May 26 11:24 AM

Beauty myth wrapped up in scarves

January 23, 2008
"I feel like shaving my head," I say to a close friend.

"I know," he replies.

"I mean it," I insist.

And I do. Partly out of sheer frustration and partly out of the strong desire to make a statement. And partly, perhaps, to distance myself from my femininity or maybe even as some sort of weird experiment. Mostly to see if I'm strong enough to pare down to my true self, to be free of the constrictions of hair gels and blow dryers.

And while I want to say that Britney I am not, it's a little painful to realize that maybe a small part of me understands her bold move to shear off her locks in front of the world. The thing is, it was automatically viewed as an aberration, something "crazy," indications of a "breakdown" and/or "mental illness."

In her case, maybe the preceptions are right on the money. I don't know, and honestly don't care. It is the perceptions, however, that I find most compelling.

How about 'Mr. Clean?' Remember 'Kojack?' Michael Jordan? Men walk around with shaved heads every day. More and more of them are choosing the razor blade without fear of being labeled as crazy or emotionally misaligned. Even the 'skinhead' association no longer applies as so many 'chrome-domed' men of all ages and from all walks of life roam the planet as we speak.

But take the curls off a girl and automatically something's wrong. From time to time when I've used this particular column head here (do-rag covering the so-called hairstyle) I've received inquiries with regard to my health. Do I have cancer? Am I sick? Does the bandanna cover a flaw—i.e. baldness for some unknown reason?

All of this without having the intestinal fortitude to really do it, become a 'chrome-dome' and see what happens.

As it turns out, someone has done it for me. Emily Jenkins in her book 'Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture' is on a quest to "figure out how what we do on the outside reveals who we are on the inside." I bought the book about ten years ago and decide to pick it up again.

During Jenkins' quest, she gets a tattoo, delves into the cocktail hour, the makeup counters, fashions from spike heels to cross-dressing, undergoes spa treatments, acupuncture, yoga classes, Rolfing, sensory deprivation, exotic dancing, tries an illegal and scary drug, and (eeek!) shaves her head. Much of the foregoing I've done or tried in my life. But I continue to put the brakes on when it comes to going bald. Jenkins reminds me why.

She almost immediately regrets it because she no longer knows who she is. As much as people try to deny it, she realizes that our bodies and our minds are connected—are one.

At first, she's cold and the skin on her head is unbelievably sensitive—even the cotton encased pillow she lays her head on to sleep the first night is a major distraction.

Once she ventures over to the mirror, she realizes that she feels extremely exposed—even though it's only her head. Something she shows to the world every single day. She immediately tries to cover it up with scarves and bandannas and hats.

"I have always been a good girl," she writes. "I am not supposed to scare people, or turn them off, or make them anxious for my welfare. And I don't. I never look mean. I never look tough. I always wash, I brush my teeth, I use a napkin when I eat. I look healthy; I project normalcy, competence, physical stability. All this no longer. With a scarf on my head and my body covered in layers of clothing I look like a cancer victim..."

She's not happy with her decision and is almost feeling sorry for herself. She writes that she knows she shouldn't... "I chose this. It was meant to be a rejection of conventional notions of beauty and an experiment in bodily exposure. Instead, it is proving a painful encounter with the sense of fragility I have when insecure of my appearance..."

Don't I know it. As one who's walked the edge from time-to-time when it comes to acceptable norms regarding appearance—call it self-expression, call it choice—I've sometimes found it was more than I could handle.

It's interesting how she sums up this particular chapter, her adventure into doing something as simple as shaving her head:

"I have been ridiculously vain during this period. A frustrated vanity, that is. Being relatively pretty in the eyes of the mainstream has its problems—that is people assume I'm stupid, men call to me like a dog on the street...but I had not realized how easy it was for me to be accepting of myself and my physicality before I shaved my head...It hasn't taken much to disturb my pleasure in my body...Not much at all. A haircut."

Interesting, I think as I walk past the razors in aisle 4.

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