balance · style matters · time crunch · transition · well-heeled (so to speak) · women

On the ‘Do

In her last post (Go read and comment! It will make your day), Aimee so nicely suggested that she’s hoping to learn more from me “about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.” We’ll get to that, but today’s post is anything but life-of-the-mind-y. Rather than writing about what’s in my head, I’m writing about what’s on it–my hair, in all of its shiny and political glory. Hair (at least mine) might be frizzled, but it ain’t just frivolous.

(If you like these style posts, check out all the ones tagged with style matters. And please ignore the fact that I’m shamelessly revisiting Aimee’s post on her feminist haircut).

My recent hair obsession started with three things: 1) being too busy to get a haircut for what seemed like an age and then fussing about with my overgrown mop, 2) starting the new job and trying to figure out how to juggle looking put together at work and fitting in time at the gym before my hour-long commute and my 8:30 start, and 3) seeing a woman on the bus with a beautiful short crop that looked SO stylish and SO easy. In the easy department she beat my rather high-maintenance bob, which requires endless blow drying and ironing every time I wash it, else I look like a electrocuted poodle.

I wasn’t kidding.

In the throes of hair obsession, I seriously considered following the suit of my short-haired muse and hacking the whole business off. If you’ll permit me a whine, expectations around women’s hair just seem so unfair, and so expressly calculated to channel our energies into the frivolous and the decorative instead of into the useful and the intellectual. And I want that half-hour of sleep back, dammit. Most men–at least prior to the advent of the man-bun–can just shower and be on their way, little-to-no fluffing required. (They also aren’t expected by society to put on makeup, or strap themselves into bras, or paint their nails, or jam their feet into high heels–all things which I know I’m not ACTUALLY required to spend my time doing, in any objective sense, but do anyway because I like to look nice and because painting ones’ nails is, not unlike making risotto, very relaxing.) But women in most parts of the world are conditioned to equate long hair with femininity and attractiveness, and thus grow luscious locks that require more babying than my rather neurotic cat. There are exceptions, of course, like those who decide that they just don’t give a damn, or those, like Halle Berry or my friend Belinda, who are made for short hair. And of course there are women who have long hair or high-maintenance hair for reasons other than style. But the coded (and not so coded) message many women get is that short hair is unfeminine, unflattering, unsexy, and only for those beautiful or dynamic enough to make up for their lost hair-related appeal in other ways. (I can’t imagine how terribly those messages must be compounded for women who have lost their hair for medical reasons, and thus are told that they’re doubly unattractive, being both sick and bald.)

Having absorbed this equation of hair = beauty (and being, let’s be honest, just a mite vain), I spend all kinds of time–valuable time, time I could be spending on intellectual pursuits, or with my family, or exercising, or SLEEPING, for goodness sakes–washing my hair, drying my hair, ironing my hair, working to pay for expensive haircuts, shopping for hair products. Think about how much time I could devote to concocting some brilliant money-making scheme, or practicing my French, or writing my dissertation, if I started refusing to style my hair, or cut it into a style that doesn’t require styling. A lot! It’s madness, I tell you! It’s hair tyranny! 

Sure, there are other ways to say screw you to the hair establishment than cutting it all off. The low-maintenance (and very popular) long-hair-always-in-a-bun style (or the every popular ponytail) is certainly one way, although it often comes at the cost of headaches from the weight of all that hair perched atop one’s head all day. (I’d go that route, but the migraines aren’t worth it.) And dry shampoo is a godsend, that’s for certain.  But wouldn’t it be lovely if we lived in a world where beauty and femininity weren’t tied to hair? Where short-haired women were just as unremarkable as short-haired men? Where those of us not in possession of Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones didn’t feel like we needed hair to hide, or accentuate, parts of our faces? Where long hair was a simple choice, and not, as it is for some people, a screen, or armour? Where I could get sweaty and shower and be on my way in the morning, no potions or hair irons required?

Sadly, we don’t. And I’m brave about some things, but apparently not about this. My high-maintenance hair is, somewhat to my dismay, a part of my personal and professional identity, and so it stays. I still resent the time I spend on my coif, time I could be spending in other ways, but clearly not enough to give Hannah-the-hairdresser free rein with the clippers. I’m keeping my poodle-free bob, which looks quite nice, I do concede. But I’m also figuring out other ways I can take back my time from the demands of appearances. Time to invest in some no-iron clothes, perhaps?

Makeup, jewelry, dress, heels, manicure, contacts, hair did–the whole shebang.

What about you? Is your ‘do a drag, a drain, a distraction from more important things? Or is your coif something you celebrate? Do you find the discussion of follicles frivolous, or fraught? Do tell!

6 thoughts on “On the ‘Do

  1. When I met you, I noticed your hair. So shiny! So well behaved. So put together. You were exuding a vibe of put-togetherness that made me feel like a faker … but then I hear that I have that effect myself on others sometimes. I'm rocking the electrocuted poodle look myself today (high humidity plus wind == CRAZY HAIR).

