Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

I am not my hair

Posted on Sep 23, 2010 in Gender, LGBTQ, Sexuality | 6 comments

If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all.  You could end up with somebody else’s whole life.

- Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World

Until last winter, I never really knew what my natural hair color was.  I was a swimmer throughout school, so I was always working the chlorine-blonde look.  Then, in college I started dying it.  The first color I tried was purple, then the fried, blonde tips experienced green, blue, pink, cherry red and pretty much everything else in Manic Panic’s selection.  I got hooked on dying my hair- it was something my mom did quite a lot but would never let me do, so naturally I went hog-wild as soon as I had the chance.

When I moved to LA after college, I took the scissors to myself for the first time and likewise became hooked on cutting my own hair.  Since then, the idea of paying someone else to cut my hair seemed laughable.

Growing up, hairstylists never really gave me haircuts I liked, so learning how to take care of business myself was liberating.  If I screwed up my hair, it was my own fault and no one else’s.   Conversely, when my hair looked cute, I loved the shocked and excited reactions to people when people asked where I got it done.

I really hated my life in LA from the outset.  For the first time, I felt strange in my body.  I lived off of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, which in retrospect was a dive straight into the lion’s den of self-loathing and absurd beauty standards.  Coming from Oberlin, where there was a fair range of liberal sensibilities around body expectations (shaved armpits were the exception, for instance, not the norm) I had no idea what I was getting myself into moving to LA.   I had felt quite comfortable in my queer identity at college (though I used the term bisexual back then), and I always felt beautiful, even though I didn’t spend much time or effort examining my looks or aesthetic and rarely ventured into the world of “femme.”

In LA, however, most attention I got from men was thoroughly gross and most often offensive.  I looked “LA enough” that the pressure to conform was heavy.  I had a natural bust that women payed thousands of dollars for and was still a natural blond.  Thus, everyone assumed I was an aspiring actress, such that I often got unsolicited advice about losing roughly 10 – 15 pounds to make me “perfect” or dressing sexier to court the interest of more powerful Hollywood types.   Of course, such attention generally succeeded making me feel less beautiful rather than more so.   Added to that was that I was invisible as a queer woman and had no idea how to even find other lesbians.

Realizing that I could control my hair in the same way I controlled how I dressed or spoke opened my eyes to possibilities for interfacing with my somewhat hostile environment in a new way.  After months of discomfort with my surroundings, I stood in my bathroom, tied my hair into a low braid, and chopped the damn thing off.  A few days later, I walked to the local sex shop and bought myself a softy.  With my new short hair and my fake dong, I dressed in drag and walked the streets of the Sunset Strip, feeling for the first time since setting foot in the city, that my body matched my mind.  I felt comfortable and safe.  I loved the feeling of the softy between my legs, the low loose pants on my hips, my bound breasts, and my short, short hair.  I got no sleazy looks, no catcalls, no catty comments or elevator eyes.  I doubt I looked much like a man, but I didn’t look remotely like someone who walked those sidewalks on the regular, and that was enough to make me invisible.  I could walk through the streets of my neighborhood without the usual assault on my privacy and sovereignty.

Chopping off my hair was a gateway for me to take ownership over all the other ways gender roles and expectations dictated my life.

Hair has always been a potent symbol of sexuality and power.   It gave Samson his power, let Mary Magdalene prove her loyalty, and signified the bucking of status quo for thousands of young Americans in the 60s.

Jenny Schecter gets her "coming out" haircut on The L Word

For women, this signifier of sexuality is ever-present.  Long, luscious locks are the mark of a feminine, sexually available woman, such that weaves and falls are big business, and strippers or porn stars with short hair are rare.

For queer women, the first haircut is a milestone.  Ridding oneself of hair is a symbolic gesture of bucking the patriarchy and its beauty standards and choosing into a standard that embraces a larger range of female identity.

With my short hair, I felt as though I was sending a clear message to society, that my beauty didn’t belong to it, rather it was mine to use and interpret on my own terms.

From the first time I took the scissors to my locks, I became entranced with the ways I could alter my hair to suit my mood.  Since then, my hair has experienced innumerable colors, cuts and styles.

The Michael Cunningham quote at the top of this post has always struck me.  It’s the reason I have my tattoos, why I cut my hair whenever I feel like it, and why I dress the way I do.  When we cut our hair, we are making a statement to our communities.  We are declaring our identities and the choices we make with our bodies as our own.  We are not letting nebulous “future employers” or the varying tastes of potential lovers tell us how we should look.  We are not banking on beauty standards that we never wanted in the first place, to tell us how we must look in order to be beautiful.

