So today I did something that I do once or twice a year – something that most people probably wouldn’t consider terribly feminist; I went to get a “Japanese straight perm”.
There are several reasons that this wouldn’t be considered all that feminist: it involves spending considerable time (four hours of actual perming, plus driving to and from Queens in a snow storm) and money ($150, plus tip, plus tolls on the GW and RFK bridges) to be slathered with chemicals that probably aren’t that great for the environment or for the women who spend their days applying these chemicals to other women’s heads, and it involves doing all of this for the sake of “beauty”.
Things like hair, makeup, and fashion can be difficult issues to navigate as a feminist.
We all know the stereotype of the unkempt feminist, with her shaggy, gray-streaked hair, makeup-free face, unshaven armpits, and practical but unfashionable combat boots. This stereotype did originate in some feminist beliefs; particularly in the second wave (although it did have roots in the first wave), feminists spoke out against the oppressive nature of fashion and makeup – why should women spend so much more time and money than men on making themselves look attractive (to men)? Why should we wear tight clothing that restricted our movement and high heels that made it difficult to walk quickly or comfortably? Furthermore, the advertising industry that built up around these products was focused on making women feel bad about themselves, bad about the way that they looked, and bad for not trying harder (or spending more) to look “better”. It’s no surprise that feminists lashed out at these industries.
So why am I buying into this? Personally, I justify my hair-straightening in a few ways. It makes my hair much lower-maintenance; instead of spending 15 minutes trying to get a comb through my curls, spraying on gel and squirting on anti-frizz cream, scrunching the curls, and praying that they stay curled, I spend a minute or two combing out my straight hair. Instead of spending money on gels, mousses, detergent-free high-end shampoos, anti-frizz products, and expensive haircuts, I buy whatever shampoo is on sale and go to the $20 walk-in salon.
Those are very real benefits. But when it comes down to it, I simply like how I look with straight hair. When my hair was curly, catching a glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror would make me feel less confident. I didn’t like how I looked in pictures. And while I’m sure that some of the confidence I have now has a lot to do with getting older, I know that a lot of it has to do with my hair.
If I was a better feminist, I often think, I would love how I look naturally. Even better, I wouldn’t HAVE to love how I look; I would be no more concerned about my appearance than I am about any other physical aspect of myself. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t wear makeup. I would let my hair grow in curly, and probably cut it really short to make it easier to care for.
But the thing is, being a feminist doesn’t make you magically exempt from all of the social messages you’ve received your entire life.
So how do we deal with this? If we feel better about ourselves while wearing makeup, but we know that wearing makeup seems to go against the feminist injunction to love ourselves as we are, how do we reconcile those two things?
Well, I don’t have an answer (sorry!). But here’s my perspective; I straighten my hair for me. Not for anybody else. I’ve had plenty of people tell me how much they loved my hair when it was curly. But I didn’t like it, so I changed it. I think my eyes look tired and puffy without eyeliner, even though my mom claims that they look the prettiest that way. So I wear eyeliner. Because I like it. Am I perpetuating a culture where women feel like they have to change their appearance in order to be acceptable? Sadly, yes, I am. And that goes against a lot of what I believe in as a feminist. But if I’m going to be a more confident person while wearing eyeliner and running my fingers through my hair (something I could NEVER do with curls), then I’m going to go with it, and work on being a better feminist in other ways.
What’s your take on hair, fashion, makeup, and feminism? Leave your ideas in the comments!