Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ask a Feminist: A Dialogue on the Sexuality of Hair

My hair used to be this length. Actually, for most of my life, my hair was a good four inches longer than this.

Now my hair is this length:

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend who had recently cut her hair short and who was up late, unable to sleep because she was troubled by how some of the men in her life had responded. She wanted to know my opinion as a feminist - particularly in light of the fact that I only cut my hair a year ago. That conversation eventually led to the insightful and wildly popular guest post from Aimee, where she described her dilemma. But the conversation didn't end there - this week's installment of our new "Ask a Feminist" column is my response to Aimee's dilemma and my description of my own experience with short hair.

When I cut my hair last year it was also a big decision for me, and as in Aimee's case, that decision was informed (to at least some degree) by things men had said leading up to my decision to cut my hair. Men have always had strong opinions about my hair. From fourth grade boys who thought it was funny to toss stuff in my hair when I was growing up, to the boy who got in trouble with a teacher for doing something to my hair (all I know is she demanded to know what he was doing), there has always been a man somewhere who cared about my hair. Even if it was just enough to mock my hair. My father often complained that I wore my hair up too often and told me to let it down more. Well, that was more likely to make me pull my hair back, but that's a story for another day.

But it's not just men. A lot of women are fascinated by my hair. Case in point - I was recently talking with some teacher friends, and when someone related a story about a black student in her class who was asked by another student if they could touch her hair, all of my straight-haired and wavy-haired friends were shocked. They couldn't imagine someone asking something so rude. I didn't bat an eye - for my entire life, strangers have wanted to touch my hair. It used to bother me when I was growing up, and I won't deny that I find it terribly invasive when strangers or acquaintances shove their hands into my hair and wriggle their fingers to get a feel for it. Or that I find it rude when they say, in wonder, "It's soft. I thought it would be wiry." But someone asking to touch my hair? That's nothing. A roommate once asked for a lock of my hair to show friends back in Mexico when she moved home, and I didn't even think that was odd.

Men have always been a lot less likely to want to touch my hair. Very few of the men I've dated have seemed all that interested in anything besides the length of my hair, perhaps because there's no way to run their fingers through my hair without their hands getting caught. I've always figured I'll eventually end up with a man who thinks my hair is the hottest thing ever - I certainly do! - but I'm yet to encounter one who does. Still, I'm not sure I ever realized how much the length of my hair could impact my romantic prospects. With my first college boyfriend, I don't think it ever occurred to him I'd do something as crazy as cut my hair (he was quite conservative and couldn't even understand my desire to earn a Master's degree). Then I dated someone I'm still friends with - he comes up on the blog as Carl the Open-minded Chauvinist. While Carl would never have dreamed of refusing to let me cut my hair, he didn't like the idea. I wasn't planning on cutting my hair at the time, but I told him that I'd always wanted short hair, but that the last time it was short it was a nightmare growing it out. He expressed how much he preferred my hair long, I explained how much I hated facial hair on most men, and we made a deal: as long as we were in a relationship, I wouldn't cut my hair short, and he wouldn't grow facial hair. Not long after the relationship ended and he'd left BYU, Carl had grown facial hair. I was still nervous about cutting my hair short, but as time went on, I went slightly shorter with each haircut, always telling myself I was "testing" to see how my hair would respond.

The next guy I dated was black, and he never said anything about short hair vs. long hair. I wish I knew more about how hair length factors into Womanist discussions of hair, but I do know this: because of the nature of their hair, most black women have a very difficult time growing out their hair and in order to wear it long usually need to get extensions. Frankly, Reggie seemed more into his own hair - he kept asking why I didn't want to touch his hair. "Don't white people usually want to touch African hair?" he'd ask. Little did he know, I was used to being the one exoticized for my hair. Another guy I went on several dates with said, when I mentioned that I'd always wanted to cut my hair but hadn't had the courage, "Well, short hair is unattractive on women." I said I was currently thinking of growing my hair out more, and his face lit up. 