When I started cutting and dying my own hair, I began to meet people that I wanted in my life.  Queer women started noticing me, and I finally started to date some amazing women in LA.  I got my dream job and I felt fully seen by my friends.  Is this all because of a haircut?  Probably not.  But my outsides finally matched my insides for the first time in my life.  Feeling fully beautiful in my own skin, and based on my own sense of aesthetic trumped whatever bullshit expectations mainstream society set for me.  I know that this is what my new friends and lovers saw and were attracted to.

I took some time off to give my hair a rest over the winter.  I was genuinely curious as to what my hair looked like if I just let it grow.  My mother loved this choice.  I, however, was ambivalent.  Now, I’m back to my usual orange and blonde, which makes me quite happy.  I’ve learned how to use clippers and do my own fade lines.    I don’t expect to stop anytime soon.  Every time I cut my hair I’m declaring my body as my own.  I get to decide when I feel beautiful and why.  I get to opt out of the race for femme-bot beauty and opt in to my own standards.

While I am certainly not my hair, my hair is an extension of me.  It is a tool and a weapon that I get to wield on my own terms.

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6 Comments

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  1. Mommy Fiercest

    AMAZING POST! I loved it, tweeted and retweeted and cross posted it on my blog via “press this”. I hope you’ve found some queer community in Los Angeles. It’s such a big place and a difficult place to be gender variant or even high femme (the catcalls). I had armpit hair as a way of owning my body but unfortunately in my line of work, it wasn’t so easy. Much queer love to you!

  2. keets

    love this post, al…

    and the cunningham quote.

  3. mizztcasa

    amazing (hair)story! can relate to feeling free after cutting off my hair – although i cut off mine to re-grow it out healthy and naturally. i love my big afro now – makes me feel so femme, so me. congrats on owning your body too. i def love lez haircuts. lol.

  4. anonexnoumenon

    oh for fuck’s sake… doing what you want with your body and hair etc. is your choice but it doesn’t have to be this grand statement sob story. OMG I’m so cool b/c I transgressed gender lines or cut my hair a little different and dyed it various colors [which many people do] should NOT be a marker of “community”.

    By the way, I think it’s really sad that you had to alter your appearance and conform to meet other queer women…. it’s not an individual statement it’s a stupid unspoken rule in a false “culture”. You shouldn’t have had to do that. Unfortunately, unless someone fits into the short hair unshaved or butch/femme shit let’s try to do everything we can to stand out instead of being ourselves and meeting people who like us for who we are aesthetic it is really hard to meet queer women in Los Angeles. Most of these people have no identity of their own, they just become defined as a trait versus as a human being. Don’t fool yourself, lesbian and gay “community” is just as bad as the straight “community”. That’s it.

  5. Allison

    Hi Anonexnoumenon,

    I appreciate your feedback, but I think you’re misreading my original post. I’m not saying I “had to alter [my] appearance and conform to meet other queer women.” What I’m saying is that hair is a powerful signifier in culture. It says things to other people. You can disagree with that if you’d like, but I believe powerfully in the way we communicate with each other via visual cues.

    And I stand by my original point that the way one wears one’s hair can be powerful statement. Otherwise we wouldn’t have myths like Samson & Delilah, Godiva, Rapunzel or Medusa, nor would stories like “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Hair” or “The Gift of the Magi” exist. Punk, black power and feminism all used hair as a powerful symbol of their movements. Hair is an important part of the religions of Sikhs, Rastafarians and Orthodox Jews. So hair is a grand statement.

    While you think community shouldn’t have anything to do with how we look, communities regularly trade in these symbologies. Would I say “OMG I’m so cool” because I cut my hair differently? No. But I do say that my life is quite different, both the way I perceive myself as someone who can control her own looks, and the way other people perceive me, because of the way I cut my hair. Like it or not, hair is an important cultural signifier. It says something about you. Even “not caring about my hair” is a choice, if that’s what you choose.

