If the removal of body hair is a gender thing (which it is—see last week’s I've got all the hair, I've got all the hair), it ain’t got nothing on head hair. Before we even have beards and pubes and armpit hair to remove or not remove, our hairy fates are being decided for us on our heads.
We all grow head hair, at the approximate rate of 0.5 mm per day, for most of our lives. Yet (most) little boys are running around with short hair and little girls with long hair. Why? What possible purpose does this serve? Makes it easier to tell them apart, I suppose, if one should need to do that. To me it stinks of the old adage that girls/women should be pretty and boys/men should be practical.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, there always are. My brother rocked hair as long as mine from the age of 8 to 11. People often asked us if we were sisters. He cut it short when he started secondary school.
And now it’s my turn get the chop. A few weeks ago, when most of Århus had shut down due to coronavirus but mysteriously the hairdressers and tanning salons were still open, I was walking through the empty streets and I saw a sign outside a hairdresser’s that said “Models Wanted”. I went in and said I was interested and asked if I had to look a particular way to be a model. I didn’t. I told the hairdresser I’d been thinking about cutting my hair short and then, realising she might think I meant girly-bob-short, I added, “like a boy”.
I regretted the words almost instantly, even though “like a boy” is partly why I want my hair short, like a boy.
I’m tired of having long hair for no apparent reason, or rather, for the reason that it is the default for me as a woman-identifying woman. I don’t want my hair to define me, to gender me—enough of me is gendered as it is. It’s not that I want to become more masculine. Possibly I want to become less feminine, less woman. Possibly. As far as I know (and how much can we ever really know about why we do the things we do), my aim is some kind of neutral middle ground.
And I can’t believe it took me so long. Somehow I never considered cutting my hair short (like a boy) before—at least, not since I was 9 years old and played rugby and actually wanted to be a boy. Even then I didn’t dare. It wasn’t the done thing.
Perhaps I thought (and still a little part of me thinks) I’d look ridiculous. Perhaps I thought everyone would be able to see the lumps on my head. Perhaps I thought people would finally see what a huge head I have without my mass of hair to hide it and make me look petite. Perhaps I thought men would be less attracted to me.
On the contrary, I am almost always attracted to women who have short hair. Not because they look more like men. But because they have made a choice that goes against the norm, and I’m attracted to that, in people.
Speaking of choice, it’s time for some choice feminism!
Choice feminism argues that anything a woman chooses is inherently feminist, because she chooses it.
Let’s unpack this is a little. It’s sooort of saying that a woman can choose to do/be/look like pretty much anything (within reason) and still be a feminist. Spot on, I think. A woman, or indeed anyone, can uphold many of the patriarchal ideologies of our society (eg. body hair removal) and still be working towards achieving equality, in one way or another. Indeed, it’s pretty difficult not to uphold at least some patriarchal ideologies when you’re born into them.
Choice feminism takes this a step further. It says that it’s not only ok for a woman to choose to remove hair from her body (or whatever), it’s a feminist act. This is usually presented in the form of motivational, empower-y Instagram posts jumping on the feminism-is-cool-again trend to sell their razors and beauty products to women. A rhetoric which quickly finds its way into online activism, mainstream feminism and our heads. Suddenly, everything a woman does is feminist, and we (women) take to Instagram to write long captions about how our choice to shave our legs or be stay-at-home mums is in fact feminist, because we chose to do so.
To an extent I am also sympathetic with this argument. Women have historically been denied choices in society, and now, when they finally have them, shouldn’t they be able to exercise them as they wish? Isn’t any attempt to influence a woman’s choices and tell her she can’t shave or depend on her husband for money just another way to repress and control women and therefore not-very-feminist?
Of course it is. But that doesn’t make the not-very-feminist “choices” made by women on a daily basis feminist. What choice feminism ignores is that the choices we make are incredibly influenced by the society we live in.
Take the choice of hair length as an example. The current gender norm is that women have long hair and men have short hair. When I, a woman, make the “choice” to have long hair, it is the choice of least resistance, it is such an easy choice to make it is effectively a non-choice. On the other hand, if I make the choice to have short, what-is-normally-associated-with-man/boy hair, this is a choice that defies the norm and is therefore a more difficult choice to make. That doesn’t mean it’s un-feminist for a woman to choose to have normal, long hair, but nor is it feminist (as choice feminism would have us believe). And it may not really be feminist to have short, like-a-boy hair either, but it is norm-defying.
Anyway, before I get too befuddled about what it actually means to be feminist and, wait a second, why do we even bother at all, I’m going to have a shot at another definition. The big one!
At its core, feminism is a movement that aims to achieve gender equality, someday.
It is called feminism, not humanism, because historically women have had a shitter time of it than men (also known as patriarchy). But the general idea is that everyone should have it better when feminism succeeds, because then men also get to live in a society where half the population aren’t mad at them for enforcing all the inequality in the first place.
Equality is subjective and can be measured in many ways. Back in the heyday of feminism, there was more focus on the big, measurable stuff: education, politics, work, economy, parenting. All of which are still big issues for feminism, but today’s feminism also focusses on the subtler gender inequalities that exist even when a workplace is gender-equal in all the obvious ways. These include things like sexual abuse, being listened to and the complicated dismantling of the structures of the institutions and workplaces women have fought so hard to get access to, that have been by-and-large built by men, for men and a “manly” way of doing things.
Not only that, feminism has also expanded to include a less binary understanding of gender, fighting for the rights of all marginalised genders who have often had the same or similar problems as women. Even more generally, intersectional feminism has become about fighting for overall equality, not just gender equality—taking up issues such as race, sexuality, class, age, disability and so on. Which is why feminism has become quite complicated to define and some people think it should get a new name.
How did I do?
Now for some choice toppings before I chop it all off.
📕 Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine, a conversation about whiteness, including several chapters exploring why a disproportionate amount of women of all ethnicities dye their hair blonde
👨🏼🎤 Playing Dress-up, a personal essay by Neta. J. Rose on navigating non-binary-ness, published by Salty
🎀 A Plunge Into The Body Politics and Choice Feminism of An Instagram Age on The High Low podcast
🦔 No Hair, Don't Care: Women Talk About Shaving Their Heads, a video by Refinery29
🧩 @inter.stelarry on Instagram
I’ll leave it hair for now. Feel free to send me your definitions of feminism, photos of your hair(s) and names of norm-defying people I can stalk and develop creepy crushes on.
— H. E.