Then last year, I finally took the plunge. I'd wanted short hair for a long time, and while I can't recall exactly what was happening in my life, I recall feeling that I was somehow defying the odds and saying "screw you" to the patriarchal values (in the sense of fallen patriarchy that Hugh Nibley wrote about) that made short hair on women seem like some kind of misdemeanor. I had an appointment for a trim, and the night before, I was telling some friends how I'd always wanted short hair. One of them had just gotten a pixie cut herself, and they both encouraged me to go for it. So, I did. And I didn't even feel nervous when the inches came off. I felt relieved.

How did people respond? Women loved it! I got compliments everywhere I went. I was team-teaching a section of creative writing with a professor on campus, and on the same day I walked in with short hair, one of the female students also walked in with newly-cut short hair. Over the course of the semester, another couple female students got short haircuts, and in each case all the women in the class applauded and complimented. But men didn't say anything about my hair. And sure, men don't always notice hair cuts, but this was a very obvious one, and it seemed very telling that they said nothing. I can recall that one male person did compliment my hair. I don't recall who it was, but I remember feeling surprised because he was the first.

A lot of middle-aged women complimented me on my "professional" or "adult" hairstyle. Students seem to respect me more now that I have shorter hair, and for the first time in my life people think I look my age, even when I don't wear makeup (which is almost always). But I haven't been asked on a date since I cut my hair, and while my dating life has never been consistent, it's certainly been more active than this - I'm not sure if before now I've ever gone a whole year without being asked on a date. Six or eight months, sure, but never thirteen or fourteen months. So maybe my short hair has hurt my dating chances, or maybe it's the MFA and my current job as an adjunct professor, combined with the fact that most of my romantic prospects are still undergrads themselves. I know plenty of women with short hair who still have dating lives, and Aimee is currently dating the man who initially found her short hair upsetting, so I find it hard to believe that cutting my hair has somehow repulsed every man in Utah.

One thing I can say is that when men very loudly and vocally complain about short hair on women, with short-haired women in the room, that's a problem. No matter how strong my preference for men without facial hair may be, I'm sensitive enough to a man's feelings not to go on and on about how unattractive facial hair is in front of any man, never mind one who has facial hair. And I'm not arrogant enough to assume that my preference for men without facial hair proves that facial hair is inherently bad. So, no matter what, we can at least show each other respect, and be sensitive about what we say in front of those who don't match our taste preferences. Still, this doesn't answer my own questions about how and why short hair factors into my romantic life. 


  1. I can't fall asleep so naturally I am reading blogs. So here are my two sense and you'll have to excuse me if things don't make cents. hahaha ok that was trying to hard to be witty.

    I can't remember how long your hair was when I first met you Emily. I don't remember caring. Thank goodness you didn't have a beard! Like you I am not a big fan of beards on the opposite gender! But I certainly enjoy my beard! I have a lot of thoughts about what you wrote. Most of them are jumbled because it is early in the morning and I feel that the more I think about gender identity, perceptions of feminine identity by males based on hair, etc, the more frustrated I get with the whole notion of gender identity being subject to choices of hair style.

    "how and why short hair factors into my romantic life."
    Men and women who are willing to base the foundation of a relationship on hair styles of either sex are not worth the emotional effort required of a relationship of any kind. For crying out loud!! It is hair!! And even though I love the oldies tune, hair is not the base of masculine or feminine identity. I have enjoyed reading the shared experiences that we all have in this messed up world but someone stop the speeding train before we run of the broken bridge and fall miles to certain death and awesome hollywood like explosions! Why would anyone define their femininity on hair? I know it happens, I am not arguing that, I am arguing the fundamental logic behind such an assumption whether they are based in the Epistles of Paul, the Koran, the Torah or Rev. Jeffer's interpretation of any and all of those writings. I have a beard and if there are people that don't want to be my friend because of my beard I say good riddance. I don't need that in my life! It's all so crazy! Bonkers! Maybe I am being self righteous and maybe I should examine my own set of illogical biases, but as the guys on NFL Showtime would say, "Come on man!!!" Grow a pair and get to know people as people. Not as objects whose worth fluctuates with the waxing and waining of hair. The same arguments for longer hair have been used to encourage breast augmentation, Botox, facial lifts and millions of other cosmetic procedures for both women and men, but I believe that the primary target is women. I have never seen a commercial for pec-augmentation to give me the perfect Schwarzenegger pecs! My identity as a man should not be based on how awesome my facial hair is or how ripped my muscles are man! I know I am a man. I have the junk to prove that much. I don't need people to tell me how to alter my body so that I can be masculine. And I sure as heck don't need friends that would question my sexual identity just because I waxed my back, or shaved my pits or legs, or wasn't a fan of the forest of hair on my chest! That feeling of getting into flannel PJ's right after shaving one's legs in an experience that should not be monopolized by women! I would like to, here and now, re-appropriate that experience for masculine men every where. Even the men who choose not to where "tight tights!!"

