Lately there’s been some stuff going around about how all women should shave their heads at least once. A couple well-known actresses have, in the past, echoed the sentiment as well, and if you look around you’ll even discover social-media groups dedicated to the idea. So I thought it’d be neat to look at something kinda topical today.
Any time you see “all men/women should X,” it should perk your ears for an attempt to force people into cookie-cutter molds. Obviously, I don’t agree that all people need to shave their heads. Not all experiences are going to mean the same things to different people; it’s wrong to assume that what was freeing and liberating for one person would be so for everybody else as well. That said, I do understand the sentiment behind this suggestion, having been a fundamentalist woman.
Before we get rolling, though, I want to say this: it’s not like I didn’t know what a hair salon was or had never been inside one. I was a perfectly normal kid and teenager growing up. Something went pear-shaped along the way, is all. I allowed myself to be indoctrinated to think of hair salons as dens of iniquity, where women were divested of their glory and turned into harlots waiting for predation by wolves.
After growing up as a hippie child with unshorn locks, I hit my pre-teens begging my parents to start letting me get my hair cut. They did, albeit grudgingly; it was an expense they didn’t welcome, but they recognized that growing kids need to fit in to some extent. My sixteenth-birthday present was a visit to a real live women’s hair salon (rather than the cheap places at the mall that we’d been going to for me to achieve the coveted 1980s Olivia Newton-John feathered-bangs look). My mother almost choked at the expense, but I was so happy. I didn’t always get to visit there for haircuts, but whenever I left that trendy redwood salon I knew I’d be on-point and fashionable at least from the collarbones up.
Then I became Pentecostal and my parents’ budgetary concerns with haircuts ended.
Ironically considering their name, not all fundamentalists share the same opinions about women’s dress and grooming. It’s always a little shocking for me to see a woman who claims to follow the Bible and consider it inerrant who doesn’t appear to know about the clobber passage about women’s hair:
Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
It goes on and on like that, too. My new denomination incorporated these verses into the code they called holiness standards, which were rules about behavior and dress that all members were supposed to follow, especially women; the link goes to a document written by the denomination’s current Superintendent about whether or not their cultural practices are still relevant, or if they should be altered. It’s all very fascinating to read, like being walked step-by-step through how a fundamentalist picks what Bible verses to follow and which to discard as non-binding. This is going to completely, totally floor you, but the author finds that no, the denomination’s dictates about women’s clothing and hair are totally relevant and should be maintained forever. He even specifically links those dictates to the denomination’s war against LGBTQ people:
If this teaching were outmoded, then the teaching against homosexuality would seem to be equally outmoded, because the appeal to creation and nature is similar in both cases.
Translation: If it was okay for women to cut their hair, then that’d mean that being gay is okay too, and we totally know that ain’t gonna be okay ever! So obviously, goes his fractured logic, women shouldn’t cut their hair. This document–including its decisions and reasoning behind the rule about haircuts for women, could have been written in 1988; the war on LGBTQ people wasn’t quite as prominent in people’s minds, but the reasoning was totally the same.
So I obeyed. I bristled under all the restrictions I faced, but if I accepted that the Bible was literally true and had to be followed to the letter (except for the inconvenient stuff, like the dietary restrictions and stoning-to-death of gay people and rape victims who didn’t cry out correctly, DUH), then the verses were there in black-and-white and I didn’t have any choice in the subject. No pants ever, no makeup ever, and no haircuts ever. The men around me, incidentally, loudly wished it was that easy for them to outwardly indicate their Pentecostalism, like women had godly Garanimals that poor widdle men just couldn’t access. One must concede that if you see a woman in full Pentecostal kit, you don’t normally wonder what religion she’s with, while it’s much more difficult to spot a Pentecostal man in the wild.
The problem with having an outward sign of “holiness” is that it means that people’s dress and hair become a barometer of their spiritual life, and they are absolutely judged thereby. When you give people a way to objectively measure progress of any kind, it’s inevitable that some of those people are going to try to find a way to game that system to outdo each other–which is exactly what happened in Pentecostalism. I didn’t see it at first; I was too immersed in learning all these new ideas. But over time I began to see that my denomination had an incredibly weird relationship with women’s hair.
