Friday, September 17, 2010

My feminist haircut

For me, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute is a sleepaway camp for dorks, and I’m so excited every year to bunk in a cute little house (cabin?) with some of my favorite dork women friends. We knit, we discuss the merits of various operating systems, we set up a local wifi network, we talk about our hair.

Well, I talk about my hair, because Julia complimented my academic bob. “It’s so sleek,” she said, “so stylish!”

“Thank you!” I answer. Then, in a rush, “It’s my feminist haircut, actually!”

Debate ensued. My idea is this: since my dear daughter was born four years ago, I’ve stuck to low-maintenance, no-product, self-drying shags. If I didn’t manage to wash it, it went in a ponytail. It was, if I may be frank, an expensively coloured mom cut. I chose the style because the time I could save by doing nothing with it—by not even washing it, usually—was time I could use to: wrestle my daughter into pants; make a bed; find a favored and misplaced toy; empty the dishwasher. Increasingly, that all felt like time I was taking away from myself and giving away to others. No, that’s not quite it: it felt like time I was taking away from myself and heaving into the abyss of never-ceasing minutiae. I had fallen in classic mommy martyr behaviour, for no real discernible increase in anyone’s quality of life.

Enough! I decided. The martyr got a nice haircut and now washes it every morning, and blowdries it for 7-10 minutes, to boot. I look nice. I feel better. I’ve carved out time where I can say, “Mommy is busy right now. Please wait a minute and I can help you.”

Julia is unconvinced. She asks, “Do you think the goal of feminism is to allow you to spend 10 minutes blowdrying your hair every day?”

Hm. When you put it like that …

I answer: “I think the goal of feminism is to give me the choice about how I want to spend those ten minutes, and the agency to make it happen.”

Julia has more to say, about the beauty myth and standards of female appearance and the life of the mind. She’s very persuasive. And yet? I like my new hair much better than the old. What do you think? Can a high-maintenance hair style be a feminist act?

Ambient humidity 100%: I can haz anti-frizz serum?

8 comments:

  1. I feel like Kristen Wiig in one the recent SNL skits: "Don't make me sing!" Don't get me started on hair length.
    I'm actually getting a haircut today. Reluctantly, I have to cut my ponytail-able locks, b/c the dryness in Alberta and two consecutive perms have made them unmanageable, even with the application of copious amounts of conditioner. I'll probably go with the bob, which has always been my go-to hairstyle.
    And yes, I do think that cutting your hair may be a feminist act, but maybe for different reasons. I was looking through some popular women's mags this week in search of a different-than-a-bob cut, but all I could see was long hair, long hair, and more long hair. Honestly, there was tousled, there was sleek and flat-ironed, there was wavy, and there was curly, but none of it came even to one of the model's shoulders, let alone her jawline. Taking into account the amount of time and products styling that kind of hair takes, cutting it--even if it means spending a whole 7-10 minutes on it daily--surely seems like a feminist act.

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  2. First, it is a cute haircut.

    Second, I would agree that you are allowed the choice to cut your hair however you want. I wonder if you had gotten a mullet if it would have been more suited to the title of feminist haircut? (but please don't do that).

    Third, although I would say that there are some implications of "trying to look pretty" or what-have-you in terms of gender marking and all those types of ideas. BUT, I think that a) cutting your hair into a bob from being long enough to pull back into a ponytail is running perpendicular to female gender marking, if you were meeting the standard you would have kept it long, or grew it longer. b)why is it anti-feminist to want to look nice.

    I was under the impression that what I'm just going to call "new wave feminism" (partly because I don't know what wave we're even on, and partly because it seems more accurate as a descriptor to whats going on here than #-wave feminism.) anyways, what this new wave feminism was stating was that instead of looking like a man, we should be embracing those parts of us that are women despite their history and proclaiming that they are JUST as important as those same faculties in a male environment. Since they are.

    In my philosophy of feminism class yesterday I posed an idea that relates to this actually.

    If we dress like men do, wear man's clothing, cut our hair like them, etc. Then our status as a woman decreases in man's eyes. Only our status as a man increases. Therefore our status as a human increases. Our human status is directly intertwined with how much of a sheep in wolves clothing we can pull off.

    The problem is this, we shouldn't have to look like men, or pretend to be men to be as good as men. We should be able to dress like we want to dress regardless of if it is sexually charged, or sex neutral, pink, or blue, or pea soup green, and comfortable shoes that are cute to us.

    Institutional power should not be based on how much of a man we can act like. Currently I think it is.

    So I pose this question...is it anti-feminist to want to embrace what makes you feel...good?

    The utilitarian in me says no. The gender in me says perhaps it is counter feminist. Apparently feeling good/pretty/nice/sexy/etc is directly linked to being counter-feminist?

    Maybe we can't get past the history of our words, or the gender-ing of terms (e.g.// pretty/handsome, nice/dignified, etc), maybe the gender of words would have less importance if gender didn't matter anymore.

    I don't know.

    So to make a long post summarized neatly to answer your question. YES a high maintenance haircut can be a feminist statement...and a very powerful one at that.

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  3. Magrit -- ah yes, the cult of long hair. It's true that anything cut shorter than mid-scapula seems almost butch, if we're to judge from the magazine and TV show standards. On the other hand, I find that I sometimes (it's true!) get a little judgy about professional women with Barbie hair. That's something I should probably reconsider.

