A few weeks ago, at church, a thirteen year old girl who I consider one of “my girls” within the Jr. High ministry came up to me and said, “You should grow out your hair.”
We were a group of five, two female Jr. High ministry leaders, beside my self, one of our female students, and the thirteen year old girl, who had red hair down to her lower back.
This was the third person who’d said this to me today, but I smiled, and just scrunched up my nose like someone had asked me to eat a brussel sprout.
“Nah,” I said, with a laugh. The red-headed girl didn’t laugh, just looked at me. The body language of the group shifted into something a bit tense.
“Yes,” said the girl seriously, “you should.”
I blinked at her. I knew this girl, and I liked her – I still do. She’s one of my girls. We give hugs every Sunday. We text each other on holidays.
“Um. I don’t want to,” I said. I maintained eye contact with her. I didn’t want to catch the weird, ‘yikes’ looks the other ladies in the circle were trying to exchange with me.
“Why not?” said the girl, raising an eyebrow before blatantly looking me up and down, “You really should.”
I laughed again, this time out of mild shock, and a bit of that weird feeling where you know you’re angry but you also know that it’s not worth being angry, and you think that if you laugh then maybe you won’t get angry, so you laugh a little and clench your eyebrows instead.
“Why?” I asked as if I were actually curious, “I like having my hair short.”
Without missing a beat, and still very serious, she replied, “You’d look better with long hair.”
I gaped at her. The rest of the group were silent around us. I was definitely angry now, and hurt, but wasn’t hard to reign in my reaction. I’ve had a lot of practice.
“I don’t like having long hair,” I calmly explained, still half smiling, “I like my hair like this.” And then I struck a silly pose, and tried to play the whole thing off, so that we could move on, “I think I rock it.”
Part of my whole persona at Jr. High ministry is that I pretend to be cooler than I am. I strike poses, wink and then pretend to strut, I dance a lot. The kids laugh, and I laugh. It breaks a lot of ice.
The red-headed girl did not laugh at this. “No,” she said, and then firmly told me, “A woman’s beauty is in her hair. You should grow it out.”
“So if I don’t have long hair, I’m not beautiful?”
She knew enough not to say anything after that, but she shook her head at me, and that was enough.
“Well, ” I said as kindly as possible, “I wholeheartedly disagree with you, but you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“I-I think it suits her,” came an attempt at diffusing the awkward situation from one of the group.
“Yeah,” said another girl, “it, uh, matches her personality.”
The girl with the long red hair looked me in the eye, shook her head ‘no,’ pursed her lips, and walked away, sing-songing, “you should grow it out…” as she left.
I excused myself then to go say hi to a few of my other girls. And I hugged the one with the long red hair before she left, all the same.
She’s young, is the immediate defense. Oh, young people are rude sometimes, Alanah. You can’t take childish insults seriously.
You know what? Bull. This was not the first time I’d heard this. In fact, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it that very day. It was just the first time in a long time I’d heard it from a jr higher, or a friend.
When I was seven, I started getting migraines. They run in my family, on my moms side. I used to hide my migraine pills under my bed so I wouldn’t have to take them. Stupidly, I thought they were causing the headaches – I didn’t understand that they were meant to help.
I used to have long, thick, curly hair down to my butt. At some point, the doctor told my mom I needed to cut it. “It’s too heavy,” he said, “it’s making them worse, maybe even causing some.” So, in the fourth grade, I cut it to my shoulders. I cannot describe what it was like, losing the weight, except to say that it felt like floating in cool water. My mom asked if I liked it, and I said I did. I didn’t say that I wanted to cut it even more, because I knew, somehow, that she wouldn’t like that.
It is written on no one’s heart that a “woman’s beauty is in her hair.” It is not an innately known thing like “murder is bad” or the word “mine.” Whether you are a child, a jr higher, or an adult, you have to be taught the phrase “a woman’s beauty is in her hair,” you must be taught that a woman with short hair is not beautiful, and most likely, it is a parent doing that teaching.
In the case of the red-headed girl, it was likely her parents, raising a daughter in this specific belief: a woman is defined by her beauty, and that beauty is defined by a cosmetic attribute. This is not a Christian belief in that it is not Biblical. Yet I have known a great many Christian women, mothers and daughters and sisters and wives, who act as if it is.
