Femininity and…hair. (repost)

August 8 2014

For the better portion of the past year I’ve been sporting what I have thought of as a very chic a-symmetrical hair style, much longer on the right than on the left, a haircut I got after trying to grow my hair out long for almost seven years. My hair apparently doesn’t grow fast and I had a number of mishaps that involved it being cut shorter than I had anticipated (including one very unfortunate incident of my attempting to cut my own hair…never again) so I never got it quite as long as I wanted, and when it was long I mostly wore it up in a clip anyway. But I wanted to grow long, luscious, goddess-locks like my roommate’s, whose hair currently stretches to just below her rib cage but, before she got her most recent trim, was about at her waist. Long and healthy hair is undeniably gorgeous, and I wanted to have hair like that – hair that made me feel powerfully feminine, the kind of hair you have to cover up lest you incite the lust of angels (point for an old-timey biblical/Apocrypha reference! Am I allowed to give myself points?).

Very recently, though, I went in and had almost all of my hair cut off. Having had a pixie cut before I know I look pretty good with really short hair and I love my new haircut – but I find myself thinking of the cut as “boyish” when I still want to be feminine, which I find makes my feelings towards my hair a little more ambivalent than I would absolutely prefer because – like I said – I love it and I think I rock short hair. Nonetheless, part of me seems to want to feel insecure about my short hair, or maybe that part of me just doesn’t know how to feel confident in my appearances – and would that really be all that surprising, considering all of the messages regarding beauty that slam us every day? Even in my day-to-day life it’s difficult if not impossible to escape them, and I don’t watch a whole lot of TV and I never read style or gossip magazines. But the messages I do encounter have planted a seed that still lurks in my brain: long hair equals feminine, short hair equals boyish. Feminine equals beautiful, boyish (on a girl, at least) is pat-on-the-head cute at best, dyke-ish* at worst.

Hair is all sorts of tied up in gender expression in our culture. On the feminine side of the coin this can involve anything from the meticulous removal of body hair or the careful cultivation of long, luscious goddess-locks. Historically in our country movements in which women cut their hair short were seen as radical if not dangerous (consider the flappers of the roaring twenties, with their then cutting-edge bobs). As a co-worker once told me, as a girl “people look at you differently if you have short hair.” She herself discovered this when she cut her own hair short and became aware of subtle differences in her interactions with the people around her, as though she as a person had been altered rather than just her hair. She recently cut it even shorter, also adopting the total radness of a-symmetry, and has expressed a certain amount of “fuck you” attitude when it comes to people assessing her based on her haircut (this being one of the many reasons I deeply appreciate her).

Long hair is obviously far from demanded at this point in our cultural/societal history, but it stills seems to ruffle some feathers when women chop their hair off. It was shocking when Demi Moore shaved her head for GI Jane, and years later it was still shocking when Natalie Portman did it for V for Vendetta. I am admittedly out of touch with most pop culture and pay little to no attention to celebrity gossip, but I still managed to catch wind of Jennifer Lawrence’s pixie cut causing a bit of a stir (and apparently when you Google “Jennifer Lawrence hair cut” you will find all sorts of articles and blogs about why she would cut off her hair). But all of these women are beautiful, with or without goddess-locks. Natalie Portman’s pixie cut following her dramatic shave is what initially inspired me to chop off all my hair at end of high school – she was beautiful and rocking it so I figured, “Hey, I might rock it, too,” and I totally did.

So, while most of our hailed Hollywood beauties sport sleek, long manes of carefully maintained hair, we have seen and do have a couple of women hailed as beautiful who sport short hair. They seem to be far more infrequent, however, and I speculate that this contributes to/supports the cultural view of long hair being associated with femininity.

This idea is, in my world at least, reinforced by the kind of media and toys I see my young nieces interacting with. The shortest hair I’ve seen on a girl in any of the shows or movies they watch is Velma’s bob in Scooby Doo. So it really wasn’t that surprising when my younger niece (aged five years) asked me why I cut my hair, informing me very seriously “You look like a boy.” My sister chided her for saying something so mean, but it wasn’t mean. Aside from my mom, their grandmother, they’ve probably only seen a couple women with such short hair in the entirety of their very short life spans.

