Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What Does My Hair Say, Exactly? Why is it Talking For Me?

After reading Lisa's thoughts on hair, I wanted to share the story of my hair and my campaign for public office.  Actually, the story covers two separate political campaigns.  I am forever puzzled by this.  Possible explanations swim around in my head but nothing seems to explain it. 

In 2004, I signed up to run for County Clerk.  I was 45 years old with a degree in Economics, cum laude.  We had lived in the same house for twenty years and I had worked several professional positions mostly related to grantwriting and grant administration.  I had been elected to the school board.  The incumbent had fouled up at least two years of property tax statements because she didn't understand her job, costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars (and confusion) with duplicate mailings.
During the campaign season, several people asked me about my hair....as in, several (my age and older) WOMEN would work the conversation around to ask what I was planning to do about my hair.  I didn't quite understand the question.  And since campaigning means walking neighborhoods and parade routes,  I guess I thought the question was about my inability to keep it neatly combed in the Kansas wind.  I was born in the Kansas wind.  To me, it's part of my existence.  Heck, the winds in the Flint Hills pick up houses.  They also blow hair.  The incumbent County Clerk kept her gray hair very short.  It never moved no matter how hard the wind blew. 

About a week before the election, my mom and sister were walking yet another neighborhood with me.  My mom knocked on a door and gave the standard speel about my campaign.  She handed the home owner what we typically in campaigns call our "walking card".  The woman took one look at my photo on the card and loudly exclaimed, "What about her hair?  I was going to vote for her because I think we need a new County Clerk, but then I saw her photo....and that hair!  I just can't vote for her."  Then she proceeded to tell my mom not to even bother stopping at the house next door because this was her best friend and they both agreed that my hair made everything else irrelevant.  My mom had no idea how to respond and, surprisingly, remained quiet.  Not her typical style.  She was really dumbfounded.  I was knocking on doors across the street and didn't know until afterwards about this encounter.

I live in Kansas, and I am a registered Democrat.  Kansas votes 90+% Republican regardless of the particular candidate.  But in this particular race, even with my hair handicap, I very nearly ousted the incumbent.  Nearly is the key word.  Many, many hours of work.  Many, many hard earned dollars spent on gas and campaign signs.  Many favors from friends and family exhausted.  Oh, well...life goes on.

Now, fast forward to 2008.  I remain active with my local Democrats.  One of our priorities is to "show up", meaning we always strive to have a Democratic candidate on the ballot for each open office - to give voters a choice - even in our RED, RED state.  As the deadline to put challengers on the ballot was closing in, my mentor asked if I would fill in the one slot no one wanted; the state senate seat.  The incumbent was a well-known doctor who had also ran for governor.  I could go into the reasons why it was a good idea to challenge him.  But, let's talk hair.

This is my first photo taken for the senate campaign.  I am 49 years old.  My hair has always been extremely straight.  It has never started to gray or thin out.  If you had pictures of me throughout my life, most of them would closely resemble this one:

Within a few weeks, the conversations began to come up again.  Voters asked me "What are you going to do with your hair?"  To which, again, I had no answer.  At my first public forum, a woman I had never met (slightly older than me) pulled me aside and said, "I like your message.  I think you are probably the better candidate.  I like your clothing.  Since it's hot and you're thin, you can get away with that"...(surveying me with her pointed finger - my black capris and black sandals with a red knit twinset).  She even checked my jewelry and commented, "Yes, your wedding ring, a bracelet.... your earrings are good but never go any bigger than what you have on now."  Hmmm....this was getting interesting.  Then she hesitated a bit and said, "But what are you going to do about your hair?"  And I replied in frustration, "What is it about my hair?  Why is everyone so concerned about my hair?"  She hesitated again.  I said, "Really, I want to know what you think because it's making me crazy."  And she replied, "Well, at least comb it."  Then she went on to say that I probably should consider cutting it; "doing" something with it. 

I came home and cried.  Not only was I having to pull every ounce of courage forward to speak in front of crowds; to challenge the good doctor, I had to overcome these hair demons????  I wash my hair daily.  I had combed it just before the forum; in the car.  Then I walked about a block to meet a few supporters before entering the building.  Shortly after I entered the building, it was my turn to speak.  That's how campaigns work.  You have to travel lightly, be prepared to talk about any subject at the drop of a hat and also be prepared to go LONG hours without food, drink or restroom breaks. 