Particularly in Latin-American families, it is a big deal for a girl to cut, or to even want to cut her hair. It took me a long time to understand my own family and community’s perspectives on female hair, and even longer to forgive them for it.
I specify ‘female hair’ because this sham of a rule only applies to women. Within such circles, it comes with a heap of generalizations:
Men with long hair are adventurous or sexy, or rebellious, mysterious.
Men with short hair are clean, classy, smart, or rich.
Women with long hair are mature and beautiful.
Women with short hair are lesbians.
I find this particularly painful, because I’ve had to defend myself from this specific belief for a very long time, most often from people that I care about, or who care for me. I can’t tell you the amount of fights I’ve have had with loved ones over my hair.
But if you have short hair, I don’t have to tell you how nice it is not to have something strand-y on the back of your neck all the time. I don’t have to tell you how easy it it to wake up in the morning or walk out of the shower, palm a little gel, rub my head, and be done. I don’t have to tell you how much money I save on shampoo, conditioner, gel, and even electricity (blow drying my hair used to take a literal two full hours, plus an hour to straighten, or an hour and a half to curl). I don’t have to tell you how many headaches my almost weightless 3-inch hair gives me – but I will. It’s zero headaches.
The heartache is a bit tough, though.
Perhaps the most insulting assumption I’ve encountered is the idea that my hair is offensive to men as a whole. There seems to be this idea that my having short hair will 1) prevent me from getting a husband, 2) prevent me from pleasing a husband, and 3) prevent me from loving a husband the way I should. “Most men like long hair, Alanah,” is something I hear a great deal of. That’s nice. It may even be true. It’s a good thing I don’t want to marry most men.
I just want to marry one.
My response to number one is that I need a man who likes short hair. They’re actually not hard to find – my unfortunately long list of exes can attest to that. I’ve only ever grown my hair out for one guy before – it was absolutely a mistake, and I will never do it again.
As for number 2, I often get “a man doesn’t want to feel like he’s kissing a boy.” My response is really just laughter. How ridiculous. Any man standing close enough to me to kiss me has my chest all up against his. Trust me, he knows I’m not a boy.
For number three, the accusation is always, “what if you love a man who likes long hair, and he’s just too kind to tell you? You’re going to make him sacrifice what he likes just so you can have short hair? That’s not very loving, and not a good quality in a wife.”
Right. Heaven forbid anyone should sacrifice something in marriage. And of course I should know my lover’s preferences even if he’s too kind to tell me them. How unloving of me, that I should desire a man who is attracted to the way I already look.
People are stupid. It’s easy to logic my way through these things, but it’s also exhausting, because I know that I shouldn’t have to. And it is consistently painful, in the mean time.
The heartache is tough, but I manage. Not because a few friends agree that my short hair “matches my personality,” but because short hair makes so much sense to me. I feel like I like my reflection when my hair is short. I feel like I’m sexier, taller, leaner, and cleaner.
But I also have a hard time feeling beautiful, I’ll admit.
My encounter with the red-headed girl came on the heels of a haircut, and my accepting the role of Mary in the Christmas program at church. We’ve already discussed my sheer disbelief with the situation:
My attempts at humor were a lame cover for the most sincerely overwhelming bout of insecurity I’ve had since my first boyfriend told me that he wished I had smaller boobs back in 2008.
But the reality is that our preoccupation with a flat-chested virgin Mary with long curls draped in baby blue is stupid.
I’ve nothing against long hair. A lot of girls rock it. I just don’t want it for myself. I don’t care if you like pastel colors – rock em. But I don’t wear them much. I don’t mind if you’re flat chested – you can shop at a LOT of places I can’t and, oh god, you can wear those cute little sheath dresses, guh, GUH, I only WISH I could rock those.
But to assume that Mary was our traditional, commercial sort of “pretty” is pretty dumb.
Tune in for part 3, where we’ll talk about what what Mary was actually like, and what it was like to play her on stage in front of some 2000 people snapping photos of my wig and makeup. Then come back for part 4, where I’ll talk about scary babies, and why pushing a commercial Mary onto little girls as a standard of beauty is dangerous.
Check out the other contributors to December Doomfest! Nick, Brian, Sean, David (his link coming soon) and Matt. Comments, questions, and retweeted posts are our writery salvation, so don’t be shy – we’d all love to hear from you.