“It’s OK,” I said, “it wasn’t mean. They’re just not used to seeing women with short hair. But women can have short hair, too, and still look like girls, right?” My nieces thought about this very seriously before responding, “Yes, and boys can have long hair.”


“And girls can wear pants. And boys can wear dresses.”

“Yes they can. Because you know what? People can do whatever they want with their hair and their clothing and their makeup and it doesn’t matter.”

It was a lovely conversation!

Why long hair must be associated with femininity I can’t rightly say, and formulating a hypothesis would require far more in-depth research than my newly free-from-school brain is willing to deal with just this moment – in addition to which, I’m not totally sure that the why is nearly as important as the simply being aware and figuring out what the cultural expectations mean for the self.

Furthermore I am quite curious about the response I had to watching my hair be snipped away: “Will my short hair make people think I’m a dyke?” It was a weird moment, as I like to think that I usually don’t give one flying fuck about what people think of me, in addition to which my hair is not capable of making anyone think anything. But more importantly: why on earth would this strike me as an inherently bad thing?

My brain in that moment latched on to one of the more negative terms that has been used when referring to women of the lesbian type, and seems especially to be directed towards women who present as more “butch.” So the word tends to carry some negative connotation and seems to most often be associated with women who aren’t “feminine.” Think of how my niece asked me why I cut my hair and told me I looked like a boy: there was something decidedly negative about the association which isn’t so different from the idea here. Looking like a boy while being female is not, the tone of both this word and my niece’s observation implies, a good thing at all.

That this is the word my brain latched on to is both interesting and troubling to me: troubling on a couple different levels, one being that it suggests to me that, on some level, I buy into the negativity of the word, which is gross and why would I do that? (Answer: because no one can totally free themselves of their culture or the messages which fly around all crazy-like therein. Some of those things are bound to stick and they can be hard to undo.)  Secondly, it says a lot about how I anticipate people viewing me as a person based on my hair style.

I want to sit with that “second” for a while: whether or not I buy into the negative connotations of the word “dyke” and the general (but not necessarily consistent) association with “butch” or “not feminine,” I definitely believe that many, many other people do. And some part me is, or at least was, afraid of being seen in that distinctly negative light because of my hair style – a hair style which I will repeat, I very much like and think looks very good on me. My fear or anxiety or whatever it might be that other people would look at my hair and judge me as a person for it, but more specifically judge me in a negative light for it’s lack of traditional femininity, is indicative of some serious fuckery and I do not like it.

Here’s the deal: I cut my hair for me, not for the people around me, not for the guy I was flirtatiously texting last night, not for my family or my best friends or my neighbors or even my gods. I cut my hair for me because I’m about to embark on a huge adventure to a place where I get the chance to start completely fresh in a place where I don’t know anyone and cutting my hair was not only a way of freshening up my style, it was a way for me to symbolically leave behind the old and the shitty and the things that aren’t important, worthwhile or useful anymore. You know what else is entirely unimportant, not worthwhile, and useless which I would do quite well to slough off and leave behind? Other people’s superficial judgments about who I am and what I’m all about based on superficial details they can see with their eyes and use to calculate my so called “femininity,” as though that has anything to do with my worth as a human being. I’ll stick to the kinds of people who take the time to get to know me, and I’ll enjoy taking the time to get to know them and building a meaningful, worthwhile relationship with them.

Everyone else? If they want to make the judgment call that I’m a dyke because I have a short hair they can go right on ahead. There’s nothing wrong with being a dyke anyway.


*Uff….2017 Tahni isn’t sure about 2014 Tahni’s use of this word, but as I ultimately agree with the sentiment about the socialization of its negativity and how it’s used negatively but oughtn’t be, I guess I’m leaving it here as is. It feels quite problematic but I’m not sure what I would replace it with to evoke the same sentiment/concept. If you have any ideas for something to replace this word with please feel free to make suggestions in the comments and if I see something good I’ll totally change it.


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