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.