Friday, February 24, 2006

Take It All Off, Baby!

My method of dealing with my hair is quite simple: I let it grow out until it's driving me nuts because it's too long, and then I lop it off about two to three inches too short and let it grow back in until it's way too long. This way, I don't have to mess around with maintaining "a cut" and whenever I cut it off, I take off six to eight inches at once and it feels like a whole new hairstyle, even though I've had basically the same hair since I was fourteen. When it's thick and curly, there aren't very many low-maintenance styles available. Lately my hair has been driving me crazy, because right after I lopped it to its "too short" length, which normally only lasts a month, my hair went into one of those phases where it just quits growing, so I've been battling with it being "too short" since October.

While cleaning out my documents folder, I ran across this essay I wrote in the summer of 2003, all about my self-identity and my hair, and how women's hair is so central to how they think of themselves. Without further ado, I share:

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Take It All Off, Baby!

For all of my life, I have had long, thick, curly red hair. I was born with red curls, and I’ve had them ever since. In my baby pictures I look like a young little orphan Annie, but very soon after my hair has grown longer and better tamed, largely because my mother, in all other ways an estimable woman, has dead straight hair herself and didn’t know how to care for curls. So we battled them into submission with a brush and tears, and that’s what I did with my hair for a good 20 years, hating it all the while.

I went through a brief short-hair period while I was in junior high school, when my mother – doubtless tired of my rat’s nest and the woes of curl-fighting – convinced me to cut it off into a cute little ear-lobe-length cut. Or it would have been cute, if my hair hadn’t insisted on curling every which way. I was supposed to blow it dry and curl the ends under with a curling iron, but it never seemed to work out that way. I spent most of high school with past-shoulder-length hair in headbands, and most of college with it in ponytails. It wasn’t until an accidental too-short cut made it hard to put in ponytails that I started wearing it loose now and then.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I read Curly Girl and had my curly hair epiphany, and began to love my hair, and take care of it properly, so that I had cascading curls rather than a frizzy mass of ... well, of something. I’ve only started to love my hair in the past five years, though it’s always been my most distinctive feature, inseparable from my image of myself.

You see, when you’re a red-head, that’s what everyone notices. If you wear a hat, your own family can’t recognize you in a crowd. No one else in my family has red hair, so my whole life I’ve been “the red-headed sister” and “that red-haired girl” and so forth. The Bible says a woman’s hair is her glory. Mine is not just my glory, but my trademark and my calling card.

So it was with very mixed feelings that I prepared for the execution that I myself had planned: The day I cut off all my hair. All of it.

A close friend of mine became pregnant and, for cultural reasons, would not be cutting her hair through the whole pregnancy. I cheerfully agreed to grow my hair out with hers, to ease her long-haired pain. Since graduating college, I’ve kept my hair to a boring cut between chin and shoulder length, which looks nice and professional and can still be easily pulled back out of my face. I hadn’t had it long a while, and I thought it would be fun.

Some months later, I realized that I finally had enough hair to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Donate to Locks of Love, an organization that provides real human hair wigs to children with medical hair loss. You see, the Red Cross won’t take my blood because I’m some sort of “mad cow” risk (my husband will testify that while I may be given to fits of temper, I hardly qualify as a mad cow), and the National Marrow Donor Registry hasn’t yet contacted me wanting my bone innards. So that leaves me with only one other renewable bodily resource: my hair.

As the baby came due, I began telling everyone who would listen about my plan to cut my hair, hoping that if everyone knew about it, I couldn’t back out. Because, you see, as the day drew near, I realized I was absolutely and utterly terrified of cutting my hair.

I’m not a vain person. I wash my hair and let it air dry because I’m really too lazy to style it, I’ve never owned a blow drier, and I only wear make-up for special occasions. My nails are usually a mess and I’ve always got dozens of little dings and scratches on my legs from banging into things. Never bothers me. Most mornings I barely look in the mirror – if my hair falls into place without needing me to fuss extensively with the part, I don’t look in a mirror at all. But the thought of cutting my hair off made my blood run cold.

It seemed vain. Hair is only cosmetic. My hair is not who I am. But then – hair is not who these children are, either, the ones who get wigs from Locks of Love. Hair is purely cosmetic for them, too, but crucial (it seems) to their self-esteem. Is it vain, then, for my hair to be equally crucial to mine? I felt like because I was 25 years old, I ought to be old enough to give up my hair, to know better, to realize I didn’t need my hair to make me who I was. I heard tell just last week, in fact, of a friend whose 7-year-old niece announced her desire to chop off her long golden locks and send them to Locks of Love. (Most of Locks of Love’s donors are children.) Perhaps a child ravaged by disease and subject to playground teasing needs hair, but surely by 25 my self-esteem should be deeply rooted enough not to depend on my hair.

That’s the trouble, of course: I’ve gotten used to having hair for 25 years. I’m attached to it. It is part of who I am. Every picture of me is recognizable from my crown of red curls. The cut required to donate my full 10 inches will leave me with just three to five inches of hair on my head, when wet, half that when dry and corkscrewy. What if people laugh at me on the playground? What if I look like a boy with my hair chopped so short? What if I have a big red ’fro? What if I look like Little Orphan Annie?

Only two people’s opinions really matter, of course: mine and my husband’s. My husband said he was proud of me for donating it (which I believe), and he would love me no matter how short my hair was. I think he’s lying about the second part. It is was sort of lie a husband is supposed to tell, though, and I’m glad he did. He wasn’t sure he liked my super-long hair: It shed everywhere, and he told me I looked like pictures of myself from high school. (Apparently bartenders agreed: As it got longer, I got carded a lot more often.) Growing my hair seemed to be a quick and easy way to be ten years younger!

