BY JILL CARROLL
I cut my hair. The timing was good, early June, spring's novelty gone, humidity circling my throat and sapping my energy. It had been a rough winter in my small life, but I was me again, and I needed to mark the end of what I had gone through, how I was not going back, how I was not the same but more staunchly myself.
So, I cut my hair.
Let me give you some history. I have a picture of myself at 5: it's summer, I have on blue jogging shorts, sun-bleached hair hangs over each shoulder to midriff. The picture commemorates no one event. Nevertheless, it has meaning to me: it means that for two weeks I had a knot the size of a grapefruit at the nape of my neck. An entire bottle of No More Tears could not placate this monster. Every night after bath, Mama would get Daddy's barbershop comb and have at it.
Even though it was only a tangled mat of dead filaments, the knot was guarded Maybe we can nurse it straight, maybe it will go away and only as a last resort, it was cut out.
Afterward, a veil of smooth hair hid the ragged ends where the mat once lay Sshhh, no one will know if you don't tell them.
Except for a short stint in fourth grade when I had a Princess Di look, my hair had always been long. As a late-'80s teen, I sat in a parlor for six hours having my hair rolled and then doused with stenching chemicals to affect an "effortless" curl.
My stylist would cut long layers in my hair. "This will frame your face," she'd say or, "These bangs will accent your eyes," or, "Pull it back just so and it will heighten your cheek bones."
I bought expensive shampoos and conditioners, "styling spritz" (second cousin to cement), special brushes, hair dryers and diffusers. Gels, mousses, rinses, de-tox cleansers, hair masks and hot oil treatments crowded the bathroom.
I was trying to rein in the mess I had created. I'd blow dry my hair into just the right pose, and then I'd plaster it into position. I'd pin it up so tightly with barrettes that hair would break and my skin would stretch at the temples. If I used a scrunchy, I triple looped it.
My hair would move en masse as I checked my profile in the mirror. In true Southern fashion, I could not run my fingers through my hair; it was a trap for hangnails, rings and bracelets. Friends called me Cousin It.
In college, my hair and I struck a truce; I'll live my life, you live yours let's try not to fight. Straight again, and chemical-free, it grew and grew, and I ignored it and ignored it, pausing every now and then to pull it into a loose ponytail.
Still, it seemed inescapable, omnipresent. Long blond strands cropped up on headrests of chairs and couches, clung to sweaters. Hair collected in corners with cat sheddings and dust bunnies. Drains clogged.
All the while, I was fostering a desire to hack my hair to the root. When I drove with windows down, hair tangled in my lashes, inevitably ending up in my mouth. When I slept, it tickled my neck and irritated my face. Overnight visitors would sleep on it, my every toss and turn interrupted with a yank to the neck.
It had cost me money; it had cost me time; it had cost me patience.
I once read that Albert Einstein wore no socks. In the absence of socks, small doses of time and even small doses of psychic space relinquished themselves to Einstein's life. Hence, the theory of relativity.
For myself, being prone to chilly toes, I resolved to make an appointment with the hairdresser. Off it would come.
When I told girlfriends of my decision they exuded vicarious joy. They spoke of the cut in the most familiar and reduced of pronouns, as if the idea had circulated in their own heads for such a long time it needn't be identified at length. Do it, they said, I've always wanted to do it, I'd just be too scared to do it. It would be so different.
On the other hand, the passing conversation of my intentions to dispose of my foot-long hair elicited a much more stifled response from male friends. Oh, one said. Why? another managed to ask. And one went so far as to say, Don't.
All of them sheathed their faces in tenuous politeness.
Nevertheless, the day of my appointment arrived, and the deed was done.
So what? you say, How vain, how fruitless to make note of it. Maybe, but hair is acutely intrinsic to identity. Think of Bill Clinton's helmet of steel gray. Imagine Bob Marley without dreads, or Kojak with full tresses. Would sockless Einstein have seemed as affable without his electric hair?
But if I try to extend my illustration to the other sex, I lose one metaphor and must pick up a much less desirable one. Let me explain. My problem is not that there is a dearth of female public figures with notable hair. Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Aniston and Sinead O'Connor have all made hair headlines. My problem is the difference of what hair means to their identities.
Bear with me as I belabor the point. Clinton's presidency has been marred by scandal, yet he appears focused and unshaken. His imposing stature, rehearsed hand gestures, tailored suits and gray hair all help to present Clinton as a venerable leader in spite of his youth. His hair, just part of the package, is, as it should be, never mentioned in the media.
Not so for the First Lady. Whether she pleases you or peeves you, it would seem that being First Lady per se entitles one to a modicum of respect. To the contrary, Hillary's worth as first lady, as an aide to the president and as a successful lawyer in her own right is summarily disregarded. Instead, news media have chronicled her every change of hairstyle. Whereas President Clinton's hair promotes an image of respectability, his wife's hair becomes the basis of her public image, an object superseding the person.
