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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Politics and Sexuality of Hair

I was in the sacristy on Christmas Eve, getting ready for the "midnight mass" (at 10:30, but we welcomed the first minutes of Christmas Day as we greeted people on the church steps after the SRO Service), when my rector walked in.

I would later notice his "Christmas Tradition" of wearing one red and one green sock, but the first thing I noted was that he had had his hair cut.

My first thought to myself was, "Hmmm, he has one of the six 'authorized' lesbian hair cuts," but what I said to him was, "Ah, you've had your hair cut."

He giggled and gingerly patted the top of his freshly lacquered, very heterosexual head and said, "Yeah, I look like a lesbian, right?"

We both burst into laughter, because, of course, he did. And, to my amazement and delight, he seemed to have gotten the joke about lesbians.

Well, it's an old joke in the lesbian community that doesn't have the same relevance as it once did, 'back in the day' when lesbians made a statement about their sexuality by wearing their hair Really Short.

Oh, some still do, but mostly, it doesn't matter much any more. Well, I suppose it still does - at least to some - by the looks of some of the younger lesbian women I've seen around town.

Mostly, middle aged women with short hair end up looking like most Roman Catholic nuns or Methodist women pastors I've known, who always set off my "gaydar" - which, for the uninitiated, is like a GPS system in the LGBT community wherein we 'recognize' each other.

"The personal is political" we were very carefully taught. And, you know, that still remains true. It's just expressed differently.

Another 'old joke' in the lesbian community is that you can always tell if a woman is a lesbian because, besides having Very Short Hair, she wears a pinkie ring, sports Birkenstock sandals or penny loafers, would never be seen in a skirt or wearing makeup or lipstick (unless, of course, she's a 'lipstick lesbian'), has a few cats, her home has at least a few macrame plant hangers and there's a rainbow sticker - among all the political bumper stickers - on her (beat up) car.

Oh, and short finger nails. Very short finger nails.

Not so much, any more. Many lesbians and gay men no longer feel the need to intentionally set off anyone's gaydar. It's not about 'internalized homophobia'.

It's more about the fact that it doesn't really matter so much anymore. If you want to, fine. If you don't, fine. It's more a choice now than the subtly but powerfully coercive message of conformity for a consistent political message 'back in the day'.

You know. Sort of the way it's no longer important to wear white only after Memorial Day and never, EVER after Labor Day.

Or, for a woman to cover her head with a hat or a lacy mantilla or scarf before entering a church. Or, God forbid you should forget, a tissue bobby-pinned to the top of your head! (Do they even sell bobby pins anymore?)

The personal is political and all politics is local.

I don't think it's a coincidence that, for centuries, women and men who have become members of religious orders - Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Taoist - have had their hair tonsured or shaved off completely as an outward and visible sign of their vows of celibacy and/or the sacrifices of worldly values in order to be more obedient to their professed devotion to God.

There's something ancient and, perhaps, even primordial about the connection between sexuality and one's hair.

That's especially so for women, but men are not exempt. If a man changes his hair style - even if he subtly changes the side of his head where he parts his hair - you know something is going on with him internally.

And, when men start to lose their hair? OMG!! Well, all that machismo tough-guy stuff starts to dissolve right before your eyes and they become positively neurotic.

Can't say as I can blame them, really. I know that when Ms. Conroy lost all her hair, it was very traumatic. Still is, really. She just recently had eyebrows and eyeliner tattooed on, which really helps to bring out her features and makes her look less "washed out". It was a pretty brave thing for her to do, I think.

She still gets sympathetic looks, however, especially at the end of the day when she looks as tired as she feels and she's, say, in the grocery store. Someone is bound to call her to the front of the line, or a manager will come out and offer to "ring her up" at the Service Desk. I suppose they think she's on chemotherapy. She always smiles gratefully and silently accepts the offer.

I recently watched Chris Rock's "Good Hair" - a fascinating look into the industry, economics, aesthetics and politics of hair in the Black Community.

I was astounded to learn that some Black women spend up to 20% of their income on things like relaxers, wigs, braids and weaves. And, we're not talking rich women here. These are day care workers and teachers. Some weaves alone can cost $1,000. And, that's just for the weave. It doesn't include the cost of six to eight hours (6 - 8 HOURS!!!!) in a beautician's chair.

