Hate Mail Lesson: Uncombed Hair Threatens The Natural Order

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BeautyGenderWomanhood 53 Comments

By Heidi Stevens – The people have spoken, and the people hate my hair.

“How could anyone take seriously anything written by an author whose accompanying picture makes her look like a tramp, with greasy, matted, uncombed hair?” a fellow named David wrote me recently

“For heaven sake, comb your hair,” offered a woman named Jacquie. “Your picture instills not one iota of a knowledgeable person.”

“I would ask you to develop some insight,” wrote Amy, “but anyone who thinks the hairstyle you have is attractive likely is overflowing with too much narcissism to grasp the idea of personal insight.”

And, my personal favorite, from Karen: “My neighbors and I give you permission to shoot your hairdresser.”

They flow in by the week, these notes.

Each one takes me aback. Not because my hair is above reproach, but because my hair is completely beside the point.

It’s unremarkable in appearance (not dyed fuchsia, not shaved on one side) and has no relevance to my job: I’m not a model; I’m not selling hair products; I don’t work at a salon. (Though pity my poor hairdresser who does, what with the figurative crosshairs and all.)

I realize we have a cultural habit of turning women’s hair into a talking point, even when it doesn’t have much place in the conversation.

I realize we have a cultural habit of turning women’s hair into a talking point, even when it doesn’t have much place in the conversation. Hillary Clinton’s locks have inspired many an impassioned debate, from her headbands to her scrunchies to her layers.

Sheryl Sandberg’s hair has launched a thousand Google searches.

Remember when Michelle Obama got bangs?

But those women command real power and attention.

I command no power. I can’t even get my kids to go to bed on time. How does my hair capture even a single moment of attention? Simply because my photo appears in the newspaper?

I asked some fellow writers if they ever get hair harassed. They do.

“One woman literally wrote ‘I pushed a baby out. What have you ever done? Grow your hair!'” Meghan Daum from the Los Angeles Times told me.

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The Tribune’s Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has been fielding hair complaints for decades.

“Over the years, several readers have written to scold me for wearing my hair long, which they think shouldn’t be done past the age of 25,” she told me. “A few times, they’ve cut my column out of the paper and drawn new hairstyles for me — a flip, a blunt cut — and hand-written a note suggesting that I might be attractive if only I did something about my hair. I kept one of the drawings tacked to my cubicle for a while but, alas, it did not prompt me to improve my hair.”

I couldn’t find any male writers with hair stories, though Christopher Borrelli said readers often tell him to trade in his Red Sox ball cap for a Cubs hat.

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Is this really where we’re stuck as a culture? At a place where we drown out women’s voices with critiques of their hair?

I called Carolyn Bronstein, a DePaul University professor whose research focuses on media representation and social responsibility, with an emphasis on gender.

“Hair is a powerful symbol for women,” she said. “It’s where a woman’s appearance sort of begins, at the top of the body. When women have unruly hair they are considered to be disobedient and uncontrollable.”

Is this really where we’re stuck as a culture? At a place where we drown out women’s voices with critiques of their hair?

I suppose the fact that I don’t get routine keratin treatments and salon blow-outs renders my hair unruly.

Bronstein likened it to Lena Dunham appearing nude on HBO’s “Girls.” Her body is not extraordinarily different than most women’s. But she doesn’t look like Scarlett Johansson, and she doesn’t live under a cloud of shame for this fact. Those two realities are enough to be a bucking of

“Women who dare to present themselves as they are, without subduing their hair and subduing the naturalness of their body, without dyeing and conditioning and waxing and plucking and dieting are deeply threatening to our society,” Bronstein said. “If we lived in a culture where women’s appearance no longer defined them and controlled them, women would be a much more visible and threatening force.”

Why is that, I wondered?

“Women are pressured to spend so much time and energy controlling our bodies,” she said. “Making sure our body is slim, hair-free, waxed and contoured, making sure our hair is carefully colored and cut stylishly and not frizzy. What if that energy went into something else?”

I reminded her that many (most, actually) of my hair haters are female. Schmich told me the same is true of her detractors.

“Women are not unaffected by the discourses in our society,” Bronstein said. “If we were able to resist them, we wouldn’t have so many women suffering from eating disorders and low self-esteem.”

