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Red, White and Blond

"My natural inclination, seemingly all the time, is to praise how my daughter looks. ... I sometimes stop myself."

When I was about 11 years old, my mom took me to our hairdresser at a salon called something like Mane Stream or the Mane Event, a fixture on Bayshore Boulevard in Dunedin in the 1970s.

Once I was ensconced in the black barber’s chair, my mom took Charlene aside and whispered something to her. I remember wondering why they were being secretive. And I remember Charlene’s husband, André, who was also a hairdresser, and possibly the salon owner, leaning against a door frame in tight brown polyester bell bottoms and a longish brown shag. His eyes darted back and forth across the room from the women to me, a look I didn’t understand on his face.

I settled in for a trim of my long blond hair. Charlene pulled my hair straight and snipped off a huge chunk from the right side, at the length of a short bob. Startled, I jumped from the chair, hid behind a partition near the entrance and burst into tears.

I was devastated. First, because my hair — that was mine — had been taken from me, and second, that my mother had violated my trust.

I remember crying bitter tears, and the hairdresser and my mom trying to console me and cajole me back to the chair. Once they succeeded, Charlene said she would angle it down and leave it longer in back. She tried, unsuccessfully. I left with a perky bob.

My mom pleaded with me to understand her position. She said it was too long to brush through, too much to take care of. She couldn’t keep up with it, with helping me fix it to look nice.

What is it about a girl’s or woman’s hair that makes it so sacred? Her crowning glory, it’s been a source of female beauty for thousands of years.  A “mane” of hair, like a lion’s, indicates power and majesty.

The other day, I cut my 9-year-old boy’s shaggy blond mop into a spiky Mohawk, as I have countless times before, joking and laughing. My 5-year-old daughter wanted a shorter summer cut, and her ends badly needed a trim. I took two inches off her long blond hair. This time, as I cut, I worried I was compromising her in some way.

My lovely daughter before me in the mirror, I thought about my mother’s treatment of me, and I wondered: How might I be violating my daughter’s trust?

There are lots of things that I don’t tell her the truth about, adult realities that she’s not ready to learn.  But there’s one thing in particular that I misrepresent to her on almost a daily basis, and it nags at me.

My natural inclination, seemingly all the time, is to praise how my daughter looks (“You look so cute in that dress!”).  I sometimes stop myself. I don’t want her to think that all I value her for is her appearance, and I don’t want her to value herself based on her beauty.  

Instead, I compel myself to complement her on things she can do (“What a good bike rider you are!” and “Look at you swim!”).  But I feel like I’m telling her a half-truth when I say these things.

I don’t have to think twice when I show approval for my son. The things he can do are all that come to mind.

I’m not necessarily a beauty-centered person. I don’t invest much in my clothing, and I don’t wear makeup besides mascara and lip balm. But I take such pleasure in making sure my daughter has a closet full of pretty, fun clothes. And I love braiding her hair, brushing it or putting it up in fun knots or pony tails.  Instinctively, I feel that I’m helping her be agreeable to others, to be accepted by her teachers and aunts and the people behind the cash register at . Yes, her appearance reflects on me, but beyond that, I know without a doubt that her appearance will be her entrée into the world. It will define her like nothing else.

I wish it weren’t this way.

When we go into stores, I don’t want her to see the women posing on the magazine covers. I don’t want her to see the billboards for  we pass on the street, or be subjected to cat calls from pick up trucks as a 12-year-old. I don’t want her to fully understand how completely women are valued for their beauty, above all else.

At some point, once the hundreds of cultural cues she receives every day reaches a critical mass, she will know I am betraying her. It’s a lie that people will judge her on her talents and skills alone, or even ahead of her appearance. And I feel ashamed each time I try to pull the wool over her eyes. I sense that she already knows the truth.

I remember getting my hair cut short one time of my own volition. It was the early '90s, and my boyfriend picked me up from my appointment. He noticed that my blond hair had reddish undertones, and he remarked that when I grow old, I’ll probably have reddish hair instead of grey. A rush of adrenaline hit me as I realized that he could visualize me as an “old lady,” maybe his old lady. When he used that nickname on me, it tugged at my heartstrings like nothing else.

When we got married, I chose a poem by William Butler Yeats for my father-in-law to read called “When You Are Old.” In the poem, the speaker addresses a woman whom many had loved for her beauty “with love false or true.” The speaker tells her that just “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

It’s the recognition of her “pilgrim soul” that I wish for my daughter, that she will be loved for her true nature, her original and unblemished self, not her outward appearance.

I think ahead to my daughter’s teenage years and worry about how her soul will weather that storm.  I see the 15-year-old girls playing volleyball at the Long Center in the afternoons, in their impossibly short black shorts and impossibly long straight hair. They stride tall and confident into the locker room, their pony tails swinging dramatically behind them. The 15-year-old swimmers pull their long tresses from the tops of their heads after their workouts, changing into thongs and small, padded black bras and primping in front of the mirror, brushing out their long locks with paddle brushes before going out to wait in the hall for their rides.

Conversely, around my neighborhood, the women’s hair is white and short, puffy halos of white clouds and marshmallow goodness. They smile as they putter around their yards, their wispy curls unmoving.

These women have accepted their fates, I think. They understand their loss of power.

I feel my daughter taking my place. I pray that the cat calls will not phase her. That the magazine covers will not demoralize her. Of course, when she’s older I can have a frank discussion with her about it and explain it in no uncertain terms. But for now, I run my fingers through her silky hair and call her a fast runner.

I noticed my first white hairs in February. I was shocked. They showed up out of nowhere, uninvited visitors creeping in as I slept. I received them as I would any unwelcome friend, with resigned acceptance. They announced the beginning of an era for me, the beginning of the end, so to speak. I glanced at my reflection again quickly in the mirror, put down my brush and went about my day.

Author’s Note: Now that I have dealt with my fair share of young girl hair travails – tangles, knots, gum stuck in clumps of hair, precious time spent on seemingly endless brushing – I understand my mother’s motivation to have my hair cut as a child. She also had four daughters at that time, and the hair in the house was most likely totally out of control. She probably knew I would never submit to it voluntarily, and she had to take matters into her own hands.

Check out our list of Clearwater salons. Just remember to hide the sexy magazines.

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