Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Haircuts and the Obligation of Attractiveness

How I've presented myself, my clothing and haircut and all of that physical appearance stuff, has changed significantly over the nearly 21 years I've been around, which isn't really surprising.  I grew up unschooled, and as with most kids who don't go to school, I wore an eclectic and often colourful mix of clothing made up of whatever it made me happy to wear, with very little awareness of what "in style" even was, let alone whether I was doing it right.  My hair was worn long, curling and tangling down my back.

Once in my teenage years, I hit a patch where I really wanted to fit in, and I wore at least vaguely fashionable clothes, make-up, bought some real bras, and presented in a very "typically" feminine way.

Then my sister instigated our two-woman bra-burning, razor chucking revolution, and I cut my hair.  Not just the fairly short haircuts I'd had in the past, but really short: mohawk-ish style, with the sides shaved and a wide strip down the middle left to curl and tangle. As with my young self, my hair and clothing choices were once again based on what made me happy.

And I started noticing an interesting shift in how people reacted to me and what people assumed about me.  Suddenly, a lot of people were asking "are you lesbian?" Once when I was walking through a park, some dude-bro type teenage guy yelled "I just saw a lesbian!!" as I passed.  To be fair, it probably wasn't just the hair. The loose jeans, "smash the state" t-shirt, and plaid button-up shirt might also have fed into his stereotypical ideas around sexuality.

Suddenly I wasn't a "nerd," as I'd felt I was classified as for years, but apparently "lesbian" instead.  This is a weird thing to me, in part because being read as queer (and I feel I'm often read as queer by queer people, as well, not just asshole guys in parks) feels somehow dishonest to me, since though I don't identify as straight, I also don't identify as queer, and feel pretty conflicted and uncomfortable with any labels when it comes to my sexuality. It also seems really strange to me that people think so instantly that they've figured out a large part of my personal identity because of, what, the way I cut my hair? As the amazing Andrea Gibson, queer activist slam poet extraordinaire, says in her poem The Jewelery Store: "I can guarantee a haircut will never tell you anything about someone's gender, who they love, or how they fuck."

And I started thinking about the reaction people often have to me and other women (and people perceived incorrectly to be women) who don't shave, don't wear bras, wear "un-feminine" clothes, have "un-feminine" haircuts or similar things, the reactions of anger, indignation, disgust, and I started trying to figure out where that was coming from. People are always punished socially (and sometimes institutionally, as well) for deviating from the norms dictated by the dominant culture, but I find it interesting and eye-opening to track down what exactly is the root emotion or idea the negative reactions are stemming from in each case, since though people are punished for not "dressing like their gender," not sending their kids to school, practicing Wicca, or a large variety of other things, how and why people react negatively differs in each instance.

So why, I wondered, is the reaction from men to women dressing in "un-feminine" ways one of indignation?

And here's what I came up with as at least part of the answer: this culture rewards and centers around white-cisgender-heterosexual-males above all else. Those men are told from the time they're small how much they're worth, how much they're owed, and that that they have the right to own others, among many things. And women, well, we owe (white-heterosexual-etc.) men our bodies, and our attractiveness. We have an obligation to attempt to be attractive to heterosexual men. So when we fail in our cultural obligation, the reaction from men is not just anger, but literally indignation. "How dare they??"

Other women also often react very negatively when some women choose not to try and draw the male gaze by attempting to fit culturally-sanctioned ideas of attractiveness, but when it comes to women, I feel like the emotion is usually more akin to resentment and sometimes disdain. It's anger at a reminder that all the effort, work, and possibly misery that goes into their own shaping of attractiveness is being dodged by others. I guess it's a bit of a "how dare they?" reaction as well, but one spurred by anger at what's expected of them instead of a sense of an obligation left unpaid.

I guess it's nice to know that the very way I've presented myself is, in a way, a big "fuck you" to some people who really deserve it. 

But ultimately, the way I choose to dress/present myself has less to do with giving people the finger and more to do with what's personally comfortable, what makes me feel good and confident and like I'm expressing my true self. The fuck-you's are just sometimes a happy bonus. And at this point, I'm no longer as happy with my haircut. I used to smile every time I looked in a mirror, liking what I saw, but now I'm more likely to grimace. Now I want to be presenting as more feminine than I feel I have been, not because I'm caving to any societal pressure to do so, just because that's how I feel right now and I know that will make me happiest. So I'm impatiently waiting for my hair to grow out, at which point I'll shave one side, and put purple streaks in the long hair which will then be braided. Now that will make me happy.

And hey, the shaved-side-of-head-and-purple-braids can still come across as a bit of a fuck you to mainstream ideals of beauty, right?


  1. Thanks Idzie to say what you have to say ! It's a good idea to have created such a place with your sister, where you both can express yourself. It's good to read you.
    I have also experienced moments in my life where I felt compelled to dress and do my hair to match the standards of attraction to hetero white men.
    I'm glad that my boy-friend (now my husband and father of my children) has known me - and loved me - while I was wearing what made ​​me feel good, mostly jeans and black jacket, big-t shirts or shirts from my father.
    I had a story one day in high school cause I often wore my father's shirts on a long peasant skirt that I had sewn by myself (with wool socks and sandals or work boots for men). One day I was sitting at a table in the cafeteria when one of my teachers came up and asked to sit a while with me. I nodded, though I found it weird. He then started a conversation at a time, he asked me if everything was fine. Surprised, I said yes, without really understanding why he asked that. So he finally said he thought I was pregnant ... because loose clothes I was wearing ... I didn't fall since I was sitting. Amazing what people can imagine if we dress differently than a "norm".
    In my teen years, I had long hair, and later, I completely shaved my hair for years; it was my husband who shaved me, on my request. Then my hair became all white, and now I color them. My choice. This is my head, this is my body, and I do as I please. Idzie thank you for sharing!

  2. This is fantastic to read. I don't wear clothes from the ladies section often and just generally don't dress up. I am straight (married to aman who loves me as the woman that I am) but I don't want to do these things that are expected of me. Iam very difficult to label, which may be my label!

  3. your honesty and spontaneity are encouraging and reassuring!
    i've noticed from your other blog that you like Derrick Jensen :)
    you should read, if you haven't already, Norbert Elias's The Society of Individuals and Durkheim!
    another interesting book: The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris.
    good luck with your hair!


We love comments, but we do ask that you please read the Comment Policy before commenting for the first time.