And the scene where the chemicals in the 'relaxers' destroys a soda can in a matter of a few hours is absolutely chilling.

It's a multi-billion dollar industry, most of which benefits people outside the Black community.

There's a powerful scene where Al Sharpton tells Chris Rock that, when a Black woman puts on her wig or straightens her weave in the morning, "It's like wearing a symbol of your economic bondage and oppression - right on your head."

It's a stunning moment in a documentary that reportedly began when Rock's eldest daughter, Lola, came home from school and asked her father, "Daddy, do I have 'good hair'?"

I don't think it was an accident that this little girl asked her daddy about what he thought of her hair. It's very powerful symbolic language. If a little girl's daddy thinks she's beautiful or smart or has long hair, chances are, she comes to think, that other men will see her in the same way.

Even if a child's sexual orientation has not yet come into consciousness, her cultural awareness has certainly matured enough to know that this is an important component to the way she is seen by others - which impacts her still developing sense of self esteem.

Which leads me to think again about that ancient, even primordial link between hair and sexuality.

There's that curious story about Sampson (Judges 13-16). When Delila cuts off his hair, she steals his masculinity and his strength and virility are lost.

Both John (12:1-8) and Luke's (7:36-50) gospels report a scene at a meal wherein a woman (Mary of Bethany in John's Gospel and 'a sinful woman' in Luke's report), anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair.

This was a shocking display of intimacy to the disciples. The woman seems to set the stage for Jesus, three full days later in John's Gospel, to wash the feet of his disciples as a sign of the humility we are to have with each other whenever we minister in His name.

I maintain, however, that it's neither her humility nor her use of expensive oil that was shocking to the disciples. The deeper scandal has to do with the overt sexuality of the woman using her hair to wipe the feet of Jesus.

Is it that long, thick, healthy, wavy hair is a sign of youth and fertility? The appeal of female long hair goes far back into western mythology, to the stories of Rapunzel (a Grimm brothers twist on Saint Barbara), the Mermaid Lorelei, the Norse Goddess Sif, and Lady Godiva.

Is the traditional soldier's 'buzz cut' a sign of a warrior who will sacrifice even lustful impulses for military order and obedience? And, of course, to prove that they are 'manly men' - meaning, not women.

Which is interesting because like Sampson, and characters in Greek mythology such as Zeus, Achilles, Hector, Poseidon and Trojan soldiers are always depicted wearing long hair, a sign of their aristocracy and virility.

Come to think of it, have you ever seen a depiction of Jesus with short hair? For that matter, many biblical characters, including Muhammad, all have long hair.

Then, of course, there's the rock musical "Hair" - an anthem against the Viet Nam war and and ode to the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 60's. Long hair was seen as a clear counter-cultural statement, and the link with sexuality and "free love" was fairly explicit.

I love the lyrics of the theme song:
My hair like Jesus wore it
Hallelujah I adore it
Hallelujah Mary loved her son
Why don't my mother love me?

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
I don't know about the connection between hair and sexuality. I only know that it exists.

And, I know that beauty shops and hair salons and barber shops are often gathering places for communities. Indeed, they often become their own communities where everything from politics to personal, private concerns are discussed - sometimes openly and other times in hushed, confessional tones between stylist and client.

There's an intimacy there that has something to do, I think, with the connection between hair and sexuality.

I clearly remember the day my mother took me to "her" beauty parlor for my first hair cut, shampoo and styling. It was a right of passage, of sorts. I was, now, "old enough". It was an unspoken part of a young girl's initiation into the mysteries of being a woman.

I can still remember the mildly offensive smell of hair products - hair spray, lotions, and (peee-UUUU) perms. I can still hear the sounds of women's laughter and chatter over the drone of the motors of the domed hair dryers, all lined up against the wall.

If I close my eyes, I can see myself sitting proudly on one of those pink plastic beauty parlor chairs, my hair rolled tight in curlers, sitting proudly under the clear plastic dome of the hair dryer. And, I can see my mother smiling a knowing smile at me. "This is it, kid," she seemed to be saying. "You've arrived."

Oh, and, the other message was: "See? A woman has to suffer for beauty!"

Meanwhile, down the street and around the corner, my father and brother were getting their hair cut at the barber shop. It was a twice monthly Saturday morning ritual for them.

