Guess what I found in my advice mailbox: a letter from my best friend J. from seventh grade, back before my historic rendezvous with Unreliable Man gave me the powers I now use to serve this great megalopolis. You may remember her from such entries as “How’s my love life? My CAREER is going great!” Of course, we give each other advice all the time (the kind where one of us says, “So, should I give that Bally’s trainer with the house in Steamboat who voted for Robertson and doesn’t like dogs one more chance? You’re supposed to say ‘Yes, but only one,'” and the other says, “Yes, but only one.”). I just didn’t expect her to go through such formal channels. But as always, her timing was uncannily perfect, practically clairvoyant. Little did she know I’d been searching for a fun way to introduce this week’s theme, the one where I am going to tell you to
worrying so much about your
to Breakup Girl instead.
So here goes.
Dear Breakup Girl,
I’m getting my hair cut tomorrow. My dilemma: do I just trim it and keep it at the current, face-framing, bobbish length — or, do I go back to the ultra-short Winona do? (Note: my obsession with Winona’s hair began WELL BEFORE she met Matt Damon. It’s legit).
So you might ask, why am I writing Breakup Girl with this question?
a) She’s seen my hair through the years (isn’t that a 70’s song?), and can offer a personal opinion.
b) Well, duh– as with any hair dilemma, this is not about hair — it’s about life as a woman, femininity, following/resisting stereotypes, inner strength, etc. etc. See, I love how short hair feels. BUT — it brings up all my worries, namely: do I have a striking enough face to carry it off? Will men ever look at me? Do I need to be a waif with a model’s face for this haircut? Am I too fat for it? Will I look more butch than I really am at heart, or, worse yet, like a matronly housefrau with sensible hair? Do men really like long hair better?
In short, will I be cutting off my hair to spite my face?
And then, of course, the meta level: why do I care so much what men think? Why am I worried about the ramifications of looking “unfeminine?” Why am I trapped by the stereotypes even as I try to be a strong, freethinking female?
And finally: WILL I RESOLVE ALL THESE ISSUES BY 11 AM TOMORROW?
Thanks, Breakup Girl. You’ve got great hair, by the way.
No. That’s No, you won’t resolve all these issues in time, not No, I don’t have great hair. (And thanks.) Or, at least, YOU might resolve these issues by 11 AM, but Society won’t, and therein lies part of the problem.
First, I’m going to give away the ending: get the Winona do. (I believe you about the Damon factor, by the way; and in any case, if that were the prevailing logic here, I’d say you should get an Affleck — their relationship seems much more stable.). Here’s why. (And as for those of you who, understandably, could care less what J. does with her hair, remember, this is the opposite of Hanson: it’s not about the hair.)
a) Yes, I have seen your hair through the years, and in some sense — considering, say, the “Wispy Bang” Wars of 1981 — that makes this, by comparison, a can’t-lose situation.
b) But I will never forget the moment I saw you with your first Winona. I had the most positive reaction that anyone can ever have to any haircut, which was: “Where has that haircut been all your life?” It was it. It was thehaircut. And you knew it too. Your eyes shone, you grinned, you glowed. It just worked. Which is what made all of the other questions you mention above irrelevant. It had nothing to do with whether your face was “striking enough” or whether men would look at you or whether you were “too fat” (only humans, God bless ’em, wonder if their hair makes them look fat. As far as I know.). It was chic, clean, classy — beyond questions of “feminine” or “masculine.” The point being: You said it yourself. You “love how short hair feels.” For whatever reason, you just do. And it shows. The other point being: make no mistake, how you feel — that is, who you are — and how you lookare directly related. And that, beyond societal conventions and ideals of beauty, yada yada yada, is what makes you — even on a first-glance, first impression basis — attractive. More on that later in the column.
And speaking of gender, no, I’m not convinced men like long hair better. Long hair, as far as they know, offers far more opportunity for (1) weird chemicals, appliances, and restraining devices in the bathroom and bureau area, along with their corollary, (2) lateness.
But why should you, a regular Xena in the rest of your life, get all Rules Girl* about hair and appearance in the first place? The thing is, you’re idealistic and fierce about resisting stereotypes, cultivating inner strength, etc. But you’re also practical: you’d like to find your way to a life partner one of these days; what — given, oh, REALITY — is the shortest distance between two points? And part of that reality is, despite all the feel-good stuff I’ve said above about the outer child of inner beauty, that there’s still enough data out there telling us otherwise that, well, we worry.EVEN IF WE KNOW BETTER. (As Bridget Jones says: “I…have been traumatized by supermodels and too many quizzes and know that neither my personality nor my body is up to it if left to its own devices. I can’t take the pressure.”) It’s like, “Just because I get all unconventional doesn’t mean I magically change the conventions of those around me!” “It doesn’t mean I won’t wind up strong, free-thinking, true to Numero Uno…and alone!”