The next day I went to the most expensive hair stylist in town.  He has worked on my hair before - trims and reconditioning.  Previously when I had complained about having such straight, flat hair he stopped me to say, "Why do you want to be someone you're not?  Be happy that you have hair (as he pointed to his balding spot).  This is you.  Be happy with who you are." 

But this day, we shared a different conversation.  I said, "George, what is it about the hair?  Why is this the only topic of my campaign?"  He talked a little about public image and then said, "I know what needs to be done.  Do you want me to do it?  Or should we do something midway and let you get used to it first?"  I replied that if he knew what this was all about, he should just do what needed to be done.  After all, I thought, it's just hair!

This is me after my appointment with George.  In George's extensive career of experience, this is called the Hillary.  And he has irrefutable proof that this is the haircut that gets women elected.  One of his regular clients is someone who baffles me with her years of complete incompetence in public office, yet she wins by a landslide each election cycle.  She sports the "Hillary" and faithfully keeps her appointments with George every few weeks to keep it perfect.  George made me promise to keep mine perfectly trimmed throughout the election. 

So, it's cute, huh? (I'm in the center - in my sea of corporate black written about here and here).  I wasn't unhappy with it.  It was just a drastic change for me, but I like change.

The problems started a few days later when (again) women my age and older were screeching at me from across the street, "I LOVE your hair."  Then grabbing their friend by the arm and pulling them over to me to tell me how much they loved my hair and how they were going to vote for me and tell all their friends to vote for me. 

Seriously, you think I'm kidding at this point, right?  I'm telling you that people who never even gave me a polite nod were now dragging their friends over to introduce them and tell me how much they liked my hair....oh, yes, and my campaign.  And that they were going to vote for me.

Because I finally had the right hair.  And this meant I suddenly was smart.  And I should be listened to.  And I had important ideas to share.  And I should be invited to attend events.  And I should be smiled at and treated with respect.  Because I got a haircut!!?!??!?!?!?!?!

It was creepy!

Even more thought provoking was the reaction from the young voters.  My own two children and their social networks had been excitedly following my campaign.  With the new haircut, they bluntly asked, "Why'd you cut your hair?"  They grew suspicious that I was trying to present myself as something other than true.  They saw the mask.  They wondered why I chose to put it on.  Could I be trusted?  Most of them said, "Well, it looks fine.  It's just not you." 

My family had the same response.  "It's cute. Keep it if you like it.  But it just isn't you." 

As the campaign closed down, I became unsure who was running for office; the real me or the new haircut me.  If I did win the election, who should report to work at the state capital?  What parts of me were okay and what parts desperately needed to be replaced as soon as possible?  And why had I struggled my whole life with not being promoted fairly, not being paid fairly, not being respected for my contributions in the workplace when a simple "Hillary" haircut would have instantly resolved those problems?  Who knew the haircut told the entire story about a person's worth?

Today, my hair is back down to shoulder length.  I kept the Hillary cut for several months after the campaign.  I thought it might become the new me if I gave it a little longer.  But it never did.  And my family, if I pressed for raw honesty, would always respond with, "Let it grow out."  I found that I lost connection and respect from the groups who loved the haircut.  I think that's okay.


Anonymous said...

Oh, this post has me so fired up! I know after the 2000 elections, I was ready to start up the League of Women Voters in my county where the Republican party was born in Kansas. Just last week I signed a petition for a YOUNG woman with LONG, BLOND hair to run for county commissioner because I feel SO strongly about women in office. And Kansas needs all the dedicated Democrats it can dig up! We have to get together!!!

Kitty said...

Terri - young women, or men, are exactly the candidates we need to see on the ballot. I'm happy to hear she has your support. Being a candidate is very, very difficult if you are a "normal" person who doesn't have unlimited cash and a huge ego (or dare I say, orders from heaven) to fulfill!

Maybe thrifting in north Topeka would be fun! My daughter might come with me. My husband is a bit of a hermit.

Anonymous said...

This is truly fascinating. I may need some time to absorb/reflect on it. Because while my own, personal hair doesn't fit the professional "mold," I DO fall into this trap of associating short, controlled hair with professionalism and competence.

What fascinates me is the "why?" of this. Is it just force of habit/conditioning, because we've been seeing women leaders with a certain kind of hair for so long? Or is there still some insidious, deep-seated bias against "womanly" features (like long hair) in professional positions? I truly fear the answer to this.

Thanks for raising my consciousness a little bit today.

Reva said...

thanks so much for your comment, Kitty! It is also my belly and boobs :)

Reva said...

PS, that makes me sick to my stomach and once again proves that Americans are so beauty obsessed and downright stupid!!!!