My mother thought she had given birth to a monkey. Not only did I have a thatch of black hair on my head, but also a thick, dark down covered my body and limbs. This fuzz soon fell out leaving me completely bald. At this same time, my gender was met with some consternation. Not only had my mother given birth to a simian infant, but also that simian was a girl. No one had prepared for a girl. My grandmother had crocheted a blue baby blanket, after all, everything else was blue, too. Yet, here was a pink little girl.
Babies are essentially androgynous. With the blue blanket and other blue baby accoutrement, many people mistook me for a boy. These people included the doctor who had delivered me. My parents decided to remedy the situation by equipping me with a bow. Since my head was by this time bald, they taped the bow to my scalp. I was then deemed pretty.
In pre-school I loved fairy tales, particularly Rapunzel with her freakishly long locks. In elementary school I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder then Princess Leia. My playtime in which those worlds became real to me often morphed dangerously into my regular existence. To make my imaginings more real, I longed for long, flowing, beautiful hair. I wanted braids. I wanted buns. I wanted hairdos. I even envied the black girls with their multiple ponytails that kept their intricate braids intact even when held by only a barette. I envied that they could wear barettes. I envied that they could wear multiple barettes (little did I know that they had their own hair issues). Instead, my mother kept my hair cropped short, sometimes in a Louise Brooks bob, sometimes like Dorothy Hamill, sometimes much like my brother. She had two kids with a third on the way and worked full time. She kept her own hair short. She did not want to mess with putting my hair into ponytails, much less the more elaborate arrangements that I envisioned. Having had short hair since she was eight, and having grown to adulthood in the south in the early sixties, she did not associate girl’s hair length with gender identity. I was more confused.
The boyish haircuts began sometime after the birth of my second brother, while I was in second grade. This was in the seventies, and my hair was actually shorter than most of the boys’ in my class. My elementary school segregated us by gender on the playground. One day at recess, a teacher approached me as I sat against the school wall reading On the Banks of Plum Creek. “You are supposed to be on the boys playground,” she said. The boys’ playground was actually much more fun than the girls’. Girls had hopscotch and four-squares painted on the blacktop. Boys had jungle gyms and monkey bars. (The injustice of this discrepancy most certainly influenced my early feminist leanings.) Rather than go along with her mistake, however, I protested. “I’m a girl,” I said. “See, my shirt has flowers on it.” After all, no self-respecting parent in the south would send their son out in a flowered shirt, of all things. “I don’t believe it,” the teacher said. She stood there, looming above me and shaking her head in amazement for an interminable amount of time. “I just don’t believe it.” Ironically, she had short, straight hair. Looking back now, I think the fact that she was black was also significant. She also became my third grade homeroom teacher the next year, but did not betray any memory of the incident.
My shorthaired childhood took place in the south in the seventies. Decades later, I read an article that said that the phenomenon of the Sixties took place at different times in different locations. Louisiana, according to this article, did not experience the Sixties until the 1970s. That seemed to fit with my memory, despite the fact that I did not really have much of a basis for comparison. In any case, I was a girl in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the early 1970s, which was not too much different from the late 1960s from others’ accounts. This meant that I regularly encountered Hippies when our family ventured out of our suburb in our Vista Cruiser.
According to the definition given by my mother and grandmother, Hippies were men with long hair. My observations also told me that hippies dressed a bit differently than my father and grandfather, and that they listened to rock music and sometimes rode motorcycles. The hair part fascinated me the most for some reason. Parked outside of a store one evening, somewhere in the French Quarter, and waiting for my mother to return to the car, I crouched in the backseat and spied on the passers-by. One of those Hippies walked down the sidewalk towards our station wagon and met with a woman in a t-shirt and jeans much like his own. He put his arm around her and they walked off together. The woman had a short, blonde haircut.
“Ah,” I thought. “Boy Hippies have long hair and girl hippies have short hair.” Being a Hippie was about boys and girls switching. Yet, within moments that theory began to disintegrate. Nothing but the long hair was particularly feminine about the guy Hippie. The girl hippie did come a bit closer to switching, with her short hair and pants. Still, the switching theory did not seem sound. The shorthair part did not seem sound, either. My hair was short, but I was not a Hippie. Was I? My mother and my grandmothers all three had short hair, and they certainly were not Hippies. I decided to stick with the rule that boy Hippies had long hair, and girl Hippies had short hair; but, while all longhaired boys were Hippies, the same was not true for all shorthaired girls.
After all, I was not innocent of such mistakes myself. In fourth grade, I moved to a new school. A sweet-faced kid from another class started acting far too friendly for a boy, in my opinion. Boys pushed and shoved and chased you around. You pushed and shoved and chased them back, or told on them to the teacher. Boys did not tilt their heads down shyly, and smile at you through their bangs. Boys did not give you small waves in the hall as your classes passed one another. Already, at nine, I had become suspicious of the motives of men, and flattered by the attention. Then this sweet-faced, smiling, waving kid showed up in school wearing a lovely flowered dress with a full skirt that I coveted. “Oh, no,” I thought. “He’s a girl.” The source of my mistake was her exceptionally short hair. Her hair, in fact, was as short as mine had been for the previous several years.
I also stuck with the rule that long hair was pretty; and short hair got a girl mistaken for a boy more frequently than for a hippie. Hippies may or may not have been good, but boys were certainly bad. As a result, in fourth grade, when my mother gave up on worrying about my hair, I decided to grow it as long as possible. I also became obsessed with being identified as a girl. This meant that I always wore a skirt, even with t-shirts.
Skirts, too, had been a point of contention, along with my hair. I had always been very girly in regard to fashion. I loved pink, frills, dresses, longhair, and ribbons. At the same time, I also liked to climb anything perpendicular to the ground, wrestle the boys in the neighborhood, and build tree houses. These things did not seem incompatible to me. They were very incompatible to my mother. A girl could wear frilly pink clothes and have long hair with ribbons, but she must play quietly. A girl could also climb trees or light poles, but then she must wear jeans and have short hair and accept that people would think she was a boy. According to my mother, my decision to wear only skirts was silly. People would not mistake me for a boy if I stopped acting like one. If I was going to continue to act like a boy with my climbing and wrestling and running around, then a wardrobe consisting only of skirts made no sense. I lifted my skirt to show her the shorts I had worn to hide my under pants.
The obsession with skirts waned and then disappeared by sixth grade. This obsession coincided with a decrease in my physical activity and an increase in the length of my hair. Long hair did not resolve the gender problems. Long hair may have, in fact, complicated them. Meanwhile, long hair and adolescence ushered in a new obsession with hairstyle and appearance that consumed far too much of my mental capacity for the next decade, if not longer.
Edited May 27, 2006