That’s a pretty fantastic point. And a demoralizing one.

The notion that women should focus first and foremost on our appearance is so deeply ingrained that our fellow women scold us for failing to do so.

“Anyone who seems to have just a little bit of freedom, who allows themselves just a little bit of laxity in their appearance, I think, threatens the order of things,” Bronstein said.

My hair is naturally very curly, and despite the wishes of the aforementioned readers, does not respond well to combing. (Picture a lion’s mane, only bigger.) Believe it or not, I sort of straightened/styled it for my column photo.

I have spent moments of my life hating my hair and other moments liking it OK. Mostly though, I admit, I sort of ignore it.

I hope others can learn to do the same.


About the contributor

heidi_stevens_contribHeidi Stevens is the Balancing Act columnist and lifestyles writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she has worked since 1998. You can follow Heidi on Twitter

  • Mary Kaye

    Your hair is fine.

  • immillermoon

    Heidi~I love your hair! It’s happy and free spirited. And if it’s a threat to the Natural Order, our Natural Order needs some revising!

    Ilisa Millermoon

    • abajan

      Exactly! I don’t see anyone complaining about Sir Richard Branson‘s hair!

  • Benia

    I’d trade my hair for yours in a heartbeat!

  • Mary

    I think we would all benefit if Albert Einstein had been encouraged to comb his hair! I recall when the media used to report on every single hairdo Hillary Clinton wore. Silly then, silly now. Just more noise women need to rise above.

    • Zamboni4sail

      And how wonderfully iconic his image is because of it : ) Perhaps we could start a trend by throwing out our hair tools. . . Call it ‘Brushes with Nature’

    • TiciaT

      But! But! Men weren’t put on this earth for us to look at, dontcha know? Unlike women, who are here purely to be looked at. If we fail at our jobs of being pretty and likable, there’s really no reason for us to exist, /sarcasm

  • Elke

    Not that it matters, but I think your hair looks lovely.

  • Ellie

    I’m so confused, is it the hair in the picture at the top? Because I think that’s gorgeous! I wish I could get my hair to wave like that!

  • Frauke

    never understood the obsession about having “perfect” hair. Why would I spent hours in the bathroom spending x amount of $? For what? It’s just hair. It’s what you where born with, sometimes it fuzzy and sometimes tame. I have more important things to do than “fixing” my hair. Enjoy your day!

  • jeannebean

    Two words, hair critics: ALBERT EINSTEIN. If he got a pass for rocking his ‘do, we ALL should!

  • Rebecca

    Mmmm. The hair really is beside the point, and I’m not sure the point is that if we, as women, stopped spending time on our appearance, we’d be unstoppable!

    No. I tend to think that the point is that we, as a society, still firmly believe that the single most important thing about any woman is her appearance. If I don’t like what you have to say, I don’t need to debate you. I can just dismiss you — not because you are misinformed or wrong but because you’re not attractive. If you’re not attractive, you don’t matter & what you have to say doesn’t matter, either. Then again, what you have to say doesn’t matter all that much anyway because, you know, you’re just a girl.

    Look at the comments here. People aren’t incensed that your appearance is being attacked by those who don’t like what you have to say. No. They just want you to know that your hair is just fine, honey.

    Seriously, folks, it’s not about the hair.

    • Alison

      Well said!

    • Monica Pignotti

      Well duh, it’s not about the hair. We know that. Seriously, you need to learn how to read sarcsem. Went back and edited my post for those who didn’t get it and think we need a lecture to have it explained.

      • Julie

        You seem pretty angry and defensive. I liked her post – not a lecture. Lighten up.

        • Monica Pignotti

          That’s very funny, Julie, because I thought the poster seemed angry and defensive, with a lack of ability to see humor and sarcasm. Oh well, I guess we all have our own perceptions and it is interesting how some try to mind read people they don’t know. Maybe she (and you) need to lighten up – LOL Her post sounded lecture-y and condescending to me, telling us things most of us are already aware of. Guess we differ in opinion. Gotta go, off to my hairdresser [grin, humorously intended]

        • Monica Pignotti

          Thanks so much for the free therapy, LOL. Yes, Rebecca’s comment was hilarious and not seriously intended at all, my bad.