My mother, on the other hand, went every week to have her hair "done." Said it made her feel "so much better". I thought it looked pretty weird. Unnatural. Nobody's hair looks like that, naturally. It always looked like it had been "done". And, she wore elaborate "wraps" on her hair when she went to bed to keep it looking "done".

I much preferred my grandmother's hair, brushed thoroughly every morning, pulled back and braided in a long braid which she would wind round and round and round into a tight bun at the back of her neck. Then, at night, she would undo the bun and her braid, brush out her hair thoroughly and wear it to bed, flowing down over her shoulders and night gown.

I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. And, much of that beauty came from her long, beautiful hair which stayed thick and lustrous even in her old age.

Maybe that's the connection between hair and sexuality: beauty.

Natural beauty, in my mind anyway, is always one of the best aphrodisiacs.

Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Isn't it?

Which is also true about sexuality and sexual orientation.

It's a very personal thing.

And, the personal is still very political.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

What I find amazing is so few of those of us in the XX chromosome crowd go gray from the get-go--the six authorized lesbian haircuts notwithstanding. I am willing to bet the percentage of "Women who have never covered their gray" is in the single digits.

I still laugh that my mom gets mad at me for being au natural with my gray hair. "People look at you and then they know I color my hair," she says.

Joanna Depue said...

Elizabeth - right now (9:25pm) on on the segment called 'Tell Me More' there is a discussion on hair .... VERY INTERESTING! Check it out - it can stream online.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I didn't even think about the significance of gray hair. That's a very funny story about your mom.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joanna - that's for the tip. I'll try to catch it on replay or in the archives. I love "Tell Me More". It's a great NPR show.

Mark Delcuze said...

We in the "follically challenged community" simply slunk into our appointed chair every eight weeks and say "mow the lawn, #3 clippers please"

But I get your point ...
Mark of the holy tonsure +

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Mark. Even baldness - and good natured humor about baldness - is its own political statement.

It's also very sexy. Just ask Mimi.

PseudoPiskie said...

I don't consider my baldness sexy. My hair is the only thing I really like about myself. I consider the baldness Godde's way of keeping me humble and my priorities in order.

Paul Powers said...

So if a lesbian doesn't have one of the authorized haircuts, do they take away her membership?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, that's quite a theological statement about hair, Pseudo. I think you may find yourself in good company - and, lots of it. Around the world.

Anonymous said...

This is my first visit here(I am an old friend of Jonathan(aka Madpriest) from a very long way back) but blogspot will never let me post with my wordpress account, hence having to go anon.
I had my hair cropped short as a child, largely because I was convinced for years there had bee a mistake and I would suddenly become a boy. Somewhere between 9 and 14, I came to terms with being female(onset of menarche tends to be convincing) and at 14, for the first time was annoyed that I was mistaken for a boy. So that was the point I started growing it. Apart from trims, it's been long ever since. Now if I sit on a squidgy sort of sofa, the people on either side of me sit on my hair too.
Not at all sure what it says about me, but one of my students on leaving demanded to take a photo of my hair. She has since said she misses my hair!!!
Thanks for such a lovely trawl through hair and its politics.
best wishes,

Ann said...

This is really a wonderful reflection. I remember the "tissue on head with bobby pin" days. And how controversial it was when we were freed from hats in church (sort of as big a deal as some of our current controversies). Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell was on Rachel Maddow talking about the inauguration - and Maddow asked her what Michelle would be worried about and Harris-Lacewell quipped- "rain" -- and then they talked about the hair issue - from both of their points of view -- The Chris Rock movie is fascinating and sad to me.

Paul said...

Great post, Elizabeth. What we do with hair has always been a powerful social factor and quite fascinating. I have some coworkers with stunning long hair and I relish the esthetics of it every time I see them. I have managed to compliment them on their beautiful hair without crossing PC boundaries, probably because they know I'm not a straight man hitting on them. Ways of handling hair can be powerful aphrodisiacs to beholders, or powerful turn-offs, sources of awe at beauty, or of humor, or puzzlement.

Thanks for ringing changes on the theme.

(I cut my own, clippers on #1.)

Ellie Finlay said...

Wonderful essay, Elizabeth. Yup. I remember those beauty shops and I felt very grown up when I went BY MYSELF for the first time! (I think I was about ten.)

