries to copy the clothing or hairstyle of the Alpha, they will never be able to actually become the Alpha. Thus, if I straightened my hair and people interpreted that as wanting to look like white people, it wouldn’t be seen as a threat to white people’s identity, but rather as an acknowledgement of the inferiority of my own natural appearance. So I am rewarded for recognizing superiority when I see it and trying to emulate it as much as possible, even though I’ll never fully measure up.

    I am not implying, however, that all Black people who straighten their hair are doing it because of any feelings of inferiority or wanting to look white. Do whatever feels good to you, your motives are none of my business.

  56. 56
    Shannon says:

    However, dreadlocks on white people are still considered negatively, I think. I personally don’t mind the cultural apporpiation, but some do. I’m black and when I got my big chop to go natural, I think the lady in the salon(also black) was about to cry, but I was cool with it, since I know my hair grows.

  57. 57
    ms. b says:

    Another thing: my girlfriend had short hair when I did, and we often got harassed just for walking arm in arm together. “Lezbos!”? “Dykes!”? called from cars, etc. For the two years that we’ve both had long hair, we haven’t been harassed a single time, not once! Not even when we’re walking hand in hand, or with an arm around the other’s waist. We joke that we could be having sex in the street and passerby would would comment about what good friends those two obviously heterosexual women seem to be. It’s all in those six extra inches of hair, I guess.

    Same here! Apparently some lesbians are acceptable (namely those who fit traditional ideas of how women should look, of course), but others are the spawn of Satan. Who knew?!

    As for the throwing things thing, I have an inch-long scar on the back of my head from having a desk stapler thrown at me during a homophobic assault based solely on the way I look (the guys didn’t know me). I also used to get abused in the street and on the bus, but since growing my hair back nothing’s happened, except my ears are warmer!

  58. 58
    El Juno says:

    This entire conversation is actually very interesting to me for a very particular reason.

    I’m FTM (pre-hormones, etc) and almost entirely non-passing. Two years ago, I passed relatively easily, at least about 50% of the time.

    In the intervening time, I’ve gotten better at binding, I dress almost exactly the same and, according to most people, have gotten better at walking.

    I’ve also dyed two blue streaks in my hair and grown out the locks they’re connected to.

    (Admittedly, this has also drawn more attention to my face in general.) But even I can see, if I look in the mirror, how much different it ‘reads’.

    Blue down, girl. Blue up, boy.

    …Of course, the major irony in this all is that I’ve dyed that hair in honour and remembrance of a friend of mine whose hair was the same…and was very decidedly male.

    Just a thought.

  59. 59
    Lauren says:

    When I was a teenager, I had to cut all my hair off thanks to a dyeing accident. All my peers immediately assumed it was my coming out statement. I’m still answering questions about my sexuality when I run into people from high school.

    You should read my experiences cutting bangs. I once had plain, long blonde hair (natural, thank you) and about six months ago cut very short bangs. The reactions that I get to the bangs are absolutely astounding. Apparently short bangs communicate some sort of “sluttiness” or “easiness” that I never before encountered.

    Before, with the plain blonde hair, I was considered to fit the “blonde” personality (until I opened my mouth). Now I’m seen as some sort of S/M sex symbol. Here is one such example of harassment. And here is another. Both are completely true. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

  60. Wait, why would you try to pass if you haven’t received hormones? No matter, not really my business.

  61. 61
    FoolishOwl says:

    Someone called me “ma’am” in a store yesterday. Granted, I was wearing my hair loose, and carrying a paratrooper’s map case (which my cousin called a “manpurse”) and the person was passing me from behind. I probably look like Cousin It from that angle.

    Aside from a couple of obnoxious teenagers driving through Berkeley and yelling obscenities, I can’t remember anyone ever hassling me about my hair.

  62. Pingback: Dr. B.'s Blog

  63. 62
    missmao says:

    As for why long hair is on a par with hints of cleavage – literally for centuries, unbound hair was only worn by maidens. (Or, occasionally, queens.) There’s also a massive visual corpus (paintings from earlier centuries which now we regard as classic) featuring women as objects of desire with unbound, long, flowing hair. In a European (western especially) context, there’s a strong undercurrent that unbound hair is an incitement to desire.