When I am not thinking about the pandemic, I think about my hair. Whenever I am not thinking about my own hair, I think about other people’s hair. I think about the post-lockdown Day of Great Revelations a lot: who had hair extensions all along? Who’s actually not blonde?
See, us girls, we can be a tad persnickety about our hair, and for the purpose of today’s TED-talk, I specifically mean the hair that sprouts from our heads. I’ll start with mine: About half a year ago I decided to go for a very short do that requires regular, monthly maintenance.
I was taking a very high-calibre, conscious risk from the start, because my chosen hairstylist is based in Antwerp. I rely on public transportation in a country where public service strikes count as an (astonishingly frequent) national hobby. I was always going to be livin’ on the edge with this situation.
Here’s my hair two months ago. My hair basically overgrows its intended style before the commuter train is back in Brussels, so you can imagine that my confinement coiffure is nothing short of extremely peculiar at the moment – and only with much luck are we free to have other people touch our hair any time before summer.
I have taken to wearing scarves or caps whenever I am out and about on essential business to hide the human-hair toilet brush. I hope no-one will contact me in an official capacity and request a videoconference. There’s nothing I can do – I was even contemplating on ordering a headband for such (unlikely, but possible) scenarios. The delivery times these days, however, make the exercise completely obsolete, because by the time a padded Prada headband would arrive, I can already fashion a complicated up-do with my hair anyway.
The other reason I think about hair is its cultural significance, especially from a feminist point of view. Women’s bodies have rarely been ours ever, but I hadn’t really thought about how much patriarchal and cultural pressure is actually put on our hair.
Depending on who looks at women’s hair, it is either a lifeless extension of a body, or a secondary sex characteristic like breasts. Unlike for men, there is no universally neutral hairstyle for women.
All mammals have hair, but humans are the only ones who braid, knot, powder, pile up, oil, spray, tease, perm, colour, curl, straighten, augment, shave off and clip our hair.
Add to that: women are still most affected by restrictive policies – as well as expectations – as regards styling their hair.
A few contemporary examples: Is it a coincidence that we have seen Michelle Obama‘s tightly coiled hair in their naturally curly state (as opposed to relaxed and straightened) only after she left the White House? Can it be a coincidence that I can tell when my friend’s wedding date has been set even though I haven’t yet received an invitation, just because she’s started growing her hair?
Why have I only been asked whether I might have, maybe unbeknownst to me, become a lesbian, following my decision to cut my hair short? And Hillary Clinton’s scrunchie! Almost as notorious as her emails!
I wanted to go back to an essay collection about hair, Me, My Hair and I after I watched Unorthodox on Netflix. It’s a much-recommended miniseries about a woman who escapes the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. The series is based on Deborah Feldman‘s best-selling memoir “The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots“. Following her marriage at 18 years, she, too, had her hair shaved off and had to start wearing a wig. This particular scene left an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about hair since.
(Feldman also happens to be one of the contributors to Me, My Hair and I.)
This year’s awards season was the first where a multitude of versatile and short hairstyles were paraded on the red carpet – until then it was really just one or two indie-actresses known for their quirky (never sexy!) styles. Until very recently, it has been rare to see a woman on TV or in a movie without long, sleek, glossy, blow-dried hair.
(Men have forever just needed to have hair – shop-bought or home grown.)
Before you point out how irrelevant celebrities are, especially now, can I beg to disagree?
Remember the brouhaha that followed when Keanu Reeves took her age-appropriate woman-friend, artist Alexandra Grant to a gala and she had silver hair? (Fancy-speak for grey.)
Who’s never asked for a Rachel at hair salon? Or a Meg Ryan (when her shaggy bob of You’ve Got Mail -fame was all the rage? Everybody in the 80s had Princess Diana-hair!
(I asked my hair stylist to whip up a perm à la Kelly McGillis in Top Gun when I was 15. The level of shock we found ourselves in post-perm can only be described as genuine.)
But maybe the versatility of women celebrities’ hair (and looks more generally) is an indication of small forward steps towards liberating us from at least some cultural stereotypes? Maybe I’m too fast to jump into these conclusions, but is it not interesting how Hollywood kicked off #metoo and might now be helping to liberate our hair?
Many of our Western beauty standards originate in La La Land, so the signals are not entirely insignificant.
True, none of the above will lessen the annoyance with turning increasingly hirsute by the day, a visit to a hairdresser being a distant Fata Morgana. Admittedly hair is not the most important thing in the world. It is, however the thing that constantly frames our faces, every day, lockdown or not.
Therefore some easy to adapt wisdom from Me, My Hair and I:
Try to look your best as infrequently as possible. However you look, people get used to it. If you accustom them to a very high standard – your hair and makeup are always perfect, your clothing is expensive and fetching – you are just setting them up for a disappointment if you make a mistake or, God forbid, get lazy. If, however, you do as I do and wear jeans and a T-shirt most of the time and wear makeup only for special occasions, there is always the possibility of a pleasant surprise. No, they didn’t know you had any taste. No, it was not clear that you were actually pretty, but you are! This is not the same as letting yourself go. It is more like being dormant, so that from time to well-chosen time you may blossom.
– Jane Smiley
And before anyone asks, no, there will be no “before” and “after” pictures.
Thank you for your understanding.