Can a woman’s hairstyle be a feminist issue? In my TEDx talk today (it’s today!!), I describe to the audience my “Big Hair Days” in the 1980s when I had a huge power perm, just like all the fashionable young women of the day. I felt it empowered me back then – but did it really? For those who may like to see what I looked like as the Big Hair Lawyer who was uber femme, uber conventional and who fit in with what was expected of her, here are some photos.
My hair used to be such a huge cause of angst for me. Being of Chinese origin, my natural hair is straight, straight, straight. As a teenager, I hated how it fell lankily and oily down either side of my face in a range of page boy or similarly uninspired hair cuts. With my glasses and acne, I looked like a swotty nerd.
When I got to Oxford, the ‘80s were just dawning and big power hair became the fashion. I discovered the magical transformative powers of the perm. It took awhile to grow my hair long enough for the ultimate uber perm. But when it was ready, I took myself off to the hairdresser and sat there for 3 hours to get the full effect. And, suddenly, bam! – I went from sweet little Chinese girl to super sexy, super powerful woman of the ‘80s…
A Pact with the Devil
But it was rather like a pact with the devil. Every month, I would have to give my offerings to the demon of ammonia and curlers – 3 hours of sulphur and hellfire in the salon every 4 weeks was my sacrifice for the glory of The Look. Not to mention the cost….
By the time I came down to London, the ritual was part of my life. On top of that, every morning was spent brushing, moussing, spiking and blowing my hair. Every evening, the same again after my shower, I had all manner of brushes and “Afro combs” and hairspray and mousse and a power hairdryer.
And sometimes, the perm wouldn’t quite come out right and be too floppy or too frizzy. Sometimes, the hairdresser cut my hair too short and I would end up with an odd looking bubble cut. The trauma and emotional agony went of for weeks till the weird cut grew out – it was exhausting!
You may be wondering: how on earth can I spend a whole TEDx talk rambling on about Big Hair?
Hair as a Feminist Symbol
Actually, the Big Hair is a symbolic thread through the talk which focuses on authenticity of self. I use Big Hair as an emblem for my inauthentic self. It was like a disguise I put on to fit in with what I thought society expected of me.
In cultural tradition, a woman’s hair is an emblem of her sexuality and desirability – often standing in for her very being as a woman. The sub agenda we unconsciously internalise is: A woman with long hair is desirable to men, a woman with short hair stands apart from men.
In Chinese tradition, a maiden (read “virgin”) wears her hair long and in pigtails till she marries, when she puts it up in a bun. There is a similar tradition in pre-20th century Western culture. Only her husband may see her hair and there is an underlying eroticism and patriarchal ownership in the image of a woman unclasping her hair and letting it fall down her shoulders beneath the gaze of the only man who may witness this.
For women entering a religious order, they shave their heads – this is true for Christiannuns as well as Buddhist nuns. The shaved head is a symbol that they are stepping away from the world of men and sexual desire.
A maiden who cuts her hair short is bold and mannish – transgressing the natural order of things. Think of Joan of Arc and especially the movie portrayals with Ingrid Bergman and Milla Jovovich in their Henry V haircuts. In Little Women, when heroine Jo March cuts her hair and sells her thick tresses to a wig-maker in order help with the family finances, it is seen as a huge sacrifice because of the shame of having short, unfeminine hair but also as a heroic, courageous act – with the underlying hint that she is stepping into her absent father’s shoes as breadwinner.
From the ’60s onwards, up till very recently, feminists were seen as men-hating, ugly, masculine women who had short hair. It was the ultimate put down for a strong woman to be called a feminist. And therefore the ultimate way to keep women in their place. The vast majority of women did not like to refer to themselves as feminists. They may have believed that a woman should be treated on equal terms as a man but aligning that with feminist beliefs meant that they might somehow be less of a woman, less desirable to men – that they might be labelled as one of those mannish women.
Hair as a Personal Symbol
So in my TEDx talk, the Big Hair I had then represents a time in my life when I tried to fit in to society, not as a self-directed and empowered individual but out of obedience to the cultural norm.
Yes, of course, at one level, Big Hair was just about being fashionable at the time – but at another level within my own personal narrative, as with anything in each of our lives, Big Hair has a symbolic psychological and emotional meaning.
In that context, it was only when I was able to become my own person and make my life decisions based on my own authentic values, desires and emotions that I was able to cut my hair and let it grow in its natural Chinese way.
These days, I hardly spend any time on my hair at all. The haircut takes about 40 minutes. After my shower, I give it a few minutes whizz with the hairdryer. If I am going out and there are a few stray sticking out strands (rather like Dennis the Menace’s defiant tail of hair), I dab some restraining gel on them to get them to lie down. I don’t use a comb or brush – just my fingers.
The Important Question is NOT About Hair
This is not about hair. I’m not saying that all women should have short hair and throw out their brushes. In the way that my Big Hair was an emblem, so too is my short hair within my own personal narrative – signifying a sense of independence, freedom and confidence that I never had during my Big Hair days. The short hair does not in itself give me that sense of personal empowerment but is a personal symbol of it.
The important question in all of this, which underlies my TEDx talk, is how can we all become more authentic? What might be the emblem for each of us of our failure to be true to ourselves? And how might we transform ourselves to become our most powerful selves and in so doing, transform that emblem to become one that signifies our full truth?
This is part of a series of essays collated under Rebel Heart – TEDx which documents my preparation for the TEDx Covent Garden Women event today, Sat 07 Dec 2013 where I am giving a talk called “Rebel Heart”. I write about how I came to be invited to give a TEDx talk, my process in developing the talk and the challenges I am struggling with. Also, I explore the principles and ideas that are embedded in my talk and which I hope to bring to life when I get up to speak on the day.
TEDxCoventGardenWomen is being held today 7th December 2013 in Covent Garden, London, shedding light on the issues facing women and brainstorming creative solutions to address them.
This event is part of the TEDWomen global conference held on 5th December 2013 in San Francisco, including a great line up of speakers and live entertainment.
Photos: 3 photos of me from my personal album (CCL) and one of the movie poster from womenonscreen.com, with thanks