Lots to think about here.

kehf said...

What a neat reflection, and one I identify with. I've worn my hair every which way long short, short with a skunk stripe, currently mid-length with the ends bleached blonde. I once (15 or so years ago) wrote a story where a character cut off her hair at a symbolic moment and when I ran it past my male editor he didn't get it. I ended up changing the story but that was one of the first times I realized that not everyone sees the symbology of hair the same way.

Martha Blacklock said...

macrame plant hangers?

and a blessed new year to ye, Elizabeth.

Jim said...

I remember my (nearly black) hair so I guess I do not yet have Alzheimer's. Having had a conversation with a woman who was told she could not be a lesbian because she had long hair, I guess I have to concede that we have a lot of politics and social conditioning involved in our hair.

Just for fun consider the issue over time of beard or no beard! When in WWI the lice in the trenches led to what we now think of as the US 'military hair cut' our politics changed to include clean shaven as patriotic.


KJ said...

Really excellent, Elizabeth! However, I am puzzled at the notion that hairstyle can be changed. What?

Attending a little, conservative school in the 70s, I was once hauled in to see the school board president (Why not the principal, I do not know.) because my hair had grown just over the top of my ears. Of course, I was reminded that long hair on men is an abomination and reveals homosexual tendencies. Since that had nothing to do with my sexual attraction, I thought that was funny. My appealing to Benjamin Franklin, a notorious womanizer, gained me no points. I was rather upset by being called on the carpet about something that I thought was so irrelevant.

No at mid-life, my follicular DNA is at war right at the edge of my receding hairline. Neither side of the family grays, but the paternal genetic stuff says, "You don't need no stinkin' hair!" So, every hair I retain is as dark as it was as back in the day, just not so many of them. I am now I'm beginning to experience the frustration my mother experienced into her 70s when streaks of gray began to appear. People assume that I dye my hair and are beginning to comment on it. Now, I have nothing against those who do color their hair, but I don't. The assumption amuses me, but there are people who clearly do not believe my denial, smilingly knowingly at my protests. I must come across as a vain little man and probably should work on that.

NancyP said...

"Going gray" is a problem in the work environment, unless one is privileged (works for self, has hard-to-find and necessary skill, is protected by boss). In many or most workplaces, gray hair is often seen as a sign that the owner of the hair is "deadwood" or "costs too much" (if not the boss). Ageism is very common in the workplace. Only top executives are somewhat exempt.

Matthew said...

There is a great article called A Hair Piece. I cannot recall where it appeared but it was written by an African American woman law professor. She talked about how regal she felt at home when she decided to have an Afro but how bad she felt at the end of the day after all the derisive looks and comments she got. Angela Davis made a similar point years ago. The article also talks about a lawsuit against one of the airlines (United I think) that forbade its flight attendants from wearing corn rows. The question in the lawsuit was whether this was racially discriminatory. United claimed it was not because the policy also forbade white women from wearing corn rows. Can you believe it? That was their argument. Fortunately the judge recognized that few white women wear their hair in corn rows so the policy was motivated by racial animus.

MarkBrunson said...

All I remember about Hair was a bunch of naked hippies. I know it was political and stuff, but I was like 14 so all I saw was naked hippies.

"Sir" said...

Fascinating: who'd have thought it? Blogging is, indeed, an education!

JCF said...

[Elizabeth, this has me scratching my (too hairy) head:

For that matter, many biblical characters, including Muhammad, all have long hair.

Because 1) Muhammad, obviously, isn't a "biblical character", and 2) Muhammad is NEVER depicted, so how would we know? (Is PBUH's hair length mentioned in the Q'uran or Hadith? O_o)]

Oy vey: hair. A sore subject.

Living, as I do, in the gender middle (or muddle! ;-/), my hair is never NOT a conscious choice.

I developed a way (see avatar, roughly) that *I* like it (very much!) . . . but it seems that no one I *know* does (compliments from strangers, occasionally). Now, I live w/ "someone I know" (my father). Hence, his distaste for my hair is something I can't just ignore.

Hence: "a sore subject".

[JCF, desperately wanting to clip!!! }:-0]

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Well, darlin', Muhammad IS a biblical character - just not in the Christian bible. And, the Q'uran says that Muhammad had Very Long Hair.

Hair is so private - and so political