Rules about hair and how to be a good woman


Dominique Browning writes in the New York Times that her hair is sexy. She’s fifty-five. It’s gray. It’s long. You gotta problem with that? I don’t, but she feels the world’s disapproving eye on her, even as it reaches out bony fingers to stroke a wafting strand. Being a middle-aged woman with long hair is rebellious, she says. There’s a rule. Women are supposed to cut their hair at a certain age. They’re supposed to do it quietly, complacently, and stylishly. And then their friends will all say, “Oh! You look lovely!” and exchange approving looks.  But Browning wants more than that fleeting, compulsory interaction with other women. She has a line towards the end of the article that goes: “Is it not wonderfully sexy the way our grandmothers, those women of the prairie, or concrete canyons, would braid their hair up in the morning and let their cowboys unravel them at night?”

That does sound pretty sexy. She then concludes the piece with a bit about how much men like long hair.

Like Virginia, I’m not sure that the argument “but men love it!” is really the most empowering or interesting one. There are a lot of men. They like a lot of things. In fact, as far as I can tell, they pretty much will like whatever it is that women are doing.

But I am sure that women should not feel a huge amount of pressure to cut off their hair at any age. And I am sure that women should do whatever they want with their hair, and do it proudly. And if growing their hair makes them feel sexy, I’m all for it.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about cutting my hair off. I kept saying, “After the wedding” (which I also said about things like writing a book, founding a successful internet company, cooking, cleaning the bathroom sink, and doing laundry). I cut my hair right before my bat mitzvah, when I was thirteen, and I looked very awkward in my pink ballgown. I told myself I wouldn’t let that happen again (both the pink ballgown and the combination of dress and hair). Sure enough, I got the urge right before the wedding. Totally predictable. But I was ready for it. I was not going to let myself look like a boy in a wedding gown. I was going to be a sexy, elegant, womanly woman. With long hair.

I found out about six months ago that I’m pretty dramatically anemic. I decided to go to the doctor because I was exhausted all the time and my hair was falling out. I was concerned about the exhaustion, and terrified about the hair loss. He put me on an amazing amount of iron, and said that my hair would start growing back soon. It did, a little, but its thinness has proved a source of constant self-consciousness for me. The sort of thing that I can’t manage to forget for a day. After all, one of the most basic marks of feminine beauty is thick, lustrous hair. When my hair started falling out, I felt a little like I was being punished for some unknown sin. The sin of writing a body image blog. The sin of eating cookies all the time. Something like that.

The only thing that made me feel better was imagining shaving my head. Just getting rid of the shame and the awkwardness and the waiting. The waiting for it to be beautiful. Enough. Just shave it off. But then I’d look around, and there are no young women with shaved heads, and very few with crew cuts. The only ones who can do that are the ones who are rebels for specific causes of which I’m not a part. Or the occasional model, with the long, slender neck.

There are unspoken rules here, too. You must be stunningly gorgeous, and have the sort of features that can “carry” the look, or you have to not care at all, and have a stunning number of facial piercings, or you have to have cancer. Those are your three options. But what if you just want to cut all your hair off? What if you just want to shave your head? What if you are just anemic? Or just tired of shampooing and brushing?

Browning is right. But she’s also right about a larger point that she of course implies, but never makes. Women (not just middle-aged ones) aren’t allowed to do what they want with their hair.

Can I, as a young woman who leads a religious congregation in prayer, stand on the bima without any hair? Can I take a job interview without any hair? Can I meet the powerful people in my field, and attempt to make connections with them, without any hair?

Maybe I can, but I can’t do it without making a statement. Everyone I meet will think the statement is about something else. And maybe I would be making a statement. The statement that I don’t want my hair right now, and I should be able to make that decision myself.

If I do cut all my hair off, or shave my head (granted different levels of no-hairness), I will make a point to get in touch with Dominique Browning. Maybe she and I can do lunch or something.

*  *  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love the way I look when I’m not making any effort to look like anything at all.

P.S. Thanks to Amanda at Blogfrog’s Life’s Daily Break Community, for getting me thinking about this topic. And to Leslie, who sent me the article about five seconds later. Leslie, I have to say, has great hair.


