You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

on Shaving my Head

I have got the ultimate low-maintenace hairstyle.

There are many wonderful reasons for shaving one's head, including being a Buddhist (which many people assume I must be - the long flowing maroon robes don't help to dispel the impression). But the most compelling one for me personally is, quite simply, the heat. I can't stand the heat. I really can't stand the feeling of my hair holding the heat in my head. And I mean really. I get really distressed if I get overheated, and feel sure that my head will either explode or just melt. And then I need to cut all my hair off immediately. If I ever have thoughts of growing my hair out longer again, as I do on cooler-headed occasions, they will be quickly dashed once the next summer comes along.

I find it very interesting how much people care about other people's hairstyles. Very interesting, and highly disappointing. Really, whose business could my hairstyle possibly be but my own?

I first discovered just how much people care about other people's hairstyles when I was twelve years old. I had a gorgeous, glossy mane of thick curls that made all the aunties and other adult women tell me how jealous they were, and how lucky I was to have such beautiful natural curls. I decided that I would like a narrow stripe of bleach-blonde down one side of my hair. It didn't seem like a big deal, and I got one.

Given the sort of variety in hair colours I see around and about on the streets, these days, my single blonde streak wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. Even professional, mainstream, middle-aged women get about with a few creatively highlighted locks nowadays. But it was 1990, and I was in almost-rural Victoria, and oh my, was I in for a shock when I turned up at school the next day. Everyone went wild. Nearly a thousand students at my high school, and just about every single one of them had made a comment on it by the end of the day. Everyone made it very clear that they disapproved of my choice and told me that it obviously implied some kind of serious deficit in my nature, or my brain.  It was all anybody could talk about for a couple of weeks, and my new nickname, 'bird-shit-head' lasted for a good couple of years, long after the bleached streak had grown out.

I was smart enough to know that they were the ones with a problem, not me. But I was so terribly sad to realise what huge problems just about every single person in my community must have had.

It was really shit going through all that. But I was always determined that I wasn't going to let other people's problems rule my life. When I was fourteen, I longed for red hair, and dyed my hair with the brightest red I could get out of the commercial hairdyes available at the time. Again, it was really big news at school. Didn't those kids have lives of their own?

I was about sixteen when the new hairdyes first came out in colours that weren't actually natural hair colours at all. By the time I graduated, I'd had not only blonde and black hair, but also green and pink at various times. Also, I cut my hair into the 'wrong' shape. By then it was the mid-nineties and undercuts were all the rage. Most of the kids, girls and boys, had a hairstyle where the bottom half was cut short and the top half left longer. I cut the hair on the back half of my head short and left the front long. I didn't see much difference, but it turned out to be even more upsetting to the entire student population than the blonde streak had been five years earlier. The reactions were unrelenting. Every time I made any change at all to my hair, I would be heckled, insulted, abused and openly laughed at at least a hundred times before they got sick of that one and found something else to carry on about.

Eventually, school was over (thank the Gods!) and I was out in the 'real world.' It didn't take me too long to work out that although most grown-ups do not openly jeer and heckle, they certainly make those same assumptions about my character (obviously defective), and treat me accordingly.

Over the years I've had many different hairstyles of varying degrees of social acceptability, and I have no illusions left about what a difference it makes to how people perceive you and treat you. I know that exactly the same social events and interactions, among the same people, will turn out very differently according to what kind of hairstyle you happen to have. I know it, but I still really don't get it, just how much other people can care about my hair, and how much right they feel they have to judge me by it. Anyway, that, apparently, is the world we live in.

So now I'm all grown up, and I've had every kind of haircut, for all kinds of reasons, and, all things considered, the practicality of the no-hair cut wins out over all other considerations. I'll even admit to vanity being one of those considerations. I remember what it was like to be young and hot and beautiful and have everybody look at me admiringly and longingly, to literally turn heads. And yes, it felt good - but the flip side, of course, is the unwelcome attention an attractive woman will get as she goes about her daily business. Yes, I do miss feeling pretty, sometimes. But it's a much better life where I don't have to frequently fend off propositions and proposals of all kinds, where eyes don't undress me everywhere I go. It's actually quite a relief, to not be pretty any more.