    • Monica Pignotti

      Thanks so much, Rebecca for your wise comment. I hadn’t realized it wasn’t all about the hair until I read your comment because I am such a superficial person, but now after reading your comment, you have corrected us all with your superior insight.

      You might want to consider sharpening up your sarcasm detection skills. Many of the hair comments were meant humorously or sarcastically, so you might want to lighten up just a bit. Some people respond with humor and sarcasm when they see sexism such as women being attacked for their hair.

    • LEA

      If someone writes an article about people who put down her hairstyle, the automatic (and perfectly acceptable) response is to assure the writer that those people are wrong. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing shallow about it either. It is terribly unkind and irrational to put someone down for complementing another person.

  • Monica Pignotti

    I really like your hair! I’m going to show that picture next time I get a haircut to my hairdresser, although my visits are few and far between. What a ridiculous sexist culture we live in.

  • Mytthew

    “When women have unruly hair they are considered to be disobedient and uncontrollable”. – Thanks for quoting the professor, disobedient and uncontrollable is just my type. Now it will be easier for me to spot them.

    • Ann

      I also loved the “disobedient and uncontrollable” statement. I’ve had curly, blonde, disobedient hair my whole life. When I straighten it, I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I look like everyone else. Loved this article!

  • carrie

    Ha. Wait till it goes grey. And God forbid any of us should also decide to keep it long. Then the cats really come out to play!

  • Lisa Miller

    I buzz-cut and bleach once a month and my manner convinces people I look fabulous-or not. I can tell if people don’t like it, but they don’t say anything. If they’re looking at me they know if they don’t like it they can kiss my ass.

  • Daz3d74

    I don’t get it…what’s wrong with your hair? If that’s you on top, I think you look beautiful. And I noticed your amazing smile first…had to read some of the article to figure out the hair part. Forget those people…

  • Sheena

    I’ve always thought my hair resemble my personality. It’s un-tameable, has a mind of it’s own and doesn’t look like anyone else’s. So I let it be true to who I am. 🙂 Somehow straightening and dying and whatever else always takes a piece of the real me away. Thank you for the reminder to value my hair and who I am and I hope you keep writing and quit worrying about what people say about your hair..that’s all they have to think about..you have developed more than that in your mind. 🙂 Great job!

  • miraclegal

    I love this article; and your hair! 🙂

  • HLK

    I like your hair. Its reminiscent of Meg Ryan. But it is totally irrelevant and weird that people care what your hair looks like.

  • Skyler

    I’m a hairstylist, and I agree that your hair is beside the point for your column, irrelevant. On top of that, for the most part, my opinion of your appearance in day to day life is also irrelevant, as it is for anyone else… their opinions of me and mine of them are none of the others’ business and shouldn’t be a focus.

    That said, in both the pictures in this article, your hair looks groomed and pretty and I -love- that you are embracing the natural texture of it. People are silly, in particular about curly hair.

  • RWB

    I like your hair! and what does your hair have to do with what you say???

  • Jana

    I love your hair! But like you said, more importantly, I love your article!!

  • Sherry Fuller

    And heaven forfend we go without make up, and have blemishes… https://alotneverhappens.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/woman-has-spots-chairs-meeting-anyway/

  • *blink*
    Oh, human race, don’t you have anything better to do?

  • Joy H

    haha, So hilarious! Ummm, your hair is PERFECTLY FINE!! I only clicked on the link because I thought it was a joke. I’m glad to see you have taken it with a grain of salt because you look perfectly fine the way you are. I personally think you look down to earth, approachable, happy and most importantly content in how you look and who you are as a person. Please, please DO NOT change a single thing because someone else has an opinion about it!! YOU LOOK FANTASTIC and by your response you are both beautiful on the inside AND out! Keep smiling 🙂

  • Carolyn

    It’s just hair… people are so superficial. There are so many better things to talk about!

  • Heather

    If the current picture is the one in question, you look stunning. What a gorgeous picture of you. I honestly don’t understand people.