    My hair is currently longer than it's been in about 8 years (since I got married). I spend about 20 minutes all told on it in the morning. Feels worth it for now. Can't really wear it up, because, like you, I have a LOT of hair and it gives me a massive headache to have a ponytail.

    I've looked a lot for low-maintenance and stylish cuts. I am looking for short cuts, if you will. But I still want to look good in the terms I've come to understand as “look good”. At least most of the time, and certainly at work.


  2. Thanks, Aimee! That put-together-ness is something I have to negotiate–you're right that it can be distancing and/or intimidating in some contexts, but in other contexts (like at Congress, which was the last time we saw each other) it's necessary. Your comment made me realize that the hair thing is increasingly fraught of late–I've never had to think about it so much before–not just because of no longer working from home, but because I'm both the youngest and the newest person in my office. It's not like I'm that young, but I certainly rely on a polished personal appearance–and we can't forget the glasses–to ensure that people take me seriously. And some people still have trouble with that–cough, male senior academics, cough–but it makes a difference.


  3. Thought I would speak up for short hair. Apart from a regrettable 1 year hiatus when I had hair to my shoulders (1st year of TT job, seemed like a good idea) I've had short hair (c 2 inches) since my undergrad. I have also dyed it blonde (real bright blonde) for at least the past 15 years. It takes me all of 3 minutes (not that I've timed it) to dry and style my hair. Admittedly, I have what my partner describes as Barbie hair as it's pretty processed and pretty white under the dye so drying doesn't take long and then I just scoop up some product, run my fingers through my hair and I'm done. I think I look pretty sexy; no one has tried not taking me seriously (and that's with blonde hair – insert sexist joke here); and I have not been mistaken for a man since I attempted the androgynous dyke look in the early 90s (epic fail). I think you have great hair Melissa, but I also think you could totally pull off a short cut – only problem is that the cumulative time you save in styling is lost in the higher frequency of hair cuts.


  4. Okay, so. Hmm. Let me try to work this out.

    Right now my male partner spends at least as much time on his hair in the morning as I do. In fact, he probably spends more time on it. I'm not entirely sure why this is. I think it may have something to do with the fact that he's a lawyer, and it is thus rather important for his job that he put a fair bit of time into polishing his personal appearance. Like, society expects him to look poised and professional, so he has to live up to that expectation, or whatever. So, yeah. Short hair doesn't necessarily equal less time spent. In some cases, it can mean much more time spent.

    For me personally, I have had very short hair, very long hair, and in between. When my hair was short I had to put product in it, and I had to cut it every six weeks so I didn't look like a ragged dog. And, when I was growing it out, IT. WAS. HELL. I have *just* enough wave in my hair to make it jump out jauntily from my head when it doesn't have enough weight holding it down. The easiest for me to manage BY FAR is long hair. I can blow it dry and it looks great. And I can wash it every other day because when it's less than lustrous I can throw it up into a bun with ease. Plus, I don't have to get regular haircuts! I try to go every six months. Seriously. So. Incredibly. simple. Most days, I spend a grand total of 6 minutes on my hair: the time it takes me to brush it and blow it mostly dry in the morning. On days that I don't feel I have 5 minutes, I take 2 minutes and throw it up in a bun.

    What I do spend a lot of time on in the morning is doing my makeup (there was a blog post floating around my facebook newsfeed about how much work it is to look like you have no makeup on. Can't find the link now.) And picking out my clothes.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is this: I don't think it's about a long hair-short hair division. Short hair can be easier. Or long hair. Or in between. I think the pressure is less about length of hair, or even hair at all, than it is about standards of “cleanliness” and “polished-lookingness”–but especially appearing to be “clean”. These days, looking “clean” means having sparkling fake-white teeth, wearing many scents, having a perfect, polished face, and nice hair. It's not just about the hair, it's everything. And it's not just for women. There is definitely increased and more open and obvious pressure on women to conform to beauty standards. But men, too, are increasingly targeted by mass-market attempts to sell products by selling the idea of “cleanliness”.

    I'm kind of conflicted by this shift, to be honest. On the one hand, I like it that there is increased pressure on men: it's more equal. But on the other hand, how is it good for men to feel this same pressure as women? I'm torn. Thoughts?


  5. Hair is such a North-American (read Canada-US) obsession! There's no such thing as washing your hair everyday in most other parts of the world, let alone having to style it. I still remember being in Romania and seeing an infomercial for some new hair-taming device that started with “Are you tired of bad-hair days?” I was floored, because I had no idea what those were. My response was “I don't know, should I be? Why didn't I know about this possibility before?”
    Melissa, you've done such a great job of contextualizing what's at stake with the hair obsession, so here's my confession: I have worn a bob of various lengths for most of my life. The past couple of years, I wore my hair long, but I cut it again this fall to its usual bob size. I agree with Anne: what you save in styling time, you waste in more frequent cuts. But, since my hair grows out ridiculously fast, I also enjoy the thrill of radical change, and there's no better than cutting off your locks.


  6. Funnily enough I missed this post yesterday because I was catching up after having driven to Halifax (2.5 hours away) to get my haircut by my amazing friend and hair stylist Connie.


Comments are closed.