Kate on October 26th 2010 in beauty, being different

25 Responses to “Rules about hair and how to be a good woman”

  1. Cindy responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    okay..funny you bring this up as I’ve been pondering things like this for a while. ( al ong while)

    first: upon giving birth to the lil one…my hair was LOOOOOOOONG (oh I loved it) it grew FAST (never does) and was thick. I purposely used the pregnancy to supply the big hair era and I was determined to keep it. even if a busy mom’s life and long hair was the unpopular path to take.

    than it happened. it started to fall out (damn you hormones) and than it REALLY fell out. I was FREAKING out because I was REALLY going bald. If I had my hair pulled back you could just see the outline of my head and I don’t have a big head. I think my toddler’s head is as big as my head.

    so in desperation I layered…and layered it…fluffed it and eventually I got sick of my pencil think ponytail and hacked it off. Rather suddenly (like at lunch one day)

    for a while I enjoyed my traditional chin length post baby short doo…( it was oh so sassy) and then missed that long hair that I grew.

    I hacked it (myself mind you) a few more times (a rebellious moment) and then began the re-growth phase of my life.

    I have my pre pregancy hair now…it’s just past shoulder length again and I am just going to let it go. (plus I am still self hacking my hair)

    I am glad I cut it because even though it was short it started thickening up finally.

    pregnancy is mean sometimes…giving us this GORGEOUS hair and than yanking it from us …

    okay part two (as if this wasn’t rambly enough) the part about going gray.

    I think..THINK I am going to let mine just do it’s thing.
    I have NEVER EVER (except for once) dyed or high-lighted my hair and I loved it but HATED the maintenance. HATED it.

    plus I am such a throw-back to the prairie days that I have actually had a very memorable dream years ago of seeing ME in my back yard in my dress and garden shoes…picking flowers and seeing a long pony tail (might have been pig tails) and they were loosely braided and GRAY (which is how I knew I was supposed to be much older in my dream)

    It made me happy. I was ME…I was young and still doing what I do only I was much more “SEASONED”.

    so that’s my two cents on it. I dont’ have many grays …maybe 10 my whole life…I have one now and I didn’t pluck it. It’s shiny. I like it.

    but once in a while I get embarrassed over it (shame on me…I EARNED that hair)

    fun post. and if your hair is thinning and it’s bothering you…do what makes you happy.

    now that you’re of course MARRIED!!!!
    (ps that’s my un-roast today…I have one gray hair and I like it)

  2. Cindy responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    SHEW, that was long!

  3. SR responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    When I was first diagnosed with hypothyroidism, my dose of Synthroid got changed three times over six months, and my hair fell out in pretty extreme measures. I went to a dermatologist and he laughed when I asked with an inflection in my voice, “Should I take more Vitamin B??!” Essentially, any time your hormones change, your hair will be impacted, and he recommended Rogaine. He assured me because it is topical, the side effects are minimal. Honestly, after a couple of weeks, it worked. Essentially the new hair that grows back is stronger. I know that we should love ourselves as we are, but when you are feeling sick on multiple levels (like I have with my thyroid problems), sometimes it is nice to have a somewhat stable head of hair. Honestly, I needed some stability. So in case it is of interest to your readers, I just wanted to share!

  4. Wei-Wei responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    I hate it when my hair falls out – I don’t know if it’s a natural tendency since it happens to my sister as well, but I literally have to pick up after myself everytime I shower. 1) It’s annoying, and 2) It worries me. Deeply.

  5. Ashley responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Oh hair loss for anemics. My my how it sucks.

    Three years ago, while going through one of the most difficult times of my life, I lost a bunch of hair. A big clump, towards the front. I never considered myself vain until I ran my hands through my hair and felt that bald spot. I was DEVASTATED. Once I found out that it wasn’t a life threatening illness, all I could think about was how terrible it was. And I had just started hair school.

    Long story short, now I know the importance of respecting your body and taking care of myself.

    A few years ago my mum shaved her head (she has a corporate job; she’s a pretty big deal where she works) to raise money for cancer research. She always had short hair but she had never been bald. She told me how differently people treated her and how hard it was to deal with it even though she was proud of her decision.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this… hair is difficult. You’re right. People can’t just do what they want with it. It’s the same for men who want to grow it long.

  6. Anna responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    You’re so right about women not being able to do what they want with their hair. I’ve been naturally very blonde my whole life and decided to go brunette last year for a change. The responses I received when I told people about the impending change were nothing short of astounding. Every single person did the same thing- they put their hands on their faces and went “noooo! why would you do that! I love you with blonde hair!” The more people I talked to, the more it became very clear- everyone had very strong feelings about my hair. It was almost as if they felt some sense of ownership over it. I mean, notice that they said “i like you with blonde” not “you look nice with blonde.” It was all about them, not me.