And that relationship was rubbing off on me, inevitably, inexorably.
Probably the first sign that I was getting a little weird was early on, when I briefly adopted a hairstyle called the “Pentecostal pouf.” Basically you back-comb hairsprayed bangs to make a rat’s nest in front, then pin it down and smooth it with more hairspray; the back hair is usually left long and secured with a barrette or ponytail. Most of the younger women in my church wore this Holiness Mullet. The young men in my church teased us about it, professing to dislike it, but the simple truth is that none of us were very comfortable with long, uncut hair with nothing special happening up front. We couldn’t win. If we didn’t adopt the pouf we felt out of step and dowdy and got teased for
not making more of an effort to pretty ourselves up hiding our light under a bushel basket; if we wore it, we got teased anyway. (There is always some way to cow and shame women in fundamentalism. Always. There is never a way for a woman to win the game, or any way to feel totally at ease at any point with any part of her body or public presentation of herself. There’s a right way to do everything, and it’s not the way you’re doing it, is the message, always, whatever the official words are to the contrary.)
Here’s the thing about the pouf: you need some kind of bangs for it. That’s right. My church culture had set a fashion for women that was almost unattainable by their own stated rules. I could get away with it as a convert because I still had comparatively short bangs, but I could see a future in which I wouldn’t be able to manage the hairstyle. I began wondering, as my bangs got longer and longer, how the other young women in my church got their poufs to look so good. Some of them had been in the church since birth, and their parents were also in the church so presumably weren’t getting them haircuts.
That’s when I found out about all the loopholes in “holiness standards.”
What, did you think that those only existed for sex (NSFW)?
Cutting one’s hair is off-limits. So you BURNED IT OFF WITH MATCHES OR SUPER-HOT CURLING RODS.
Yeah, you heard me. My peers were setting themselves on fire to avoid letting scissors touch their hair.
None of them thought this was bizarre at all. That’s about when I decided that even if it meant being teased, I needed to find something else to do with my hair because no way was I ever doing that. Our church bookstore featured tons of books in our bookstore dealing with this exact topic, with diagrams and instructions. Yet I bought all of them and still had no idea what to do. I was following all the rules to the letter, but somehow I couldn’t do any of these hairstyles. It was almost as if they couldn’t be achieved by following the rules. Weird, innit?
I began seeing how the women in my church suffered for their hair. One older woman at a church camp complained about a terrible headache she was having one day, which she blamed on her hairdo; to be fair, it was a huge Gibson-girl style. I innocently suggested that maybe “God” wouldn’t mind if she cut it–a little!–to get relief from headaches. It was making her sick, I reasoned, so surely her situation was different. The way she yelled at me, you’d think I’d suggested she eat babies’ toes to cure her headaches. The other women in the kitchen only nodded sagely in agreement as she went on and on about how her suffering was just part of the price women paid for holiness. They knew what I did not yet: that my value was tied to the length of my hair. In time I’d notice that indeed, women got treated differently depending on whether they “dressed holiness” or not. I always followed it, so that didn’t matter much at the time, but I couldn’t help but notice after a while that this dress code was held out as a way for women to avoid abuse and victimization–a promise that didn’t seem to hold true in any way in reality.
Adhering to this dress code began making me downright neurotic. I was connecting my hair to my salvation and it was having an impact on me. I had a panic attack in the shower one morning because I’d accidentally lopped off a couple inches of one very slender lock of hair while shaving (hair on head: okay and commanded by “God”; hair on pits and legs: very not okay and “God” thought it was ickie). I couldn’t even bring myself to find reassurance among my female churchmates, but one of my evangelical friends–a Maranatha fellow–just stared at me quizzically. “But why would God be angry if it was an accident?” he asked, and I didn’t know how to explain it. But I still spent the next few weeks hoping I didn’t die, and thought that people could look at me and somehow tell that I had fallen from grace.
I played that reindeer game until my deconversion.
When I talk about how indoctrination often goes a lot deeper than our religious labels, that goes double for stuff like how we feel about what it is to be male or female. I didn’t change much about how I dressed for a while after I stopped going to church. A lot of my personal grooming choices had continued out of sheer habit, and those habits didn’t end just because I’d left the religion. It felt natural to go without makeup and to wear skirts by then, and I was working such long hours that I couldn’t find time to think about my personal life.
