you can buy your hair if it won’t grow: why i’m opting out of “pretty”
When I told one of my friends I was getting my hair cut this week, she gave me some unsolicited advice. She said I shouldn’t get it cut too short, because it might not suit me.
I’m not going to listen to her, though. I want my hair short short. In fact, when I cut off almost all my hair on Friday (prior to going to a hairdresser for a tidy-up) my prevailing thought was, “I want to opt out of pretty. I want to feel free.”
Free of the lank hair I’ve had the last few years, which is partly the result of hormonal imbalances and partly because I can’t wash it every day. And free of the idea that I have to look the way other people want me to look, instead of how I want to look.
My body = their business
Because I started puberty early and apparently have turbo-charged hormones, as a pre-adolescent I got noticeable breasts before everyone else and acne much worse than everyone else. In the last six years, I’ve even had the gall to put on weight.
This means people have been giving me unsolicited advice about my appearance for a really long time.
Just a few things I’ve been told over the years:
That I’d be needing a bra soon. (Aged 9)
That I should wear sleeves to cover up my (approximately four) underarm hairs. (10)
That my leg hairs were disgusting and I needed to wear trousers. (12)
That if I washed my face, I wouldn’t have so many spots. (13)
That if I wasn’t so angry, I wouldn’t have so many spots. (28)
That I needed to eat less chocolate. Like, stat. (29).
I know at least some of these tips were kindly meant, just as I know my friend meant no harm with her comment about my hair (she just didn’t want me to look unattractive, because she’s been conditioned — ha! — to believe that’s important) but the subtext of them all is the same:
You’re not good enough as you are. Please change, then I’ll like you.
And that’s the pervading message women receive in our culture: in magazines and TV shows, in many self-help books, in the ads for make-up and skin care and cosmetic surgery in every glossy magazine. It’s a message we all internalise to some extent, and one men absorb on our behalf (and unthinkingly reflect back to us) as well.
Growing up, I knew (without knowing how I knew) that I was supposed to be pretty, and that in some ways (being relatively thin, having thick shiny hair) I measured up and in others (being short, having acne, my hips sticking out) I definitely did not.
There is nothing like the scrutiny of teenage girls. We measure ourselves against each other, basing our self-esteem on how well we compare. All but the most conventionally beautiful girls slip up somewhere, and feel less worthwhile as a result.
I once cried for hours after a girl in my class ranked us all by looks and I came after a girl two sizes larger than me who I didn’t think was pretty.
What’s the alternative?
When I researched this article, I had a long (and slightly off topic) phone conversation with a sociology researcher who had looked at the messages teenage girls absorb about appearance. He found that where teen girls had a supportive peer group who did not place much emphasis on appearance, those girls grew up with better self-esteem and lower incidences of body hatred and were thus able to dissect and reject patriarchal messages about appearance rather than simply absorbing them.
Yeah, most of us don’t grow up with that. But some do. That girl two sizes larger and allegedly prettier than me? She had that. She had a posse who liked to play sports, draw, go for walks, play music… All stuff I would never have dreamed of doing because I was too busy looking in a mirror, spending time with my friends trying to get my hair to look right or practising how to use makeup to enhance my eyes and cover my spots.
(But not for me)
I had the misfortune of having a posse who liked to talk about how we weren’t pretty enough and who, with the exception of me, were tall and really thin, with glowing skin. Looks felt like the most important thing in the world, inextricably linked to how much people would like me. And I felt ugly and ashamed of my body almost all the time.
I have a friend now who is uncommonly lovely. She hears the comment that she is beautiful a lot. We once somehow stumbled onto a conversation about how I don’t enjoy conversations with other women about make-up and hair tips and clothes. How I found those chats often had an undercurrent of bitchiness and competitiveness. (“Well what are you wearing? Really? Hmmm.”)
She had no idea what I was talking about, no angst about those topics at all. Perhaps she had more supportive friends growing up than I did. Or perhaps (no duh) life is just easier for beautiful people in many ways. (Although being thin, tall and pretty with good skin still doesn’t protect women from body snark, as the way the modelling profession is conducted proves.)
Anyway, I’ve been struggling with these issues for years.
Cutting it out
And then on Friday I got pissed off about how much my hair was annoying me and realised that the only reason I didn’t already have it really short was that I was worried about what other people (might) think.
I hold myself back from a lot of things because of what other people (might) think. I never had any interesting hobbies as a teenager because I was waiting until I was thin and pretty with perfect skin and I never felt I was. (In the same way, I tried for years to mould my personality into an effortless cocktail of charm and humour that would offend no-one. I never quite managed it, but I missed out on a lot of fun in the meantime.)
If you can’t say anything nice (or even if you can)…
For a couple of years I’ve been trying not to refer to other women’s appearances at all, not wanting to contribute to the idea that beauty should matter.
I haven’t quite worked out yet if that’s the best approach. I know some people think telling ALL girls and women they’re beautiful is the answer, but that still seems like we’re accepting the idea that our main purpose is decorative.
But we can’t ignore our physical selves altogether and wanting to is clearly a bad thing. Finding beauty in all of who we are is the challenge: loving our legs because they are strong, not just because they are thin. Liking our faces not because they are (ha) free from lines but because they light up when we smile. Those cliches of the body-acceptance movement are so true and so important. They form an idea of beauty I can get behind.
Every body (get up and do your thing)
I feel like I’m having a small personal revolution. I’m looking inward instead of out. I’m working out for myself what I love. I love the feel of short hair. I love wearing trousers. I love wearing eyeshadow and nail varnish because it’s wearable art that lifts my spirits.
But I can’t wear high heels.
I’m trying to only wear lipstick when I feel like it, rather than when I worry I’ll be judged for not doing so. I think body-shaping underwear is the work of the devil and I refuse to countenance it. Instead of trying to force myself into one narrow version of femininity, I’m choosing what to embrace and what to reject. Many feminists have been doing this for decades, of course, but it’s new ground for me.
I think anything people say about other people reflects their own prejudices more than anything (even if they say something nice) and it’s important to remember that no-one’s opinion of you matters, really. You make it matter, and with continued effort, you can choose not to.
It doesn’t matter if someone calls you ugly or beautiful, it’s essentially the same thing: a judgement, a confirmation that how you look matters, perhaps matters more than anything else.
You can relish approval but that’s dangerous as you start to mould yourself in the image of how you think other people want you to be. You can whither under disapproval, never feeling good enough.
Or you can find your own way. You can think compassionately of others and their struggles with self-esteem, but not listen to anything they say about who you should be or how you should look.
And you can cut your hair short short and not worry if you’re pretty or not.