mama milton: restless hair syndrome

I start this post with a nod to Mama Milton, who got me thinking.
Hair is one of the principle means of self expression for women (and, to a lesser degree, men) in our society. We color, cut, tease, perm, straighten, process, glue, and spray it into submission. We adorn ourselves with hair. When it changes color or texture or it thins or we lose it, we begin to panic.

When we want to change our lives or make a statement, the first thing we change is our hair. Hairdressers even have a name for it. "Post Break-up hair."

I have had me some hair dos.



I like to think of myself as a simple woman with simple tastes, but I have been known to go crazy on my hair. Thankfully, I don't have any pictures on my computer of me with a perm , but I once even had poodle hair. Hey! It was the eighties and everyone was doing it! I would have had big glasses, too, if I wore glasses in those days. I even shaved my head in the nineties. What a shame there was no digital photography then.

For the first time in my life, though, I now have long hair.

What can I say? As I grow older, I become more comfortable with things feminine. I now like the color pink. I paint my toenails. I have long hair (what?! After all these years they're going to throw me out of the radicalfeminist club for that?).

I remember an essay by Alice Walker. "Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain."

In it, she writes that our obsession with hair blocks our thinking. For her, it was important to stop cutting, processing, and torturing her hair. She began to braid her hair in the late eighties and does it to this day.

I have read countless student essays this semester about body image--how our obsession with being thin has warped our lives. I'm glad to see my students thinking this way. It reminds me of the seventies when we started to question the male gaze and our willingness to go to any length to be attractive.

While I am glad my students question themselves about this, I find that in my middle age, I am enjoying a new found sense of beauty. And I like it. As a feminist, I once thought that it was beneath me to think of beauty. I wore the uniform: the short hair, the androgynous clothing. I even seriously considered breast reduction surgery-- it's difficult to be androgynous with an hourglass figure.

And now, as I near the end mature, I find that I have mellowed. I think the feminist movement is marching along with me (or me with it), but that's another post.


Mary Joan Koch said…
I greatly enjoyed this post. I remember well the short-hair, don't-shave-your-legs, no-lipstick, sensible-shoes school of early feminism. My daughters range in age from 25 to 34. They are all sensible about their weight and appearance, but they wear what they like, not what is ideologically correct. They don't think glancing at fashion magazines is heresy.

I have a post on my blog about my hair wars. I have tried a tremendous range of styles. From age 5 to 23, I set my hair almost every night. I have finally made my peace with my silver, absolutely straight, longish hair.

You look good in long hair.
Nice post. I pulled off a kd lang circa 1993 haircut "Coming Out" cut...
Julie Pippert said…
Hmm I wonder what au naturel hair for like, hmm, forever, says. ;) I think it says "lazy and low priority." LOL

I wear what suits me and what I like. I think that's the benefit of a 70s-80s upbringing.

I pity the girls now. And hope like crazy this fad is done before my daughters get influenced by it. the pendulum should swing soon.

They, for the record, dress as they please. Patience wore a Santa suit to school yesterday and Persistence is in full Princess regalia today. They have been known to wear tails on shopping trips.

But my kids are Extremely Creative.

Using My Words
Claire B. said…
What a great post! Funny how hair means so much to we women. . .

I am coloring with glee, for now. All my grey is at my temples and I'm not okay with it yet.

My colorist is my friend and I get compliments on my hair and that makes me happy.
Aaryn said…
Wow. What a thought provoking post. I love it. I have to say, that as a white woman raising a black daughter, I work very hard on my daughter's hair, for her hair reflects how well she is cared for and I learned, long before she came home, to always have it done when we go out. It's a lot of pressure and I worry that too much emphasis will give her a complex. But I also want her to be able to connect as easily as possible with the black community. And so I comb every morning, and so she cries every morning. It's our ritual. Someday, when she chooses, she may braid it, loc it, or cut it close.
Mrs. G. said…
I love this post. Until the past two years, I have had ultra short cut short.

As I've aged, I've enjoyed letting my hair grow and indulging my inner girl--a shiny lipgloss, a pedicure, a few highlights here and there. I'm still not much on makeup or shaving...check back with me in ten years.

I love Alice Walker...and her hair. I am about to go read that essay.
I have to admit...

if I think about it too hard, the coiffing of hair freaks me out a bit. It's like when you say a word over and over again until it loses it's meaning and you hear the word for what it most objectively is: a string of sounds. It's almost nonsensical.