    Cheryl -- I love your comment: you're going around in the same circles that I go around in. There's so much content in what you're thinking about and yet it seems like a lot of weight for a hairdo to carry, doesn't it? But carry it, it most certainly does. Sheesh.

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  4. My best friend and I have been talking about the question and role of aesthetics in feminist movements. Whether it's embracing conventionally coded signs of hetero-femininity or conventionally coded signs of butchness, two things seem to be true: a) whether dominant or marginalized, aesthetics is tied to social conventions and b) aesthetic "choices" become part of the discussion about how much one is a feminist, how much one conforms to gender normativity and how attractive one is (straight, queer or whatever). So when I see a question like "Can a high-maintenance hair style be a feminist act?", I wonder who's asking the question, who is the answer for and why ask this question? I pose these questions with genuine curiosity, not with sarcasm.

    A few years ago, I started to wear skirts again. I also started beading as a hobby, which made me more attentive to adornments. I began to think about the idea of reclaiming femininity in my own terms. Now those are loaded words! "Reclaiming" and "my own terms", even "femininity". What does it mean to be a feminine feminist? Is that even possible without becoming complicit in dominant gender norms? If not, then what is the alternative? What is the process of "re" in the "reclaiming"?

    I don't think a full satisfactory reclaiming is possible. I don't think reclaiming is impossible either. I find myself somewhere in the middle all the time, at times reveling in the pleasure of my reflection in the mirror, other times cringing with repulsion. I would add or remove an article of clothing or accessory to get the balance just right. But at the back of my mind I know that my "choices" aren't really choices, in the sense that I'm exerting something like a pure subjectivity against gender norms and institutions "out there". I embody those norms, more than I'd like, and also resist them at the same time. I know this when my body reacts to other bodies with pleasure or displeasure, and THEN I take a moment to reflect. I can't believe I'm being so classist! or I can't believe I'm being so fat-phobic! These moments of feminist shame also tell me that when I "decide" to wear a frilly skirt or a shirt with lace or an especially sparkly necklace or pink (all these forbidden feminine objects), the boundaries between my pleasures and gender norms become blurred.

    But perhaps we can turn our attention to other matter of aesthetics beyond individual choices at the hairdresser, clothing shops and in our closets. What about production and labour, for example, or neo-liberal social politics of the responsibilization of the self? Who cuts our hair? What is our socio-political relationship to this individual? Who makes our clothes? A multinational corp with sweatshops around the world, a local designer or yourself? And what are the conditions that limit our choices as gendered consumers?

    So all this is to say that gender, to me, is a moving target, tied to various gears: gender norms and our individual and group resistance (and accommodation) of the norms. But it is also beyond individual choices but located in socio-cultural, economic and political trends in symbolic and material productions. To reclaim femininity would need to account for this mobility and contextuality... and also be attentive to what is denigrated as inferior/feminine and reclaiming those as well.

    Alas, maybe this means more time spent in front of the mirror, pondering and pondering. But maybe this means to reclaim a behaviour as meaningful and political rather than petty or shallow? The cycle of doubt never ends!

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  5. Alceryn! What a fantastically thoughtful and nuanced comment. I am humbled that you brought such a sophisticated response to my essential silliness.

    What your comment really makes me think, though, is that sometimes it can seem like such a crushing, paralysing burden to Be Feminist. Everything you write is true, and I agree with you, but I can barely muster the energy to brush my teeth in the morning--it seems just crushing to have to take on all of the patriarchy, post-industrial post-colonial capitalism, and class before I even get my shoes on.

    How freeing it might be for all of us if we could just get dressed in the morning without provoking a political, personal, or existential crisis.

    I myself am a classic Overthinker, so I'm not sure what to do.

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  6. It's true! There are times when I'm overwhelmed with guilt, shame and sheer immobility. But I don't think it has to be that way. Or at least not always. I remember a conversation I had with my best friend about such crises of Being Feminist, as you so aptly put it, which I also think includes anger about how the world is so at odds with feminist and critical visions. She said that thinking about connections and links across systems of oppressions from the broad structural to the everyday allows her to feel connected to other people, that we're all in this together, regardless of our individual reactions to them. She says this feeling often allows her to overcome existential crises and the feeling of loneliness that comes with being an activist or critical thinker. Her words really struck me and I try to remember this whenever my overthinking gets the better of me.

    Because... what is all this analysis, interventions and critical thinking for, anyway? Isn't it so that we can all be happier, however complicated that term may be? It makes me sad to see feminists in particular (including myself) distraught while living out their politics.

    So here's to funky haircuts, amazing second-hand finds and fabulous shoes! But most of all to amazing feminist friends and strangers out there who remind me that I'm not alone! And I think for me that may just be enough. :)

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  7. By the way... it IS a fabulous hair cut that you got! It makes me want to cut my hair, too! I've been toying with the idea of bangs... but also terrified.

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  8. Aha! I love that idea of conceiving of that whole web of connections as a series of strands connecting us all to each other, rather than (as in my bleaker moments I am tempted to) so many strands of spider webbing completely ensnaring and suffocating me. That is an indescribable comfort, actually. And how nice to meet new friends on teh Internets.

    You should see the haircut when it's not all pouffy :-) Bangs are a commitment, it's true, but for me they are essential to stop me from scowling (too much light in my eyes!) all the time. Srsly. Without bangs, I for real look ANGRY ALL THE TIME. And I'm not!

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