But the two most important questions about this undertaking still hung over me: Without my hair, will I still be a woman? Without my hair, will I still be me?

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Back to today:

I did lop it off and donate it, and it was REALLY short. I waited until after our summer visit to my grandfather's, because I didn't want to upset him - or my dad - with my shorn head. (Dads and grandpas, I've noticed, don't like to see their baby girls bald.) My husband went with to the beauty parlor, but I was fine. The hairdresser, on the other hand, cried the entire time she cut my hair off and tried to talk me out of it repeatedly. The woman was literally bawling that I was cutting off all my lovely hair.

It wasn't until later that night, when I got ready for bed, and automatically went to put my hair in a ponytail to sleep, only to discover it wasn't there, that I cried. I really did. I cried over my hair.

It made me think of a lot of things. It made me think of Jesus's admonition in Matthew: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna." (Matthew 5:29-30). It made me think of the theologian Origen, who took this passage (or maybe Matt 19:12, it's unclear) quite literally, and who found that his penis was causing him to sin, leading him to have lustful thoughts, so he castrated himself. Cut it off. Was I a modern female Origen, cutting off what caused me the sin of vanity?

It made me think of Jo, in Little Women, who sacrifices her vanity by cutting off and selling her hair so her mother could afford the train ticket to visit her father, a Civil War chaplain, wounded and sick at the front lines. Could I be a modern Jo?

It made me think about women's hair, covered and uncovered, around the world, and standards of beauty that demand we wear it long at this age, and short at that, and that if we want to be taken seriously as a lawyer/doctor/beauty queen/mother, our hair must look like this. It made me think of the political operative in D.C. who told me I was obviously a democrat because I had "ethnic hair." The law school career services office went so far as to tell me not to bother interviewing until my hair was longer, straighter, and browner, because "law firms won't hire a woman with outlandish hair. It's much too short, and you really should tone down the color and flatten out the curls."

"I donated it to children with CANCER!" I burst out.

"Oooh, that's good," they said. "Make sure you mention that, it makes it sound like you care about other people."

I didn't come out of the experience with a lot more answers, but I did have a lot more questions, and a deeper understanding of them. I hadn't known before how infected I was by cultural ideas of beauty. I hadn't known how political hair - and beauty - was. I felt like I understood, a little bit, what it must be like for black women who are told to "look whiter" and informed they must have more caucasian hair to be acceptable in the business world. It's not like I was walking around with my hair dyed pink and sprayed up into a mohawk; my natural color, my natural curl, was deemed too "outrageous" for business. What God gave me? Not good enough for corporate America. I asked the law school Career Services what they preferred (I was morbidly curious and so waaaaay beyond offended). They suggested I have my hair permed straight, or with just a little wave, let it grow to about shoulder length, and dye it a dark brown. Blond, they said, would be okay if I were interviewing in trendier cities, like San Diego.

I thought a lot about vanity, which is an old-fashioned sin these days. I thought about how I could get a kick-ass sermon out of my hair-lopping (I was taking a preaching class in divinity school at the time). I thought about how odd it is that simplicity, plainness, naturalness, is not valued, unless it's the right kind of plainness. Some kinds of plainness are too showy; natural hair, natural skin, natural bodies, natural breasts - if they're not the right color, or size, or length, or shape, you're expected to change them, edit them until they're the "right" kind of natural. (And tall, naturally slim, straight-haired northern-European women with blond or brown locks are lovely. They're just, you know, not all the sizes and shapes and colors women come in.) It makes me appreciate, even more, Dove's "Natural Beauty" campaign -- which isn't just about not being model-perfect, but about women with freckles, or curls, or strong noses, or unorthdontured teeth.

Most of all it made me appreciate my husband, who wasn't lying: He really did think I was beautiful with short hair. And with long hair. And when I had the flu. And when I puked in his brand-new car once. If I learned nothing else, I learned that my husband is truly blind in love, and that is something to be treasured.

1 comment:

Star said...

*applauds all over the place*

I don't know if I've ever said this, but--I really do admire your bravery in cutting your hair that short. Particularly for a good cause, but just in general. I don't know if that's something I could do; in fact, when I donate I *intentionally* grow my hair out long enough that it will still be "long" (i.e. bra strap length) even after the donation. I can't bring myself to consider even taking it down to shoulder-length.

You really got me with the Jo reference. It's been ages since I read that book, but that's a part that always sticks with me--she CUT HER HAIR OFF! It makes me get all sniffly.

I'm reminded, too, of my experiences being teased on the school bus. I got a lot of verbal crap thrown my way... But what do I remember specifically? Very few things, among them the threat to cut my waist-length braid off. And coming home and telling Mom about it, and having her get upset rather than simply trying to console me as she normally would. (Not that she didn't care, you understand, she just knew there was only so much you could do about verbal teasing.)

Hair *is* a part of our identity, somehow. It's "just cosmetic", sure. We can change it--cut it, dye it, curl it, style it, straighten it, put in extensions, shave ourselves bald and rid ourselves of the problem entirely. But at the same time... Whatever we choose to do with it, it's *us*. It's part of what identifies us, especially for people like you and me who have fairly distinctive hair. (Whether that's red and curly or just very long.) It's also a piece of us, a part of our body, even if it doesn't do anything active the way most of our body does. To change it is to change ourselves, in a way. It *is* a big deal.

Um. I think I just set a personal record for "longest comment posted, ever". I think I'll stop babbling now. :)