Then Biff, my then-husband, joined the military. He had been long drifting, unable to find a job that would tolerate him being a frothing zealot on the clock, and for some reason he’d decided that the military was his best option. When he left for Basic Training, I was left on my own for a few months. I discovered then that most of my super-busy life had been focused on tending Biff like he was some kind of overgrown toddler. With him gone, I discovered that I suddenly had a ton of free time to make changes.
I bumped into someone I wasn’t expecting to meet:
When I questioned just why I’d made the choices I had, I couldn’t find any satisfactory answers. I was deeply unhappy with the person I’d become as a result of those choices. So I began making changes. I joined a gym, rediscovered the pleasures of makeup, and once I’d shed some of the unwanted weight I’d gained by self-medicating my stress and sadness with food, I bought a new wardrobe.
One afternoon I was driving home from the gym. At the stoplight I saw a salon. I’d seen it many times; it was a standard-issue strip-mall salon. I’d noticed that there were always tons of cars parked in its lot.
On an impulse, I pulled into the parking lot, parked, and went inside the salon, though I was still in my workout togs. I suddenly had this earnest desire for a certain hairstyle I hadn’t had even as a non-Pentecostal teen. It’d been too expensive–and too risky; I’d seen what had happened when my little sister had tried to achieve it on her own with a home kit. But now, suddenly, I had to see if it was possible.
The air smelled sharp and pungent with chemicals; every chair there was filled, and every eye turned to me as I entered the shop. For a moment I stood there, feeling very much like I’d just walked into that Cantina at Mos Eisley. But the receptionist smiled at me and welcomed me there, and asked what I wanted.
As decadent harlot factories went, this pleasant, antiseptic cleanliness was a distinct anticlimax. I asked her if her salon could give perms to women with long hair. “How long?” was all she asked.
I pulled my ponytail forward; my hair (scraggly, split, tortured–no “locks of love” here, I’m afraid; so much for Pentecostal insistences that obedience to “holiness standards” always resulted in the divine blessing of glossy, lustrous, gorgeous hair–I looked like a sheepdog on my best days) went all the way past my bottom. “This long.”
She leaned over to survey the length–up, down. I saw a decision click into place in her eyes. “Absolutely,” she said, “But it’ll take some time. When do you want to come in?”
That weekend, I got my hair cut for the first time since I’d converted to Pentecostalism some eight years previously.
I felt like crying when the scissors first began their work–but not with sadness or terror. Every snip felt like freedom. The stylist had her work cut out for her, and she took to the challenge with verve. The whole shebang took a few hours, and I left feeling like I’d lost another twenty pounds. My hair was still technically quite long–midway down my back–and I still felt squeaky and new and naked like a shorn lamb.
I got compliments left and right about my new look, but I hadn’t done any of it to get compliments. I’d done it because it was what I thought would look best for my hair. I didn’t do it out of rebellion, either, but rather because I’d discovered that the religion’s truth claims weren’t true, which removed my feelings of obligation to my old denomination’s “holiness standards.” By the time I got the haircut, there wasn’t anything to rebel against.
By making my hair the most visible and important barometer of my submission to their control, my church leaders had unwittingly given me the exact tools I needed to demonstrate that I had escaped that control.
Getting my hair cut was how I broke free at last of a lot of my old mental chains. Indeed, it wasn’t till then that Biff began to suspect that I had deconverted for good.
Not everybody has the same past or operates under the same barometers. These exhortations about shaving one’s head might be liberating for some folks, but not all. I can see why some people might find shaving their heads to be extremely freeing. For other people, it wouldn’t mean the same thing–or might even be really negative. As we’re negotiating our departure from religion, each of us will find those barometers and markers and figure out what we’re going to do with them. I handled that task one way. Someone else might handle it totally differently. Some folks might not need to do much at all there; some might need to totally reinvent themselves. And that’s okay.
The important thing is to challenge our old assumptions and habits, find our own meaningful ways to separate ourselves from something that wasn’t working for us, make the changes we need to make, and move forward in our own way and at our own speed.