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I had never given much thought to the dialogue between my regional and sexual identities until about 10 months ago. When I walk down the street in my hometown in Virginia, my eye is organically drawn to big, good-looking boys in jeans that fit just right, boys with that stubbornly nonchalant swath of hair that curls faintly under the edges of old ballcaps. And every once in a while, one of those big, good-looking boys will look back.
In February, I cut my long, dark hair into a boyish pixie cut and they stopped looking. Or, when they looked, they looked with a question in their eyes.
I cut it because my best friend is fighting cancer. She wanted to cut her hair short before it fell out, but she was afraid of losing that hallmark of femininity. I dismissed her fears and told her I would go first.
I genuinely believed my own dismissal of her concerns. My long hair was always stuffed under a Virginia cap the color of old dishwater -– it didn’t seem like a relevant part of the intangible markers of my availability to the opposite sex. Since I tend to select a mate based on the books on his nightstand (points for Dubus) and his ability to operate a Massey Ferguson, I thought that it wouldn’t matter once I started talking with someone.
I’ve done plenty of talking since February, but not about Andre Dubus. Instead, I’ve spilt breath -– and sometimes blood -– coming to my own defense.
I sent a photo to my boyfriend at the time -- a wonderful, kind, supportive man -- who was horrified by what I’d done. I gave justifications and laughed along when shocked friends raised their eyebrows and made jokes.
I answered the questions of strangers. I went through a period where the explanation for the haircut was the first thing out of my mouth when I met someone new, as if somehow I could head people off. As if I owed people the apologetic explanation: I only did this because of my friend. I’m not proud of how self-conscious I was.
One night in April, some guy in a bar felt compelled to tell me that my haircut made me look like I was interested in women. I reckon you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to, be it man, woman or teapot, and rock on if that’s your thing –- but I took great umbrage at his vulgar choice of words, and I smacked him across the jaw. I had never hit anyone in my life, but the solid crack of my hand hitting his face was the answer I think I wanted to give everyone who felt he had the right to ask me if my haircut meant I had come out.
I could ignore a poor, trashy redneck in a bar. At the end of the day, the real coup de main came couched in a compliment from a friend: “I think it’s really honorable what you did for your friend. When I first saw you, I thought you had started batting for the other team, but wow. That’s great.”
It threw every curious look I had gotten for the last three months into sharp relief, gave legitimacy to that jerk in the bar. A girl knows when a fella is looking at her; any girl who says she hasn’t noticed is lying. Equally, a girl knows when she is not being looked at, and in one well-intentioned swoop, my friend put into perspective three months of standing un-approached in bars.
I don’t mean to use this story to lambast our prejudices as people –- after all, my friend’s words were meant as the highest of compliments, and did not imply criticism had his original assumption been the truth.
This also isn’t meant to be a treatise on vanity. Of course, sexual identity is not all about being looked at on the street or picked up in bars. Neither do I think the reactions I get are a commentary on my attractiveness. My self-esteem is unaffected; no one is telling me I look bad. But it would be false to deny that a vital part of any person’s sense of sexual identity is the outside interest he or she receives from the intended party. Recently, for me that interest has been either absent or academic.
I do believe that my experience is a regional one. RC Cola and a Moon Pie and Southern Serves the South are things of my parents’ generation, but the bastions of patriarchal femininity are alive and well south of the Mason-Dixon line. I have no empirical evidence to support this (beyond the astonishment my New York friends expressed that anyone would question my sexuality based on my haircut) and I (deliberately) failed sociology in college, but I think it is worth drawing attention to our assumptions about the physical hallmarks of femininity and perceived sexuality.
Why are our assumptions so rigid? The continuum is a concept now, yet we still insist on these tired empirical standards as signposts for one of the most private and important parts of who a person is: who she chooses to be intimate with.
I say “we” because I was born and raised in the South and will raise my own babies there one day. I am not opposed to “traditional” gender roles: I loved being presented to society by my father, I think boys should call girls, not the other way around, and I still think a man shouldn’t swear in the presence of ladies. I wouldn’t change that paradigm for all the wolf whistles in the world. Perhaps the two things go hand-in-hand: if we preserve one paradigm, we preserve the other.
And perhaps I am being hypocritical. I opened this article by saying that my eye is drawn to big, good-looking boys in jeans and ball caps –- that is no different than the appeal of long brown waves, clipped neatly at the nape of a girl’s neck. We like to think that we are more than the sum of our most attractive features, but of course there is always an important element to attraction that is both physical and beyond our control.
But then, I’m not talking about attraction: I’m talking about the assumption. The assumption that because I altered an established physical hallmark, I had altered my identity. Every person has the right not only to determine that identity, but the right to unmoor his appearance from it. The right not to be questioned about it by strangers in bars.
Do I think this is a social ill that needs correcting? I don’t know. My hair gets longer every day, and as New York’s weather shifts to fall, I can gather it into a stumpy ponytail. I won’t pretend I haven’t been a little thrown off balance lately –- baffled and adrift –- but maybe that’s a personal problem, not one that needs crusading.
Anyway, I’m sure it’s nothing that an RC Cola and a Moon Pie won’t fix.