On “Pretty”

For as long as I can recall, I’ve known the phrase “secure in his masculinity.” (i.e. “A man has to be pretty secure in his masculinity to wear a dress… be a stay-at-home dad… let his wife bring home the bacon… kiss another man… etc.) But I can’t say I’ve ever heard the phrase “secure in her femininity,” which prompted me to wonder wherefrom we surmise masculinity and femininity are derived.

I’d say masculinity is defined by mainstream society largely by authority, winning, sexual dominance, accumulation of wealth, independence, physical and emotional strength, and the absence of what is considered feminine, among other traits. The OED gave few insights into the traditional attributes of masculinity aside from “obnoxious airs,” “grey hair,” and “high blood pressure.” In looking at the OED definition of femininity and its examples, I found virtue, prudence, manners, softness, charm, beauty, make-up, and wife, as well as “seductive, enchanting, coquettish, demure, innocent, or haughty” and “delicate.”

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I’ve been asked multiple times in the past couple days why I shaved my head. Honestly, it all started out with a kind of joke—wanting to be Eleven from Stranger Things for Halloween. I thought to myself, My hair’s already pretty short; I could just shave it and go all out for the costume, but my innate response was, I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that.

Now, before I took on the role of devil’s advocate in my composition classroom, before I met some of the badass feminists in my life, I wouldn’t have asked this important follow-up question: Why? 

Why couldn’t I shave my head? The answer was quite simple when I answered honestly—because it wouldn’t be pretty; I wouldn’t be pretty any more. And that answer led to some deeper reflection. I thought back to the beautiful proprietor of a pizza parlor I frequented during my undergrad years, and how I assumed that she, with her shaved head and colorful scarves, was battling cancer, because why else would a woman be nearly bald? I thought to an embarrassingly recent incident in which I saw a sweet, affectionate couple—a handsome, stylish young man and a young woman with a shaved head and very little make-up—at the bar and thought, “Wow, he must be a really good guy.”

How fucked is that? In my mind, a man would have to possess some kind of particularly benevolent quality in order to be publicly stoked to be with a woman who doesn’t conform to normative expectations of femininity. I know this stems from 24 years of being shushed and shamed—of people attempting to temper my personality and my voice and my sexuality—but, god, I’m ready to fight for a new normal.

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I was worried that if I shaved my head “people” would get the wrong idea, but, deep down, I was worried about losing the attention I’d grown accustomed to. There is affirmation in the sidelong glances when I walk into a room. I derive confidence from an accumulation of likes on a selfie where my hair is adequately fluffed, my make-up there but not too there, and my smile an attempt at some combination of demure and seductive (read: feminine). Because if we do not assess our worth or derive our confidence as women from the appraisal and approval of men, where exactly are we supposed to turn for that fulfillment?

I want to be better than this. Once I realize that I’m not doing something reasonable, something I have a genuine inclination to do, because I’m afraid, I try real hard to make myself do that thing. A guy at the coffee shop two days ago asked me why I would go and do a thing like shave my head. I said, “Because I was scared to.” I made this decision because I don’t like the idea that I’m afraid of existing in society without being “pretty.” Pretty is subjective and constructed and oppressive. If you want passion, opinion, and intellect, let’s talk. If you want pretty, buy a fucking bouquet.

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I certainly haven’t been turning many heads in the last few days, at least none with any discernible lascivious intent. Today, I walked up to the bar to get a beer, and a guy who has always been relentlessly flirty and chatty with me wouldn’t make eye contact. It’s the most apparent switch, and I feel a bit like I’m conducting a very personal social experiment. I’m not going to lie to you and say I feel “sexier than ever” or “more like a woman.” I don’t. I’ve become acutely aware of my more masculine features–my square jaw, wide shoulders, and askew hairline–and I have no way to hide or soften them; they’re just me. I feel uncomfortable and lumpy in the same dresses that used to make me feel sexy and secure.

But you know what else? I can see my father’s features in my own for the first time in my life. I get to sleep an extra half-hour in the morning. In two separate conferences with male students today, they seemed disarmed, at ease, in a way I hadn’t observed before, and we carried on conversation about life and writing in an unprecedented way. I can go to a bar or coffee shop and work without any disruptions. And when someone looks me in the eye and speaks, I feel, all of a sudden, somehow, like they’re actually talking to me.

But the most important thing is that I’m genuinely enjoying this change, and I made the decision, first and foremost, for myself.

6 thoughts on “On “Pretty”

  1. Nice. Going for what feels right for you and what works for you. The idea that a guy would stop flirting with a girl because she got rid of what society deems as a ‘must have’ for a female is sad in the extreme. Were it I in that guy’s situation, and had I not came up to talk to you before, the newly shorn head would be reason enough to talk with you. I wouldn’t call it ‘hitting on you’ (though there would be that aspect of it I’m sure) but rather to see what the girl I thought was attractive before would say regarding this new look in the present. It is the same with make-up.
    My daughter goes into Sephora at the Battlefield Mall every chance she gets to buy more make-up (I mention the name ’cause I know you know where that is). I go in there to find her, and while there see so many naturally pretty/attractive women in there that cover up their beauty with products designed to enhance. The enhancement ends up being a hindrance (says the man that doesn’t wear make-up). Call it ‘fatherly love’ but I don’t think my daughter needs anything to make her attractive. Her trumpet playing in the marching band; her ability to do science, math, and English in the top ten percent of her class; her continued need to just read books that would put most college students to shame; all these things are far more attractive than layering on what society says you need to do. People are cogs way too much and no cog has ever been remembered.
    One day, down the road, ole dude that stopped making eye contact with you cause you got out the Wahl clippers with kick himself in the ass. That isn’t to suggest that I’m trying to bolster your self-esteem ’cause you know that a) I am not like that and b) you sure as hell don’t need it. I’m just trying to convey that when one can’t look past societal norms to see what a person is in the real then that person is the loser.
    There is a line in a Pink Floyd song that goes: “The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime.” Those that can’t see past what is socially acceptable so as to discover humanities possibilities will think back with a frown; “had I just done something different when I was in my prime I wouldn’t now, as an old man/woman/person, have a regret.”
    I dunno. People cut their noses off despite their face to fit in, which is much worse than cutting off one hair because one dares to be true.

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  2. Thank you for this. I didn’t shave my head, but a little over a month ago I cut all of my hair off and I have been struggling with feeling “feminine” ever since and questioning what that even means. I’ve been questioning whether I want to feel feminine for me or for society. The first couple of weeks I felt more attractive with short hair than I ever felt with long hair because it made me stand out of the crowd, but now that the shiny, new features have worn off (and I don’t have time for makeup in the morning) I’m starting to question my self esteem. Nice to see someone else going through some of the exact same thoughts and truckin’ through it.
    GRL PWR ✨

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  3. I resonate with you also doing it because you were afraid to. I truly believe growth is met with resistance, pushing yourself to do what seemingly can’t be done.
    Some say women should shave their head at least once in their life, to experience it. Maybe it’s life outside of your body?
    None the less, great job being Girl Strong.

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  4. “If you want pretty, buy a fucking bouquet.” Brenna, I love you. I don’t know you, but you’ve given me strength just by writing this post. And I can’t thank you enough for that.

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