  • Lindsay

    In the “olden days”, (‘Prior to the 70’s women’s movement) reducing a woman to her looks was a way of silencing her. You didn’t have to listen to what she had to say, because you shifted the focus to her looks; she wasn’t properly dressed/plucked/preened. She was just a silly woman with nothing important to say, often considered an object to satisfy many male needs. Which is what hair and makeup is all about.
    I hope women continue to comment on the ridiculousness of placing so much importance on female appearance. It’s really time to talk about more important things.

  • Heidi

    I love your hair and the first thing I said when I read the hate mail was, “Her hair is curly. Why would she comb curly hair?” (I have curly hair too) I loved this article! It has given me a lot to think about.

  • Cee Bee

    “When women have unruly hair they are considered to be disobedient and uncontrollable.”

    Ha. yikes + wow + gaaawh!!! really?

    Many women (the majority?) I know have unruly hair.
    I personally, CERTAINLY have unruly hair.
    I wish I didn’t…because it takes a too much time to *tame*.
    But I do.

    Siiiigh.

    All that said, I have known for a long time that polite *society* does not like my unruly hair.

    And btw, I love your hair. 🙂

  • TiciaT

    I shaved my head and got asked “What the *bleep* did you do that for?” and told “Don’t worry, in a few months you’ll be pretty again.”

    Heidi, I love your hair, and your brain.

  • webtraveler2

    Your hair is just fine! Some very immature people are so rude. Personal attacks only shows that they have nothing of importance to say. I know several women with that hairstyle. You do what makes YOU happy. I’m more interested in what you have to say than some immature petty garbage of trying to tear you down. And those who say women shouldn’t wear their hair long after the age of 25, sound like a bunch of immature teenagers. Way too much focus is put on women’s appearance instead of their contributions and what they have to say. You do whatever you like with your hair, that’s your business. Ignore the rude and very immature people who aren’t paying attention to what you have to say. Keep going!

  • Beth Y.

    I first read this article on a phone app that showed just the text and blocked the photo. And while I thought that sending the author comments like that was inexcusably rude and inappropriate, I found myself dying to know what the author’s hair looked like.

    I was imagining some kind of bride-of-Frankenstein, stuck-her-finger-in-an-electric-socket sort of thing. I thought for sure I’d see the photo and think, “Well, they should have kept their ugly comments to themselves, and have no business critiquing anything other than the author’s writing, but damn, she really should do something about that hair.”

    Then I clicked over to Safari and saw the picture and was utterly floored to see a cute, wavy, windswept bob.

    My hair is a similar color and texture and if I’m having a good hair day it looks like that and I feel pretty. And I think the author is really attractive. It makes me sad that she had to experience this.

    Comments like this aren’t appropriate, period, even if it was a Frankenstein-do. But I’m utterly shocked that anyone would make comments like this based on this particular hairstyle.

  • SilverRain

    Look at it this way: your ideas are so awesome, the only thing they can find to criticize is your hair. Win!

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  • Fala

    When I heard that some women had clipped out your picture and drawn in a more acceptable (in their minds) hairstyle I immediately though of my mom. That is exactly the kind of thing she would have done. She harped on my hair the whole time I was growing up and it helped draw the wedge between us. Actually, in her mind there was no “between us” because she is deeply narcissistic. Perhaps all these women who are weighing in with their unsought opinions about your HAIR, of all things, are also . . .

    For what it’s worth, to me your hair says, “casual, down-to-earth, sincere, active, cheerful . . . make friends with this person!”

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  • I don’t do up my hair, either. It looks like Mary Schmich’s. It’s just how I’m feelin’ it. So much to do in this world, and spending time and money on my hairstyle to be like someone’s expectations isn’t one.

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  • Gina

    Maybe it is a midwest thing? My mom always tells me how moppy or dead my hair looks because I have fine straight hair. I literally wash it, comb it and leave my house (yes, it is wet). I do my job and I do it extremely well. My hair, weight, dress, makeup, breast size, eye color, etc have nothing to do with the performance of my job at work or in life. When I do have people saying something about MY looks, I start laughing and say “I am secure with my looks, why are you so insecure about them? Are you not happy with yourself? I believe in you so I hope one day you will too.” Looks have nothing to do with the quality of your work. If you are always worried about what other people think of your looks, you will quickly find yourself insecure…even if you are a super model.

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