I'm also aware of how social ideals of beauty inform the reactions people have towards other's hairstyles. Now I have a hairstyle that is not only unconventional, but particularly unfeminine in the eyes of the Western world. Of course, grown-ups don't say these things aloud like kids will, but I've been getting around with extremely short hair on and off for many years now, and I know what it is about my hairstyle that upsets people, that actually makes them angry. It's that it's not feminine. People see me as rejecting not only social fashion, but as actually rebelling against my gender, refusing to be a 'proper' female. I really think that people are more offended by the fact that I haven't bothered to make myself look pretty than anything else.

My friend Project: Girl discovered this dimension of gender politics herself when three of her daughters chose to have short hair. She wrote this fabulous post about their experiences when the youngest girls decided they wanted to shave their heads. She shares with me the absolute shock of realising just how much energy other people have invested in your hairstyle. I guess that's where she came up with the title of that post - Shocking!

The very young children, who haven't worked out about suppressing their reactions in public yet, really show us the state of our world. I remember once while I was getting on a train, a very small boy, just past the toddler stage, said out loud in that totally unself-conscious way that only little children have, "Is that a man or a lady?" He was confused by the juxtaposition of my lack of hair, make-up or jewellery with my long pink dress and women's handbag. This kid had an awesome mum. She didn't miss a beat. She glanced at me without a trace of disapproval and calmly said, "Oh, that's just a lady with short hair. Some ladies can have short hair, just like some men have long hair." That's absolutely the right answer, Mum!

Whenever I have to speak to or approach a stranger, say a shopkeeper from whom I am making a purchase or enquiry, I see the shock in their eyes when they see my nearly-bald head. Then I see that they look down at the rest of my person, and notice that I am wearing some kind of long flowing dress or skirt, quite likely with some representation of flowers about myself. Then they are greatly relieved to see that I am a 'proper' female, but still a little confused, as though they can't imagine why I would shave my head if I weren't a butch dyke.

There were times when I had a 'straight' or fairly conventional hairstyle. I really miss those days for the simple fact that I didn't have to deal with those reactions every time I went into a corner shop for a carton of milk. I do get sick of having to stand up for my rights to choose my hairstyle according to my own comfort rather than other people's just about every bloody time I walk out the door. It's possible that I would even grow my hair back to a socially acceptable length, to go back to those days when people just treated me like a regular human being - if only it wouldn't get so bloody hot every summer.

Another issue that is very important for me is the environmental and economic impact of hairstyling. The way we dress our hair has spawned one of the biggest industries in the modern world. Just imagine how much money is spent every day on hairdressers, hair brushes and accessories, and gels and sprays and straighteners and extensions and transplants and what not. Imagine if we took all that money and spent it on solar panels and electric cars, or feeding starving people, instead. Think of how much time people spend washing, grooming and worrying about their hair. Imagine if they spent that time playing with their kids, or gardening, or doing anything at all remotely useful. Think of how long people with long hair spend in the shower getting the shampoo lathered up, and then detangling with the conditioner. Imagine how much more water we would have had left in our dams during that drought we had recently if everyone had just cut their hair short.

Short or low-maintenance hair is environmental action. Fancy hairdos will destroy the world yet. I never used to judge people by their hairstyles. That would make me as bad as those stupid kids at school, wouldn't it? But, I admit, lately I'm starting to make judgements about people based on their hairstyle. My judgement has nothing at all to do with how the hair looks, but everything to do with how much someone has to increase their ecological footprint to support it.

And here's another thought - imagine if all the parents shaved all the kids' hair. In a few weeks or so, hair lice would be an extinct species. Surely that would make the world a better place.

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