A Personal Feminist Reflection on Hair

If you go to Google and type in “hair feminist perspective,” quite a few interesting things come up.  Looking through the first few pages of search results, most of what you will see is articles about the body hair debate, whether women should consistently shave/wax their body hair or not.  You will also see a smattering of articles about black women’s hair, and the long vs. short hair debate; which is more feminine, and which is not.

In recent years, we have seen a greater effort on the part of the feminist movement to be more inclusive.  In any movement, inclusivity is important; otherwise, we risk leaving marginalized/oppressed/stigmatized groups out of the conversation and making them feel like they don’t belong.  For example, when talking about body image, we often discuss the body image and self-esteem issues of teenage girls and women, so much so that we tend to forget that men also struggle with the same issues, leaving them to deal with these insecurities alone.  The point I’m trying to make in terms of hair is that conversations about feminism and hair tend to focus on black women’s hair first, and body hair stigmatization second.  This is not to say that these are two conversations we should not be having, because they are important, multi-dimensional issues that need to be worked through.  But, it leaves people like me, a white woman with what is (at least very close to) what society deems the ideal hair type and who doesn’t care if I let my body hair grow out for a few weeks, feeling like we cannot be a part of the hair conversation.

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A few weeks ago, in my "Women in Literature" class, we were talking about hair, and our professor had us do a free write about the worst haircut/experience we’ve ever had.  The thing that immediately popped into my head was fourth grade.  As a little girl, I had really long, curly hair, which resulted in me receiving endless compliments about how beautiful my hair was.  Then, in fourth grade, whether it was some subconscious act of defiance or I just thought it would be cool to do, I decided I wanted to get my hair cut short.  The length was pretty close to Ellen DeGeneres’s hair in this picture:

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Now, I don’t remember if I received any mean comments about my hair (which is entirely possible), but looking back on it, I want to strangle myself for wanting that haircut, my hairdresser for cutting it, and my mom for letting me do it.  It’s not that the haircut was choppy and poorly done, it’s just that it was short.  In my living room back home, there is a rectangular picture frame with twelve circles:  Eleven are smaller and arranged in oval, which are spots for my first through 11th grade school pictures.  In the middle is a larger spot for my senior picture.  Whenever I look at these pictures, while I know it is a sweet gesture that is more for my mom than for me, I want to vomit and throw the frame out the window, all because of this one photo of me in fourth grade with uncharacteristically short hair.

It wasn’t until I wrote about this experience in class that I realized how much emotional baggage I have with my hair.  It wasn’t until that moment on a Thursday night that I realized how little I do with my hair, almost out of fear of doing something that can’t be fixed.  I have a very simple hair routine: brush it in the morning, alternate between having it down and up in a ponytail during the day, shampoo and condition at night, a light towel dry before combing, and then let it air dry the rest of the way.  Although I did a little dabbling with a hair curler in middle school, I never apply heat or style my hair in any way, I never have (and never will) dye my hair, and I never put any product in my hair.  I never get my hair cut more than half an inch for the sake of getting rid of split ends.  Whenever I do go to my hairdresser (around five times a year), it is painfully obvious to me afterwards that my hair is shorter, even though it is only by a little bit.  I also realized that my hair is my defense mechanism.  Whenever I am scared, angry, sad, stressed, nervous or even just bored, I play with my hair.  The need to keep my hair long and exactly as is, is strong and I now realize sometimes overwhelming.

If I’m being honest, I know that these feelings come from the fact that I have been overweight all my life and, for a long time, my hair was the only thing I saw in the mirror that I thought was pretty.  However, as I have gotten older and more comfortable in my body, it baffles me how I can let something as silly as my hair have so much control over how I see myself.

Although I have spent the last three years taking women’s studies classes, I am by no means an expert.  I don’t pretend to know how to solve these problems for myself or anyone else.  But I do know that the first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that the problem exists.  Hair is a hot-button issue for a lot of people, and now I can move forward feeling better about myself knowing that it is one for me too.