People spend hundreds of dollars on cutting, coloring, styling, and fussing-in-general over their hair. But when you really think about's just dead keratinized cells. And when it's in your soup, no matter how tressed and trussed, it's nasty.

Fussing over dead keratinzed cells is sort of like going to a special salon to have your ear wax molded into delightful shapes meant to enhance the side of your head.

It's a good thing I don't think about it too often, lol. And I did fuss over my dead keratinzed cells this evening before work. Usually, I just control them in a pony tail.
Melanie said…
I am getting my dead keratinized cells cut tomorrow morning, though I'm considering an ear wax mold, too.

Actually, I'm thinking about chopping of my hair because I so rarely have time to do anything with it. We shall see.
Excellent post. It is strange how hair so defines us. My hair has had a huge impact on my life (which I am not going to bore you with now...).
And I know what you mean about mellowing out as you grow older....I'm feeling it, too, but I thought it was just because I was so tired of fighting...

Lisa Milton said…
I'm so glad you posted your pictures; I didn't have many on my computer and I was too lazy to do anything about it.

When I cut my hair short a couple of years ago, my family was shocked. But they all got used to it and I liked that finally, it was just hair. Not me.

Growing it out because I still had it (many women with sjogren's & lupus experience balding) felt like I still had a stake in things when I had been so sick.

I guess in the end, I mellowed too.

I could rattle on & on about body image. I'll stop for today.

Thanks for the nod & this post - you did the subject justice.
Mary G said…
Oh, the hair thing! Teased, ironed, permed, peroxided, extended. As for me, I don't bother much. Clean, combed and ignored. Drives my poor husband nuts!
Sad, that.
I love your blog -- thanks for leading me here.
JCK said…
Oh, Professor J. How I could curl up with a steaming cup of tea (or Jack and Coke)and join you to converse on this subject. You captured it all so beautifully in your post. I, too, have experienced almost an awakening as I've gotten older. (And I'm much older than you, baby!)I truly believe it is a feminist awakening in that I am more relaxed about myself, what I look like and don't look like. Enjoying things more. Being less worried about what I spent hours worrying about when I was younger. I've had the gamut of hairdo's as well. Yes to perms in the 80's! :) A couple of years ago I let my hair go natural and it has been so freeing! And cheap! :0

Alice Walker is a gem!
I have had acid green hair, cobalt blue hair, spikes, curls, and big-ass-perm hair at various points in my life. When I went to law school and realized that acid green spikes were not in the cards, I grew my hair out to a bob that requires the minimum of effort. I later came upon a photo of me when I was 5, with the same haircut, looking happy and fuss-free. I've kept it ever since.
Tui said…
Great post! There's a lot to think about in what you have written.

Btw, I, too, have reconciled with pink, feels almost rebellious for this former Tomboy to wear whatever the heck she wants.

It's interesting how many of our seemingly simple daily choices, such as how we wear our hair, and the clothes we don, are actually quite symbolic of our deeper decisions.
Saucy said…
What a thought-provoking post! I lost my hair last year as a result of the most nasty chemotherapy known to man. I'm sorry to admit that, without my hair, I felt lost and without what my Grandmother always referred to as "my crowning glory" I felt so unattractive. At 40, a mother of two, fighting for my health - and missing my hair. Shame on me. It never really came back, but I'm dealing with it. Otherwise known as "just happy to be here".
anne said…
What a great post.

It's interesting the things we associate with different hairstyles.

Right now I'm working on getting back to long hair. It's so much easier for me to deal with - ponytail or braid and I'm good to go.

I look forward to someday being an old woman with a long white braid. Why? I don't know.
Mark A. said…
Is it sad that I wish I could still have my mid-back length head-banging hair of the 80's? I wanna rock, indeed.

Probably, huh?

Back to grading.
Micbike said…
Hair! Hmmph! I have always done what I pleased with it. It is graying nicely at the temples now,people ask me if it is natural or highlighted. I laugh. But I am still not sure what I want with the length so I have compromised with a thick braid in back and short in front. Some would call it a mullett. I would not!!
Ps One of my favorite hairstyles of yours was in that pic with puppy Ursula.

Popular posts from this blog

Eight Years and Counting

Poetry: Leslie Norris

The B Word