    Honestly, it made me kind of mad. This is my hair and my life. I’ll do whatever the hell I damn please with it.

  7. Natalie responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 1:56 pm #


    Now that’s “out of the way”…

    I’ve ALWAYS wanted to shave my head. It’s something I’ve thought about, talked about, and researched doing for years now. And you’re right: it’s always some “thing.” I met this really groovy girl on a 24 hour kirtan retreat at a Hare Krishna compound in W.VA who had done it in India as part of a religious ceremony. Naturally, it had religious significance to her, but she said something I thought was pretty profound…she said that she thinks every woman should do it because we spend so much time identifying our beauty with our looks-specifically our hair. And if we shave it and learn we’re still women without it, we’ll slowly come to identify our femininity with our SELVES and not the physical or material.

    That’s beautiful and profound and all of those superlative adjectives but damn-sometimes I just want to shave my head because it would be cool and badass and definitely NOT a statement about ANYTHING. A lot of the time, I just want to shave my head because I’m just sick of caring about anything and for whatever reason shaving my head would be rebellion against having to care about Life in general.

    Know what I mean?

  8. Katie responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I lost more than half my hair a little over a year ago. Very slowly, it is growing back. Never in my life have I been so concerned with my physical appearance. I’ve never felt completely beautiful before. But losing my hair shook me beyond embarrassment. I never, ever thought of myself as vain, but hair is there. Or, in my case, NOT there. I was embarrassed that I was embarrassed that I was losing my hair. I was ashamed at how much time I put into fixing it and moving it around and trying to hide it. I cut my hair short-ish. Not short-short, but much shorter than I’d had it. And I felt relieved.

    Do what YOU need to do to feel good about you. Once I embraced what was left of my hair and talked about it to the people around me, I started to feel like myself again. If you think you can handle answering questions about your very short hair or no hair, DO IT! It is your head. Do what makes INSIDE your head feel comfortable!

  9. Chloe' Skye responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    This is a very interesting topic and as I’m an English major I’m inclined to think about it in a literary way…

    In many forms of literature, long lustrous hair is often a symbol for femininity, sensuality, freedom. Which, if you think about it, can all be interrelated topics. So it seems to me that, subconsciously in our society, young women should have “long hair” (or just not “short” hair, short meaning above the ears, like a crew cut or shaved head, a “boyish” cut) in order to express a [hush hush] societally-approved standard/message that they are on the prowl/out on the town/available/generally young, free, and looking for partners.

    Whatever degree of freedom this entails, it does at the same time stifle and limit a woman’s possibilities; it still requires fitting inside an image, a box.

    Subsequently it would seem that once a woman becomes a certain age she is [societally] “forced” to cut her hair to look age-appropriate. This post makes me think about the implications of this…is it that once women reach middle age they can no longer have the freedom of pursuing love, lust, or general romance, whatever it is they may choose? Do middle-aged women no longer have the privilege of selecting romantic partners or enjoying sex, together or separately as they may choose?

    It’s interesting to me that these underlying messages can be so profoundly conveyed in a widely recognized, largely underestimated human feature: hair.

    I should mention that I have extremely long curly hair that I am attempting to grow out to my waist so as to have “hippie hair.” So whatever stereotypes that fits or busts, it’s what I want, and what I think is sexy first and foremost. Society will have to deal with that.

  10. Rachel responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    First, Kate you looked awesome with short hair! You can totally stand on the bima that way again.
    I wish our appearances didn’t matter so much to other people. I had been dying my hair red for a couple years and this summer I put it back to it’s natural almost black brown. So many people tell me that don’t recognize me. Okay, I’m 4’9 you can’t miss me in a crowd. It’s just weird that it matters so much to other people.
    Unroast, I love the way my hair falls out when my partner combs his fingers through it, and clings to his clothes.

  11. Amy responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    I am in TV where…the most important thing is your hair. This, of course, makes me want to cut it off. I used to have long curly wild hair and everyone would always talk about it and say ‘whatever you do, don’t cut your hair’, so of course I did. Not only did I cut it off but I bleached it blonde. It was a ‘don’t define me by my hair’ kind of statement. It was fun. And, amusingly enough, there were men who never spoke to me before who suddenly were chatting me up like I was the new girl in the building. (which they though I was…). That was just amusing though..not affirming or anything. The great thing about hair is, it will always grow back — assuming you are young and healthy. So — if cutting it off is what you’re headed for (pun intended…) I’m sure that’s where you’ll go.

