Today’s post on Women and Beauty in Faith and Culture comes from Melanie Springer Mock who, I can personally attest, is only gracious and lovely, even if you totally screw up and meet her 45 minutes late for coffee.
Melanie Springer Mock is a Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon. She is mother to two ten-year-old boys, stepmom to two adults, and grandma to one (though she is really too young for such a role). Her most recent book is Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World, published in 2011. She blogs about images of women embedded in evangelical popular culture at Ain’t I a Woman? and blogs for Christian Feminism Today at FemFaith. The Curly Girl approach to hair care has saved her life.
The God of Chia Pet Hair, And Other Thoughts on Beauty
Even though the last time I was exiled from a women’s bathroom was over twenty-five years ago, I still hesitate—if only half a moment—before going in to one. That old impulse to defend my right to be in a women’s room, to assert that I am indeed female, still dogs me now, though I am a middle-aged mother of two, and haven’t been called a boy since I grew my hair long during my last year of college.
Before then, I was regularly assumed a male, and consistently kicked out of women’s toilets. “Do you know you’re in a girls’ room?” someone might ask, as if the tampon box and the presence of other women hadn’t been clues enough to my locale.
Sometimes, I’d play stupid, act like I didn’t know, and skulk away, coming back later. Sometimes I’d say “I’m a girl,” then rush into a stall to hide. What I wanted to say was something a little more raw, like “No crap, lady. I really just wanted to come in here to see how girls pee.”
But I didn’t. I was shy and ugly and looked like a boy, thanks to my short and puffy hair, poorly cut by my poor mom; my brother’s hand-me-downs (another vestige of our poverty); and my snaggly teeth. I suppose boys and girls had snaggly teeth in equal measure back then, so perhaps this alone didn’t make me look like a boy. But my fangs and bucked teeth didn’t help matters.
It’s hard to estimate how much my childhood appearance has affected my life, far beyond my subconscious fear of entering women’s bathrooms. Did I bristle against expectations about femininity because of my appearance, or did my appearance influence what others expected from me? Did I became an athlete, long to be a cowboy, enjoy fishing, disdain the girls’ mission society because I already looked like a boy, and was treated as one? Or did I care less than others about my appearance because I wanted to be a boy? Boys seemed to have more fun in life, after all.
Sometimes, when these questions ramble around my (curly) head, I wonder about alternative realities: about what might have happened had I been born with straight and beautiful hair; or had wealthy parents who could help alter my appearance, either with surgery or more feminine clothes from somewhere other than Goodwill; or even forced myself to wear the awful butterfly sleeve shirts I sewed for 4-H. How would my life—and my understanding of self, others, gender, beauty—have been different?
At any rate, these are the things I know to be true about the way my appearance influenced my life. Because I didn’t look like a typical girl of that era—because my hair wouldn’t feather, I didn’t wear the right brand of jeans, and didn’t know how to wear make-up, I was teased from grade school into college. Peers mocked me for not meeting the standards of femininity and beauty. Friends suggested I change my appearance. On one occasion a classmate called just to tell me I needed to change, because my hair and face were downright ugly. Except she used a much more potent word than downright. Obviously, there were mean girls before there was Mean Girls.
Other things: I didn’t have many dates in high school, save for a close male friend who came out later as gay. In college, blind dates bagged on me when they met me, suddenly remembering exams for which they were unprepared. When my college friends started getting engaged, and I hadn’t even scored my first kiss, I felt a real sense of failure, certain there was something fundamentally wrong with me, beyond my curly hair and off-brand clothes.
In my last year of college, a friend convinced me to grow my hair. I could finally wear bows and barrettes and braids, and new hair products helped me steer my hair down, rather than out. I could enter women’s restrooms with impunity (but often didn’t, given those pesky psychic wounds). More men showed interest in me, and I had more dates. In conforming to standards of feminine beauty, I began to feel more loved—but also, to be honest, a little bit cynical. Did having long or short hair really make a difference in how people saw me and treated me?
Was I more loveable, just because I changed my hairstyle?
When I was in my late 20s, I met a wonderful man who called my curly hair beautiful. By then, I’d cut it all off again into a short poof, and hadn’t had a date in years. But he didn’t care much about that, or about my clothes. He didn’t see any need for me to wear make-up, and admired the ways I swam against cultural standards for women. We married, adopted two extraordinary boys, settled into a quiet cul-de-sac in an amazing little town. I landed the best job anyone could ask for, and discovered a terrific community of friends, none of whom gave me hair advice. All this—all this—makes the years of teasing, of hating myself and my head, worthwhile. Bonus: I also know this man will love me when my Q-tip head turns grey, and my knees get baggy, and my arms wobble a bit, because he called my short hair beautiful when no one else had—except maybe my mom, and women over 75.
And so, as a 43-year-old mother of two (and still slightly afraid of women’s bathrooms), I haven’t figured out what I feel about beauty and femininity and faith. Indeed, as I age, as I think about my own complicated history with my self—and as my relationship to my self becomes increasingly complicated by my aging body—I feel more muddled in my thinking.
So that, when I see a girl who reminds me of myself, a tomboy bristling against contemporary standards of femininity, I want to tell her to change, to inoculate her against all the grief I experienced as I child. At the same time, I hate (hate!) the pressure girls feel to look a certain way, to buy a particular brand of clothes, to conform to contemporary standards of femininity.
All this to say that, faced with these competing impulses, I don’t know exactly what’s true.
Except. In the last few years of my spiritual journey, I’ve been drawn to Genesis, and especially to this: the idea that we are created in God’s image. That God created us, female and male, and called us good. That God created my Chia Pet hair, and delighted in this creation. Imagining a divine figure sporting a similar puffy ‘do—I was creating in God’s image, after all!— allows me to celebrate my appearance as beautiful, while also rejoicing in the beauty of everyone else who looks nothing like me.
Until I can comfortably resolve the complex thoughts I have about beauty and femininity and faith, I must hold to the idea that God loves the curly headed and the bombshell blondes, those with nappy hair and straight and those who are bald. Because we are all created in the image of God, we are all beautiful! This knowledge alone should get me help me through the next half of my life’s journey, and to wherever my God—and my hair—takes me.