Why Do We Care So Damn Much About Our Hair?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to spend so much time thinking about my hair. Especially for women (and even more especially for women of color), the performance of the right kind of hair, good hair, has real consequences.
Publish date:
April 19, 2012
hair, haircuts, beauty standards, Hair Color

I like to document the hair transformation process.

To preserve my hair color, I go about a week between washings and then I use cool water. I wear sun hats (the sun is the enemy of the brightly colored hair). I use shampoo on my scalp and a color-preserving conditioner.

But I still never make a hair color appointment in time to avoid my blue streaks turning blond.

This is less a failed grasp on the reality of my hair color situation and more a sort of… let’s call it a hopeful optimism combined with the comfort that comes with incremental change. I’m optimistic that the faded colors are interesting-looking (and I do think they mostly are) and, at the same time, convinced that they hasn’t faded as much as I think they have. Until it’s all gone and I’m left with a few blue patches and a bunch of grown-out bleached highlights.

That does sound awful and mangy when I put it that way. I don’t mean mange.

I mean that sometimes I wake up and I realize that my aesthetic has been utterly compromised by my own neglectful inattention -- by the way I keep putting off calling my stylist and making an appointment. Or messaging her on Facebook. Or texting her. Whatever. I mean that I cannot be going on with having blond streaks when my hair is meant to be blue.

This is generally when pictures of me start to involve a lot of my hair being pulled back. Or hats. Because I do love hats but I have such a weird relationship with my hair when it doesn’t look the way I want it to look.

On the one hand, this is a hugely privileged problem to have. I totally acknowledge that. On the other hand, women and their hair have complex relationships at every socioeconomic level.

My aesthetic is leaning toward cartoon character these days.

Men have, at various points in Western history, worn their hair long -- it’s signified everything from wealth to false pride. Women in Western history have, with a few notable exceptions (hello flappers) worn their hair long -- a woman’s long hair is considered by some to be her glory and by others to be a sign of her fertility.

In pre-colonial Africa, men and women both wore a variety of hair styles -- braids and locks and twists. Hair styles often defined class and identity. Colonization and slavery steered that ship toward chemical processing and otherwise trying to emulate white hair -- but the natural hair movement is working on correcting some of that.

Other religious traditions (Sikhism, Islam) and cultures (Native Americans, East Asians) have valued long hair as well -- and all over the world, long hair has been associated with both health and beauty. And sex -- let’s not forget that a woman with long hair that is unkempt (heh, I love that word) has throughout history been perceived as a woman who just got laid.

In that context, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to spend so much time thinking about my hair. Especially for women (and even more especially for women of color), the performance of the right kind of hair -- good hair -- has real consequences.

That’s why I have loved the recent spate of crowd-sourcing here at xoJane when it comes to hair decisions. From s.e. smith’s hair cut to Emily’s color (even though the salon ignored the suggestions), xoJane commenters have gotten involved in what is usually considered a very personal decision. Not as personal as pubic hair, but still pretty dang individual.

This turned into an accidentally patriotic outfit with the addition of blue hair.

And why do we all care so much anyway? I include myself in this, because I voted for that hair cut and I was totally pulling for reverse ombre for Ms. Emily.

It seemed oddly subversive that they would give up so much control over their presentation to a bunch of (totally lovely) strangers on the Internet. And yet, women have been subjected to other people determining their presentation for years.

It’s a sticky subject, and figuring it all out is about on par with getting gum out of long hair. (I favor smooth peanut butter for that one -- along with a toothbrush to help work the peanut butter into the gum.)

When I realized I was deliberately not including photos of me in anything, I knew it was time to get my hair colored. I considered asking the xoJane community, following in the emerging tradition. But I’m too invested in all the work I’ve done to control my presentation. It isn’t that I don’t trust everyone to make good decisions. It’s that I’m a control freak about my hair.

Once upon a time, my hair was hip length when wet (the curls pull it shorter when dry). People all the time wanted to touch my hair, like it was some sort of special, beautiful thing. For me, it was mostly a pain in the ass. It was headaches and tangles and heat rash on the back of my head. It was also in the way -- I wore it pulled back in a low bun almost constantly, just to keep it out of the way and out of people’s hands.

It's not just blue - it's blue and purple.

That’s not, by the way, the same thing women of color deal with. People who touched my hair (people who still touch my hair, because it is unnaturally colored) do so because they think it is pretty. People who touch WOC’s hair often do so because they think the texture is exotic or because they are amazed it is hair and not literal wool. That’s pretty dehumanizing in a way I’ve never faced, even when some stranger has me by the bangs.

I was in high school the first time I dyed my hair. My youngest uncle’s girlfriend did it for me. It was a dark burgundy.

And ever since then, I’ve been chasing the perfect color. Hair cuts have come and gone (I trimmed my own ends when it was really long) but always there has been the quest for a color that signals exactly what I want it to, even when that meaning can’t be put into specific words.

I hate how invested I am in it -- but I also hate hiding from the camera because my blue hair is streaky and washed out. I try to find balance between aesthetics and buying into the cultural garbage that women are fed about appearance and my own infatuation with blue. I don’t know how successful I am, because I really do feel so very much better when my hair is freshly dyed. I feel more confident and capable.

I'd say it's subtle except for how it isn't.

I feel more like myself.

Which, yeah, there’s an irony there. But the more I think about it, I think being conscious of the irony and doing what I want to anyway is the only way to navigate the complex social web of expectations regarding women’s hair. At least for me.

Tell me about YOUR hair.