Too much, too little, not enough hair — on your head, face, underarms, forearms, legs — seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Yet, it’s clear that judgement about appearance is not only total b.s., but also something which carries tremendous cultural weight about who gains privilege for performing their gender, sexuality, race, or class status “appropriately.” Hair performance makes or breaks citizenship — meaning what we choose to do with our leg, facial, head, arm, body, genital etc. hair has a direct link to who gets to be “in” or “out” of the club (the club of culture; the club of gender; the club of race; the club of belonging …). Citizenship is based on the measured, visual presence of just the ‘right’ amount of head, face, and/or body hair. Some hair can be hidden. Other hair is right out there. All of it makes its way into discussions of “proper” hair performance. What gives?
Some memories. I was in San Francisco in 1994 when the Bearded Lady Cafe and Truckstop co-owner Harriet (now Harry) Dodge appeared on the cover of the sf weekly with a large headline reading “Bearded Lady.” I remember looking at the hair under Dodge’s chin in the photograph and feeling surges of admiration and confidence pulse through my veins. The beard was bigger than one or two hairs … it was a full-on beard and she was wearing it out.
Harriet Dodge co-owned and ran the Red Dora’s Bearded Lady with then-Tribe 8 punk rock band member Silas Flipper (the two later went on to direct the most rad queer feature film “By Hook or By Crook.“). The cafe was a hot spot for hot DIY dykes, queers, and fags – located on 14th Street before it was as gentrified as it was now. It was a punk rock cafe and seemed to adhere to the best of feminist, queer punk politic: you didn’t have to have money to get in; rather, you had to possess a sense of equity about social space. Red Dora’s was across the street from a laundromat and a stone’s throw from a block of project housing. This wasn’t just a happy happy gay gay establishment. There was more to it. Money didn’t function as the neutral mediator as it did in many of the Castro Street spots; an active sensitivity to the politics of space and pooling resources together, to make things happen, was more what brought people together. Or maybe it was the babes – who knows.
After the sf weekly cover story came out, I observed many more dykes and/or women-identified-queer-women letting their chin hair grow out. The circulation of fresh images in a culture which (over)values image and appearance is powerful. At the same time, the power of a good story can move a mountain.
During this time, I saw a kick-butt film about the subject of gender and beards.
Filmmaker Tami Gold’s documentary “Juggling Gender” (1992) was a portrait of New York circus actor / bearded lady Jennifer Miller. The film struck me for its storytelling — it was not only cinematically hot, but it critically explored the concept of a “bearded lady” as an identity that Jennifer Miller had reclaimed with amazing flair. Miller’s beard was thick and had style — as did her lived responses to the public’s responses to her beard. “Juggling Gender” offered resistance to the harsh societal judgements of gender and beauty, at the same time disrupting the erroneous idea of “the bearded lady” as a circus freak without a brain, agency, or voice. Miller was exactly that circus freak: one with expressive agency, voice, intentionality and pride.
Another expression of activist and/or resistant performance in the 1990’s arrived with the revival of male impersonation in club and queer cabaret settings. Drag kinging experienced a surge during the early 1990’s for a million reasons – on both coasts and inbetween; spirit gum sales likely were on the rise as newbie and more experienced kings/performers adorned themselves in lamb chops, goutees, 5 o’clock shadows, chest hair, and etc. as a way to encourage broader conceptions of queer genders and sexualities — and provide a forum for erotic dance (as well as activist narrative) for queer wo/men. Kings and their hairy dispositions also donned the public space — already dressed on their way to club; or in 24-hr diners after a gig. In these ways, the world of normative, bio-female lesbianism was disrupted by queer coiffures and whiskers. Gender-bending wo/men, trannies, feminists and freaks all kept the critical discussion of gender/beauty alive in the 1990’s — just by adorning themselves in their own chosen hairy splendor, be it growth under the chin, furr in the armpits, et al. But within these discussions, there seemed to be fewer conversations about US/non-West relations and white beauty standards.
In European-based female culture in the U.S., hairy legs and forearms are a sign of masculinity and lack of feminine beauty –which again should be chiming off your b.s. meter like a fire alarm. As I come from Arab/Arab-American queer community, I can comment that traditional Arab/Arab-American feminine women continue to be fetishized as exotically beautiful (dark hair, dark eyes, thick hair) by Euro-white standards, and yet are demonized for thick arm hair, copious dark leg hair, thick eyebrows — within both LGBTQ and heterosexual cultures. The tenaciousness of white beauty standards in the U.S. and Europe are both hypocritical and obviously racist — a site for rebuttal and contestation. There’s a lot to unfold and spell out. bell hooks wrote an important piece many years ago in Z Magazine about hair, white beauty ideals and African American hair which still circulates.
Trans phobia from within our communities as well as from the ‘outside’ straight, mainstream world wields its power and judgements about hair in other ways. When have you found yourself or heard others judging the viability of a trans-man’s gender identity based on his lack of / or presence of facial hair? Likewise, when have you heard judgements of transwomen because of their facial or other hair? I’m barely scratching the surface of all this.
There are many stories to be shared about hair. I would love to hear your stories and opinions — about hair and politics … any kind of hair …