    On a more interesting note. I was reading a NYT article today about inter-sect persecution among the Amish communities of Penn. A group of men have been going around cutting off the beards of men and the long hair of women. It is their religious equivalent of 17th Century Catholic excommunication or a mobs tar and feathers. This is a very real world example of identity being synonymous with facial hair or a long head of hear. It is sad and terribly wrong simply because a persons worth should not be placed in something so transient as hair.


  2. Adriane (Bredenberg) HoittOctober 19, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    I think the comments you received that your short hair was "adult" and "professional" are interesting. I've always noticed that long hair tends to make women look younger. I wonder if there is a relationship between the perceived youthfulness and what is typically considered feminine or attractive for women.

  3. This has of course caused me to reflect on my own experience. Charles likes my hair however I look; He finds me attractive no matter what. Likewise, he tells me dinner is delicious no matter what I make or how it actually tastes. It must be a characteristic of a great husband.

    Deep down, though, I know he likes my hair short. Nostalgia is largely influential here: My hair was short when we first met, got to be friends, and started dating. I started growing it out mainly so I could have an up-do for wedding photos, and I have been growing it out ever since. My plan (and my track record shows this as a repeating occurrence) is to grow my hair long before I chop it all off and donate it. And I think that deep down Charles is looking forward to the time when I chop my hair short again.

  4. P.S. Lest you think I always cook dinner, Charles does his fair share of cooking around here. Or at least he does when we are living under the same roof.

  5. I had forgotten about that deal, but I really do like my goatee. Sadly, I'll probably end up at BYU and have to shave it.

    Honestly, that picture of you with short hair is such a bad one (quality of picture, not as in you look bad) I had to go dig one up from facebook to see what your hair actually looks like shorter. I like it. It does make you look older, with all that entails (professional? adult? sure, I guess). Adrienne is right, but I'm not sure why she is, or why it's the case that long hair tends to make women look younger.

    I also have no idea how it factors into dating. With less hair the thing that stood out in the picture on facebook is how your smile seems much more prominent, and I think you do have a good smile. Seems your face in general is more open now, it's not competing as much with the volume of hair you previously had.

    Nonetheless, I think you look more attractive with longer hair. I still have no idea why I have that preference in general, and can explain even less why I think longer hair on you is preferable in that category. And I'm not sure the difference level of attractiveness would be a factor in dating.

    In short, you look great. You looked great back with longer hair too. But for different reasons, and in different ways. No idea why that's the case, or what affect hairstyle may or may not be having on your life in general.

  6. I think you look beautiful with both lengths of hair. That picture you posted is shot from a bad angle and bad lighting. The hair had nothing to do with it.

  7. Carl, I guess there's no accounting for taste, and all that. I still think you look better without a goatee, but I assume Susan likes it.

    I also realize that this isn't a high-quality photo of me with short hair, but I don't feel like I have any good photos of me with short hair, and I figured that photo got the point across.

  8. This is like railing against the sun rising in the east. Women may cut their hair, and then get bent out of shape when the men are unhappy. Long hair is beautiful, and it can turn even a plain woman into a beauty. So, one may either utilize or discard this knowledge! lol