Friday, October 24, 2014

Unstyled Arrogance

Halfway through the quarter. I don't know whether to be shocked that we are already here or shocked that I have only been here for six weeks (10 week quarter / 2 + NSO). One would think I'd have adjusted either way, but given how much I've written about my college transition, it's clearly something I'm still thinking through. Also, college doesn't leave a lot of mental energy for anything else--at least, that's how I'm explaining the single track of my posts the past month.

I wanted to talk about something other than myself or college today, however. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my roommate about gender politics and appearance, which happened because she recently cut off about two feet of her hair to donate.

I am as usual exploring an idea space, so forgive me if this post rambles.


Hair length is where the conversation began, and it is as good a starting point as any; so here I will start. I have short hair, and it is as much a part of my identity as the clothes I choose or my decision not to get my ears pierced. That is, it reflects my sense of self, but because it is a projection it necessarily lacks most of the nuances.

(Goss has written a lot about this; check out Doing Pretty and Style as Story for a more sophisticated take on appearance and identity than I can give here.)

At the time it wasn't some earth shattering personal revelation. I just wanted to donate my hair, was getting tired of dealing with it, and faced two humid summer weeks in China. So I cut my hair and that was that.

(Did I say I didn't want to talk about myself? Hm. Bear with me a second.)

Since then, however, I think having short hair has shaped my sense of self more than I anticipated. This is an experiment without a control, so I don't know what can be attributed to having short hair and what to the other events going on around that time. But I will argue some things that may need explanation or defense:

Having short hair takes off some of the pressure to be "pretty" and, by extension, to fall into traditional gender roles.

Long hair is, in the most widespread cultural shorthand, associated with traditional femininity. Short hair thus takes on an opposite connotation: of being defiant or progressive. Think flappers. Think "power hair." How many female executives have long, flowing locks?

I should note that I'm not being normative here: there is nothing wrong with long hair, and statements of appearance shouldn't be taken as ultimate measures of ideology. The cultural perception, however, ascribes a greater potential degree of conformity to long hair.

For myself, after cutting my hair I stopped worrying as much about my appearance and being pretty as I used to. As a freshman, my appearance was a big source of insecurity (particularly the clothes I wore, on which more later), but in the last two years of high school how I looked stopped being a source of angst. Correlation != causation, of course, but correlation == correlation. And for me, short hair and freedom from most appearance-related anxiety are correlated.

A brief note on "pretty": my roommate commented that she used to get a lot of compliments on her hair, and that it was somewhat annoying because if your physical appearance is striking, the other parts of your identity--your intelligence or character or ambition--might be harder to see in comparison. There is also the practical, concrete point that with short hair, all you can really do is comb it, which saves time.

Another note: having short hair is practical if you have to work in a machine shop, as my roommate does.


Enough on hair; I want to explore some other facets of personal appearance. I am not the most obvious choice of person to address this, since I don't often think very hard about my appearance these days. I halfway expected that college would make me change my style, but it hasn't, much.

Some ways in which it has: I will no longer wear t shirts during the week. This is because of what happened on Monday, which is a diversion but I'll talk about it anyhow:

I heard about a water policy event occurring on campus as part of a collaboration between the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Hamilton Project. Being interested in this kind of thing, I biked over to Paul Brest Hall after my first class.

And then I saw a line of people in business suits in front of registration tables.

At the time, I was wearing an old pair of dark jeans with a hole in one knee, but my shirt was reasonably formal looking. I think that was contributed to why, when I went up to the table and explained that I hadn't registered but was strongly interested in the topic, they let me in. I was still horrendously underdressed but at least I was wearing dark, neutral colors so I didn't seem like a total anomaly. The dignified looking clothing meant that I didn't give the impression of being disrespectful or disruptive; I honestly don't know if they'd have let me in if I had been wearing a t shirt.

So, perhaps because of the way I was dressed, I got to hear Sheryl Sandberg and Gov Jerry Brown speak, and that was amazing. Lesson: sometimes it's worth it being the Entitled Arrogant College Undergrad. Also, no t shirts when you may stumble into a fancy event.

Diversion over. Also notice that Sheryl Sandberg has short hair.

No t shirts is a negative statement, and I will probably take the positive counterpart soon: more formal or at least business casual clothing. Collared shirts and non-jean pants and the like. I haven't gone shopping in a long time, but when I do I'll probably get real person clothes.

Where was I going with this? Dressing like a real person...not feeling as though my personal style has shifted...okay, despite my resolution I seem to once again be talking about myself and college. Why not see what lies down this route? On campus, I don't see a lot of conspicuously stylish people. The teacher of my archaeology/design awareness class has lamented this fact. Stanford students are not that stylish.

I wonder why, because I know that there are some colleges with very stylish students. My sister got a lot more stylish after her freshman year of college (and she started out with a fairly well-developed personal style). It might be the Silicon Valley conceit at work: who has time to spend thinking about what you wear? Suits are for East Coast squares.

If people are dressed nicely, they're usually dressed nicely in the sense that they're wearing business casual. It's a statement of function and role, not of identity. Or maybe I'm just not paying enough attention. What if I ran an experiment where I pretended to be a street style blogger and...nah, I'm interested in the interplay of appearance and identity, but not that interested.

Yes, I probably am not the best person to tackle this idea. Shouldn't style discourse be left to the people who know something about style? When I try to come up with some words to describe my aesthetic, I get "neutral," "simple," and "unpatterned." Which converges on boring.

But this ties back to the point on short hair, of denying social norms on appearance. I'm a college girl: shouldn't I have long pretty hair and wear OOtD worthy clothes? Shouldn't my personal blog be filled with filtered pictures of aesthetically pleasing things from my life? What's my aesthetic, what's my style?

There's nothing wrong with people who care about style or who want to share their style with the world. There's nothing wrong with girls who wear their hair long and style it in different ways. There's nothing wrong with people who care about their appearance and cultivate a unique aesthetic. In fact, all these things that society may deem shallow are really ways in which people can explore their identities. These are activities charged with meaning.

Yet equally so does the opposite carry meaning. My roommate and I have short hair; Stanford students don't dress well. It's a message: "I am not playing your game. This is what I do. I don't have time for this." There's arrogance bound up in here; arrogance and defiance.

Of course one can show defiance some other way. But this is one with an established cultural mapping, and given the way that Stanford and I have hijacked a post that was supposed to not be about me and Stanford, the inherent self centeredness of the message is real.


Music for today:

Short Hair - Mulan OST

This is an iconic moment in Mulan and the Disney repertoire in general. Mulan cuts off her hair to disguise herself as a soldier: in this sense, short hair is a step away from her true identity. But in the (less good) sequel, note that her hair is still short even though she has no more reason to hide her gender.

I could go on about the anti feminist rhetoric of the song "Other Girls" in the sequel, but this post is getting long. Another time, perhaps.

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