The Passion of the Curls (Screw You, Robin Givhan)

Thoughts from a boho, kooky, unserious, curly-haired woman.

If I’ve learned anything from the News of the World hacking scandal, it’s that if I’m ever called to testify in front of Congress, I really should stop and get a blowout first.

Because like former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, I have very, very curly hair. The kind of hair where each strand twists and contorts itself until they all join up to form a labyrinthine web of kinky corkscrews. The kind of hair that is, by nature, untamed and wild.

The kind of hair that Robin Givhan, writing about Ms. Brooks in The Daily Beast, characterized as “boho,” “distracting,” “look-at-me hair.” “It was a ballsy rebuke of our expectations…There was no suggestion of humility, timidity, or caution…no attempt to disappear into doleful anonymity.”

Basically, Givhan argues that by virtue of its natural existence, Ms. Brooks’ hair sticks a finger in the eye of all things proper, righteous, and upstanding, and that if she cared about looking like a real CEO, she might have put it in a bun. I can’t speak for Ms. Brooks, but when you have the kind of hair that prompts entire columns about its perceived implications, trust me – doleful anonymity sounds pretty good.

I don’t mean for my curly hair to be a declaration of my identity. I didn’t ask for it to be this way. But whether I like it or not, my hair walks into the room before I do. It is and always has been the singular defining feature of my physical being, and it’s all people want to talk about. I have been forced to discuss it in job interviews and at funerals. When you have curls, no one cares about your big heart or your big thoughts; you are reduced to a person with big hair. My curls signify to the world that I am kooky, scatterbrained, free-spirited, unconventional, unruly, unkempt, unprofessional, un-corporate, rebellious, eccentric, quirky, and nonconformist. Or at least that’s how people like Givhan interpret them.

The idea of a curly-headed woman as distracting and unpolished is well-woven into our pop culture fabric. On any makeover show, the hair transformation will always involve a straightening iron. As they say, Messy Hair = Messy Life. In The Princess Diaries, Anne Hathaway isn’t princess material until she tames her frizz into a sleek blowout. On Friends, it’s no accident that ditzy Phoebe is the only female character with long waves. Even in the Harry Potter series, whip-smart Hermione is considered downright fugly until she emerges for the big dance with her usually wild hair fashioned into a demure straight style. I’ll stop here, but believe me – I could go on.

But curly hair isn’t just a semiotic concept; an idea to be parsed and analyzed in a what-does-it-all-mean kind of way. It’s personal. It’s personal every time I see a news segment showing how employers are less likely to hire curly-haired women, and men are less likely to want to date them. It’s personal when my husband asks, “If we have kids, what’s the chance they’d have hair like yours?” as if it were a disease. It’s personal when I assure him that genetically, it’s unlikely, and realize that I’m relieved, too. And it’s personal when fashion editors write columns decrying women who look like me as messy, defiant, and brazen.

Mostly, it gets personal every time some random stranger comments, “Oh, I’d love to have hair like yours!” Trust me – if people really wanted curly hair, fashion magazines wouldn’t be so full of blowout tips. Curls may be okay in theory, as long as they belong to adorable orphans or cartoon characters, but not on an adult woman. That is, assuming she wants to be taken seriously.

I was walking with my best friend once when a little old lady stopped me on the street to regale me with stories about how much she paid for perms, and how I was just the luckiest gosh-darned girl in the world. As we walked away, my friend said, “I have to tell you – your hair is great, but I would never want it in a million years.” I really loved her for that.

Image: lupzdut