    Congrats on the nuptials and all…


  12. San D responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    I don’t know why hair is so an emotional issue for women, but it is. From the moment our mothers tell us to “get the hair out of our face” to where a young man strokes our hair, we are yanked from one emotion to another. Magazines tout starletts with the newest “dos”, I mean Jennifer Aniston and Farah Fawcett started a country wide trend in their days with their hair. We revere our hairdressers to the point where many of us actual fear missing an appointment. Most of us have had hair issues early one. I had naturally curly thick hair which could never be tamed and thankfully came into “style” in the 60′s, so I could stop fighting the good fight and let it just be. I coveted straight hair during the fight, and did everything from sleep on beer cans, to wrapping my hair around my head and using the iron and ironing board. I would give anything to have those problems now. Cancer left me bald for awhile, and then when it grew back it came back bent, thin and mousey. Fortunately everyone who matters to me, is happy I am alive, hair or not. Strangers are still getting by the fact that I am old, and dress funny, heck they haven’t even gotten to thinking about my thinning menopausal hair. The fact that I write this all, is testamony that yes, women have hair issues. Now that having a bald pate is “in style” for men, I imagine their issues have been alleviated a bit, but I am sure men have issues as well.

  13. rachel responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    San D,

    Men totally have these issues! I was recently having drinks with two 25 year old men and a couple ladies, and the guys started comparing hair lines and facial hair. One asked, “Why don’t any men in congress have facial hair?” To which I responded, “Why aren’t any women in congress grey haired?” The point is, they both seemed worried about the impending loss of their hair, and carefully weighed the rhetorical effect of facial hair, ranging from 5 o’clock shadow (even if it took a week to grow) to full, thick beard and mustache.

  14. catriona responded on 26 Oct 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    I tend to repeat a pattern of growing my hair out, chopping it off, growing it out again. I’ve shaved it multiple times, too, as well as the requisite dye-my-hair-blue-because-I-feel-like-it periods.

    The thing people always ask is “Why?” (The other thing they often tell me is that a buzzed head makes me look like I lost a fight with a lawn mower. To which I say: “Ask me if I care.” They never ask.)

    I tell them the truth: I felt like it.

    Sometimes I like my hair short, sometimes I like it long, sometimes I don’t like it at all. That’s really nobody else’s damn business, and frankly, if somebody* can’t get past the buzzed head (actually, right now it’s in a growing-out stage, but I digress), we have a bigger problem than my hair.

    *Not talking potential bosses here, mind. I think I’ll have to be a bit higher up on the ladder before I can start dying my hair bright colours again without comment.

  15. Ellie Di responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 6:13 am #

    As someone who’s done whatever they want with their hair for 10 years – short, long, bald, natural colours, unnatural colours – I’ll tell you that no matter what you do with your hair and no matter who supports or doesn’t support you, all that actually matters is how you feel about it. That means all of it from the hair itself to the reactions you get. So what if people think you’re making a statement when you just wanted to shave it all off? If they ask, gently correct them. If they don’t, it doesn’t have to bother you.

    (Note: Whenever I did the most extreme things to my hair, I got the most positive feedback.)

  16. jolynn responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 9:19 am #

    One of my fave things about my younger sister is that she is very irreverent with her hair. She cuts it all the time, and by herself. She dyes it funky colors. She shaves her head occasionally. And she is absolutely beautiful and not pierced all over either.
    The first time she shaved it was because her friend had cancer and couldn’t deal with it by herself, and now she just does it because she likes it. You’re right, though, society is very narrow on what they approve, it just depends on what groups you’re in.

  17. ali responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    This is an interesting discussion. I have always had long hair (never past my waist or anything but it has almost always been a few inches past my shoulders). There have been a couple of times when I have had it cut a bit shorter (chin length bob was the absolute shortest). I have A LOT of hair. When it is cut shorter it looks like a big triangle and I.don’ I am 38 now (I notice many my age with long hair so at this point I don’t feel unusual in my choice of hair length).
    I like short hair..on other people. I think short hair can be sexy, long hair can be sexy, bald can be sexy. That’s not the point for me. I just think long hair *suits* me. There may be a point where I choose to go a little shorter but I don’t think I will ever have short hair. I know what looks good on me & I like the way I look this way and that is all that matters.
    I felt some dissappointment with Browning’s article at the end (the “men love it” part). However, I think there is truth to the idea above that long hair is a symbol of fertility & sensuality and maybe some aren’t comfortable with women past a certain age with long tresses.
    Interestingly enough, my 11-year-old daughter has beautiful hair and always wants to cut it shorter. I prefer it long but bite my tongue. It’s her hair, after all.

