Sunday, February 21, 2010

Defining beauty, defining power, defining ourselves

A few days ago, I cut my hair. It was a pretty drastic change (see before & after pics), and it made me think of my last major haircut. I was working at the museum and there was one family who came in pretty regularly, with three wonderful girls who liked me a lot. And the one girl saw my haircut and said that it was a big change, but I was still beautiful anyway. She looked so pained when she said it that I knew she was trying to be diplomatic. She was at that age, I think, when what it means to be beautiful is to have long hair.

To most girls, beauty is a function of being a woman, and to children still developing a sense of gender, the genders are painted with very broad brushstrokes. A woman has long hair. A girl wears pink. Men have short hair. Boys wear blue. Men are handsome; women are beautiful. Women decorate themselves and color their parts to accentuate their beauty. To kids, this all makes a lot more sense than any explanation of biological parts.

But as we get older and begin to work out a finer sense of what it means to be a woman or a man, we struggle with ideas about masculinity and femininity. The basic notions of a child become restrictive. What if you are born with a uterus but you don't like pink? What does that mean? What if you have a face that is never, ever going to look symmetrical, no matter how much foundation you cake on? These are questions that girls wrestle with as they grow up (boys have their own issues to work through), and into the middle of all that wrestling come the artillery shells of hormones and lust, throwing all the questions and definitions into the harsh light of lust.

Once lust is involved, the problems become more difficult to solve. Because there is a certain kind of power a beautiful woman can wield over a man, a power that generations of blond, buxom teenage girls have used to their advantage. It is the power of the trophy wife. It is a power that does not make a person stronger, but only allows them to better manipulate others. Girls watch prettier, more glamorous girls get doted over and see that power and beauty and being a woman are all wrapped up together in a horrific Gordian knot.

For some of us, that knot is too difficult to work through. I was one of those girls who looked at the muddle and just decided to turn my back on the problem. I wore goofball outfits, got ridiculous haircuts, and reveled in my personal integrity. I tried to become strong in my own way, learning as much as I could, developing a sense of humor, and looking down on all those blond babes with the boyfriend shelling out jewelry.

But now that I am strong, an educated woman with plenty of opinions I'm not afraid to share, I also don't worry so much about being mistaken for one of the babes. I can have long hair if I want to, not because I need to look like a girl, as my first-grade daughter believes she must, or because my hair is beautiful and I need it to look gorgeous (what can I say? I have good hair). I can have long hair just because I like it. And I can have short hair because I want to have short hair, not just to prove that I am too cool and tough to be "girly" (which is probably why I wanted short hair when I was a teenager). It's just hair.

I can say that now, because I have lived with myself and looked at myself long enough to appreciate the good features and the bad ones. I have people in my life to tell me I am beautiful. I am not afraid that I need a man to give me power. I think I might have finally worked out for myself what it means to be a woman. It is bigger than hair; it is bigger than pink; it is bigger than beauty. But it's also big enough to hold all of that in its warm arms.


Christie said...

Made me cry.

Wendy said...

Oh no! This is supposed to be a HAPPY blog!

Although when I look at your blog, my hunch is that it's the Bogle Petite Syrah talking. ;)

Shay said...

Your hair looks lovely, that is a nice cut!

JohnR said...

Lovely post, Wendy. Thanks for giving me something to chew on. I'm glad you were able to turn your back on the problem--I'm sure that many women are consumed/defined by the struggle throughout their lives. I wonder if there's also some underlying cynical response: "I've seen people conform, and look at the cost of conformity."

I think I've taken an analogous approach to you, from the male angle. So much of what makes me who I am flies in the face of cultural definitions of masculinity: I'm not into team sports, chartreuse is my favorite color, I'm compelled to talk about my feelings and to analyze relationships, I take pride in my domestic skills and I'm comfortable flirting lightly with male friends, etc. And I'm good with that. :)