Similarly, "Friends" cast member Jennifer Aniston's acting ability has been ignored by the press, while her hairstyle has been applauded.
Not so for Irish singer Sinead O'Connor. Her songs may have scaled the charts, but that wasn't as noteworthy as her shaved head. Mocked by comedians as a freak, her only condolence was the 20th Century adage "the only bad press is no press."
I don't contend that all women who keep their hair short are considered aberrations. But it does seem that there are only three periods in a woman's life when short hair fails to raise an eyebrow.
The first is when a woman becomes a mother. I have witnessed many women who, upon having that first child, find themselves short on time and energy, and conclude that long hair is no longer worth the effort. Any sacrifice a woman makes to care for her children is readily accepted by society hair being no exception.
The second scenario is in the professional world. I have read many times in women's magazines that it is considered unprofessional to have long hair in the office. Professional women shorten their hair in an effort to gain respect and to present an authoritarian image on the job. And since authority is associated with men in this patriarchal society, it is acceptable to be mannish in the office. How else is a woman to be worthy of respect?
Old age is the third stage in life when short hair is socially suitable to women. Don't we all have grandmothers with tightly curled short hair? In our youth-worshipping culture, senior women are graciously allowed to stretch the boundaries of conformity. They have paid their dues, and are out of the game.
Look closely at these windows of opportunity. It is acceptable for a woman to have short hair when her heterosexuality is manifest, as in motherhood; or when her sexuality would be distracting at the office; or when no one cares about the old gal's sexuality because she's not the strapping young thing she once was.
This leads me to conclude that our culture, teeming in its patriarchy, equates a woman's hair to an easily identifiable sexual symbol. Stubbornly assuming heterosexuality as the norm, long hair means go, short hair means stop.
Cutting my hair at an age when hormones surrounded my person like ectoplasm, during the blaze of my fecundity, was to turn away from the sexual role I am expected to play, and the marriage and babies it traditionally entails.
Nonsense! you say. Well, let me tell you something. So, you've gone butch, is the first thing a male friend said to me upon seeing my cropped hair. Not only was I suddenly a lesbian in his eyes, I was the most marginal type of lesbian, the type which in outwardly appearances imitates the male sex.
When I eloquently told him he was full of shit, he explained just why he preferred women to wear their hair long. I like to run my fingers through it, he said, I like to feel it all around me when we have sex.
Now it had long been established in my mind that the nature of our relationship would never be sexual. Yet this was the same man who had felt compelled to tell me not to cut my hair, as if he were trying to keep me in his pool of potential sex partners. Surely he did not think that I had actually "gone butch." What he really meant was that I might as well be a lesbian to him because he no longer considered me game for his sexual endeavors.
It was becoming clear to me that in other people's eyes my heterosexuality, as well as my gender, had fallen to the floor with my hair.
This afflictive perception was not male-specific. While visiting an aunt, she patted me on the knee and said sotto voce, "Now, don't get mad, but that short hair makes you look like one of those lezbos."
New acquaintances no longer asked me the standard boyfriend question. Instead, I was asked with much leniency if I had a partner. Tactful 9- and 10- year-olds at the day-care where I worked asked me if I wanted to be a boy. In the grocery store, I smiled at a toddler who then burst into giggles. She banged her hands on the buggy and squealed, "Boy! Boy!"
But that is not all I noticed after I cut my hair. Men of my generation often averted their eyes when coming into contact with me. Older men no longer extended a Honey, or a Sweetheart in greeting. I was no longer their Dear.
Rednecks did not see fit to grunt or hoot in my direction; their apish arms remained in the automobile as they drove past. It was as if a great many members of the opposite sex, so used to playing by old rules, no longer knew how to approach me.
A few other things changed, too. My showers were shortened. I threw out my hairbrush and my hair dryer, as well as all scrunchies, bows, barrettes and headbands. I no longer periodically checked black clothing for loose hair. I quit buying Drano.
Instantly I was liberated of the self-inflicted tedium of hair-care, and the uncontrollable nuisance of patronizing and vulgar men that women must contend with on a daily basis.
More importantly, after I cut my hair I saw clearly that woman's sexuality is considered the key to her existence, that she is still defined only in reference to man, still considered a mere deviation from man, still the Second Sex, the Other.
Just as women are told they must fashion themselves after men to earn respect at work, and just as lesbianism is not viewed as a woman loving another woman, but as a woman vainly wishing she were a man, people treated me as though I were trying to escape being a woman, as though I were trying to be a man, when all I was trying to be was more myself.
Jill Carroll is a recent graduate of the College of Charleston and is currently working in the POINT office as an intern.