    Finally, I take umbrage with your statement that “most these people [queer women in LA] have no identity of their own.” It’s obviously a troll-baiting comment that barely deserves a response, but since this is my blog, I’m happy to counter it. I’m not sure if you live in LA, or know “most” of the queer women there (there are thousands of them, btw), but my experience with the queer population of LA, among whom I lived and worked for many years, has been very positive. In my experience, all of them have their “own identities” that are based on many things, mostly their life experiences, opinions, and tastes. To single them out as lacking identities is a shallow and rude statement that I’d be interested in seeing you follow up with facts of any kind, rather than a general bitterness and spite. I also wonder what your criteria for being a “real human being” are, since you didn’t take the time to explain how these many people have fallen short of your standards.

    For the record, I do appreciate alternative points of view on my blog, but I prefer if they are constructive, encouraging readers to expand their minds rather than condemning people’s opinions because they don’t align with yours. Please keep commenting here, but stick with respectful discourse rather than stereotyping and slinging insults in the future.

  6. Calli

    Excellent article! (And you handled the troll above very well ;)

    As someone w/beyond waist length hair, I can empathize w/this from the opposite end of the spectrum.

    I’ve had people (including the opposite sex tell me it’s sexy but too long …really? Too long? But sexy? I’m so glad I’ve grown it for years just to please you (not really) and that it partially pleases you (again not so much). There’s also the group that feels all women should begin to shorten hair after college and that long hair is only for little girls and those under age 20.

    Then I’ve had random strangers actually walk up to me on the street, even in nicer restaurants, and pull it. THEY PULL MY HAIR! And when I snap they look offended and say “I just wanted to see if it was real.” As if that suddenly makes the practice acceptable.

    Then there are the lecturers, who, knowing nothing about my personal background, feel compelled to tell me that it’s selfish to keep MY hair, when there’s recipients at Locks of Love who really need it. Needless to say, my response to them leaves them feeling like a total ass. I have had hair and I haven’t had large portions of hair. I’ve earned the right to my own hair at whatever length, so BTFO my hair!

    Of course there’s women who give me the stink eye because they see the hair, hear their partner (male or female) comment on my hair and that apparently equates to me growing my hair for the last decade solely for the purpose of trying to steal their spouse far into the future. Jesus my clairvoyant skills must be outstanding! I mean, when I got my hair cut short 2 decades ago, I suddenly made a conscious decision to keep my locks a flowing just to steal your lover at 10:43 on a Friday 2 decades in the future when I would be forced to asked your wife if she would like another cocktail while working a Lez Zepplin concert. What a well thought out scheme!

    Lastly there’s the group that amuses me most…those that ask why I would grow my hair so long when I could just cut it short and get extensions when I felt like it. I don’t even think they hear and comprehend their own comment and its inherent stupidity. For the same logic, why don’t I keep it long, and wig it when I want to go short?

    What no one seems to understand is that my hair is mine to do with it as I choose.

    Granted, I’ve never colored it (there’s some crazy fire red and probably some violets and blues in there at some point down the road). But the reason for that isn’t so much the need to blend and conform to community standards as it is narcissistic reasons. (I used a temp red wash once and realized all my natural highlights went away as all the hair converted to like colors.) Figured it would be too hard to get my natural look back w/out growing it out for eons.

    And cutting your own hair can be very liberating …I was irritated w/lack of time to get into a salon for an ends trim and decided to take off 6 inches one night …felt delightful! Sometimes I just snip now and then. It’s still past my waist, but I’m sure one day I’ll go hog wild and take off a yard.

    What it all boils down to is that while I get equally as much rude input as I do admiration, it’s my hair. The length feels right, but what feels more right is the knowledge that I gave up trying to gain the approval of others in regards to my hair years ago.

    I still have hairdressers who approach me and say it makes me look shorter in an effort to let them de-virginize my length. I still get random tugs from strangers, and those who say I’m growing it just for attention or to be “non-conformist” (it would be to the floor by now if that were true).

    Perhaps I’m too attached to my hair. Perhaps I appreciate what I once didn’t have. Maybe it is overkill. Maybe it’s in this year’s acceptable look and not the next. Whatever it is, it’s me, and as long as I feel like myself when I look in the mirror, I’m not about to alter my hair to conform to anyone’s standards. I am not my hair, but my hair is a part of me. To create a look to suit anyone’s tastes other than my own, would be insincere.

    So while I may not rock the short cut and while super long hair may not be a milestone for any one sexual orientation, as you said, “my hair is an extension of me. It is a tool and a weapon that I get to wield on my own terms.” So true! :D

    (BTW – you should see how effective a long braid whipping an irritating hair grabber can be ;)

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