So if you’ve got some of that stuff wired in — well, how could you not? Remember, we live in a culture where we evaluate skaters’ souls by the size of their thighs (shut up, Waif-bots, who’s the one doing the triple axel?) and politicians’ character by their wives’ — and interns’ — haircuts. And just to give you some more perspective, think of it this way: in the largest metaphorical sense, we dress for success every day. What should I wear to meet his/her parents? How shall I bring this up with my boss? Where should I take this prospective client to lunch? We are always calculating, rummaging through our closets, changing our hair — and rarely with a second thought. Hey, you do what you gotta do, right?But when we do it in the Realm of Boy, we feel more conflicted and guiltier. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we should play some game, cave to some convention, in order to Get the Guy. I’m just saying there are a million reasons why it’s normal and natural, almost like a reflex, for us to consider doing so, almost like a reflex. So let’s go ahead and feel it, ’cause we’re gonna, but quit feeling bad about it. Strong Women beating themselves up over What Strong Women Are Supposed to Be Like kind of defeats the purpose of Strong Women, doesn’t it?
So, what’d you decide?
*”Do everything you possibly can to put your best face forward. If you have a bad nose, get a nose job; color gray hair; grow your hair long. Men prefer long hair, something to play with and caress. It doesn’t matter what your hairdresser and friends think. You’re certainly not trying to attract them! Let’s face it, hairdressers are notorious for pushing exciting, short haircuts on their clients; trimming long hair is no fun for them. It doesn’t matter that short hair is easier to wash and dry or that your hair is very thin. The point is, we’re girls! We don’t want to look like boys.” — From The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets For Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (Fein and Schneider, Warner Books, 1956, I mean, 1996).
J., by the way, is the person Breakup Girl is going to marry “if it comes to that.” J. says that the event theme will be “Four Funerals* and A Wedding.” Anyway, she has helped me raise some of the main points I want to make about looks and body image (See, J., your hair is a matter of global significance). Which are:
I will always adore The Character Still Known As The Little Prince, from whom (well, from his pal the fox) we learn that “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” Which translates to: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (See, I was able to pass notes with J.and pay attention in Mme. Zombeck’s class.)
But. In the context of this column, I now respond, “Mais non!”
Look, it’s a great book, but let’s all get over the self-righteous, facile notion that everything tangible and external (“looks”) — and our attraction to it — is superficial, while our love for the inner whatever (“character,” “soul,” “what’s inside”) is Pure. As J. and her short-hair, feel-good glow showed us, who we are and how we look are on a continuum. It’s not only about the genes we were blessed/cursed with; it’s about the choices we make, how we carry and adorn ourselves, how we color in the butcher-paper outline of our bodies. Which in itself is an, ahem, interface between how people relate to us — because of how we look — and how our personalities and characters are thus further molded. But bottom line: this is beyond Breakup Girl chucking you on the chin and telling you to “Be Yourself!” , the implication there generally being that “people will be so drawn to your personality that eventually they won’t notice you’re ugly): when “l’essentiel” and the visible are in sync, that’s when we look marvelous. To all but the most shallow.
Yes, first impressions are often filtered through Societal Standards, and they are all too often indelible. And YES, people make lame, obnoxious, ill-informed decisions about character (e.g. lazy) based on appearance (e.g. overweight). And yes, boy oh boy, do people get drawn to, stuck on, and blinded by Looks even when what’s inside ain’t so foxy. And, of course, the opposite. (As Wendy Wasserstein wrote in Saturday’s New York Times, “You never know right away if the person you’re dating is a potential Son of Sam or Lizzie Borden. But if you spot flabby arms, that’s a dead giveaway for lack of self-esteem and fear of intimacy.”)
BUT. First impressions/attractions are also frequently based on a lot of other je-ne-sais-quoi things: a gesture, a glow, a turn of phrase, “something in the way s/he moves.” Also, people get hooked on each other for a lot of lousy reasons that have nothing to do with looks. In other words, Looks are just one of a ton of things that addle our judgment. Or consider it this way: which is worse, getting together with someone you don’t like that much becase their eyes and dimples make you melt, or getting together with someone you don’t like that much because, say, something about their personality plugs into and satisfies some unmet need for a certain flavor of love/attention you didn’t get from your parents? I’m not saying one’s worse; it’s just that the former seems more obvious and more galling. Bottom line #2: people get hot for each other for unhealthy, flimsy reasons and for healthy, sturdy reasons. These reasons are not divided neatly between two — fictional — categories called, respectively, “What S/He Looks Like” and “The Real Person.”
Also, as Dr. Harriet Lerner wrote in New Woman, “In my 25 years of practice as a psychotherapist, I have never seen a connection between how good-looking a wo/man [gender-neutrality added by BG] is and how intimate, gratifying, supportive, erotic, deep, resilient, passionate, affectionate, tender, high-spirited, or lasting her marriage or relationship is.”
* our parents’
This column originally appeared on June 22, 1998.