  18. zoe (and the beatles) responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    hair is so personal! i feel like it kind of transforms into a security blanket, too. sometimes venturing out into new hair territory can be really scary simply because of what we think our society’s reaction to it will be. i like change and i especially like changing my hair. i’ve gone short, super long, in between. gimme something new and i’ll consider it (i’m with you on the cutting it all off! sometimes, though, i feel hesitant to go for the cut i really want because my facial features are “wrong” or my hair’s…personality (think THICK, curly. at times unruly) will not suit the look. it’s such a bummer.

    also, i kind of adore this: “Is it not wonderfully sexy the way our grandmothers, those women of the prairie, or concrete canyons, would braid their hair up in the morning and let their cowboys unravel them at night?”

    unroast: today i love my hair. it’s officially hippie hair and right now, i wouldn’t have it any other way.

  19. Meredith (Pursuing Balance) responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    This was a very interesting post! I actually knew a girl who kept her hair SUPER short, but when she was trying to get a new job she intentionally grew her hair out and styled it differently b/c she suspected that “femming” it up would help her get hired.

  20. elise responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    i can so relate to this post. why does hair have to mean so much? as a female, it has more significance for some reason.

    ps i never commented on your wedding or honeymoon posts, but holy sh!t kate. way to make an exit!!

  21. Jen responded on 27 Oct 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    As someone who lost her hair due to no choice of her own, twice, I have strong feelings about my hair. I dye it, curl it, give it expensive keratin treatments with little guilt. Sometimes I put a purple streak in it. It feels great to have it and its pretty, simply put. It feels nice to have it back. I don’t think I will ever cut it short. I also think I will probably never stop wearing red lipstick, which will make me a pretty crazy looking old lady one day.

    Without it I didn’t feel like everyone else. There were guy cancer patients I was jealous of because they looked more normal bald. For females, it is just really important – it is part of our identity. That’s why the lack of it is shocking.

  22. nic responded on 28 Oct 2010 at 11:42 am #

    I think about cutting all my hair off all the time. I gave up using shampoo/conditioner about a year ago because I was sick of having to spend so much time on it (just washing – I’ve never styled it just plait it or tie it up). Now I use baking soda and vinegar I only have to do it once or twice a week, but that annoys me too.
    The main thing stopping me from cutting it all off is that everyone says short hair takes more upkeep styling it and keeping it trimmed.
    I’d love to just shave it all off and be done with it, but I dress to be inconspicuous and I think that no hair would be too much attention for me.

  23. Eat the Damn Cake » I cut off all my hair responded on 14 Jan 2011 at 11:53 am #

    [...] thought about cutting my hair for a while. I wrote about really short hair and shaved heads here.  But then I thought, “There’s the wedding. I can’t have really short hair in [...]

  24. the long and the short of it. « whatkittydid responded on 27 Oct 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    [...] “Maybe I can [cut off all my hair,] but I can’t do it without making a statement. Everyone I meet will think the statement is about something else. And maybe I would be making a statement. The statement that I don’t want my hair right now, and I should be able to make that decision myself.” – Kate Fridkis [...]

  25. Otenma responded on 01 Jan 2013 at 7:18 am #

    I’ve shaved my head every summer for the past three years. My hair just sort of stopped growing past my shoulders (thanks to 10 years of consistent hair-dye) and I was tired of it being at a constant in-between stage so I finally said “Screw it” and took my dad’s shaver. Having no hair during the hot months was great! No bed-head, no tangles. I still don’t own a brush. And by the time winter rolled around I already had a good inch or two of downy-soft, brand-new hair! Right now I’m letting the hair grow out, and not coloring it at all, mostly just to see if I can reset it to something that I can actually tie back.
    One thing they don’t tell you about shaving your head: People, male and female, on the street will compliment you. Oh, and you’ll have the sudden urge to play with EVERYBODY’S HAIR :)