Why Mothers and Daughters Tangle Over Hair

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This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Do you like your hair that long?” my mother asked, soon after I arrived for a visit. I laughed. Looking slightly hurt, she asked why I was laughing. “I’ve been interviewing women for the book I’m writing about mothers and daughters,” I explained, “and so many tell me that their mothers criticize their hair.” “I wasn’t criticizing,” my mother said, and I let it drop. Later in my visit I asked, “So Mom, what do you think of my hair?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “I think it’s a little too long.”

I wasn’t surprised by any of this, because my mother always thought my hair was too long. I’d taken to getting a haircut shortly before visiting my parents, sometimes the very morning before I boarded a plane to Florida. But that never made a difference. I could count on her telling me my hair was too long.

While talking to women for the book You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, I collected a cornucopia of mothers’ remarks on their daughters’ hair. Many of these comments were more overtly critical than my mother’s, such as “Comb your hair. The birds will make a nest in it.” Some were both overt and indirect: “You did that on purpose?” Sometimes the wolf of criticism came dressed in the sheep’s clothing of a compliment: “I love your hair when it’s pushed back off your face,” said when her daughter’s hair was falling forward onto her face, or “I’m so glad you’re not wearing your hair in that frumpy way anymore.”

Sometimes it wasn’t criticism that frustrated women so much as the focus on hair instead of matters the daughters thought more important. During a presidential campaign season, a journalist interviewed both candidates for president. When her mother asked, “How did it go?” she began an enthusiastic account of the interviews. “No,” her mother interrupted, “I mean at the hair salon. What style did you settle on? Did you put it up or leave it down?” Another woman told me that after she appeared on television standing behind the president of the United States in a bill-signing ceremony, her mother’s comment was, “I could see you didn’t have time to cut your bangs.” 

I came to think of the subjects about which mothers (and daughters) were critical as the big three: hair, clothes, and weight. I always thought of them in that order, because hair was the subject of the largest number of remarks repeated to me, and, it seemed, the most unnerving.

Why? Why so much preoccupation with hair? I first asked myself this question years ago, while taking part in a small academic conference at which each participant—eight men and four women—gave a brief presentation. As I listened to one of the women give her talk, I was distracted by her hair, which seemed intentionally styled to render her half-blind. When she looked down to read her paper, thanks to a side part and no bangs, a curtain of hair fell clear across her face, completely covering one eye. As she read aloud, she kept reaching up to push the hair off her face, but it immediately fell right back, a result she ensured by stopping short of hooking it behind her ear. She must have believed that pinning her hair behind her ear would spoil its style.

After catching myself concentrating on the speaker’s hair rather than her talk, I scanned the room to check out the other two women’s hairstyles. One, the youngest among us, had long, frosted blond hair that cascaded over her shoulders—an effect she enhanced by frequently tossing her head. The third woman had dark brown hair in a classic style that, I thought to myself, was a cross between Cleopatra and Plain Jane.

Then I wondered why I was scrutinizing only the women; what about the men? A glance around the room made the answer obvious: Every one of the men had his hair cut short, in no particular style. There could have been a man with a ponytail or a thick wavy mane or long hair falling below his ears. But there wasn’t. All the men had chosen neutral hairstyles. What, I asked myself, would be a comparably neutral hairstyle for a woman? Then I realized: There’s no such thing. 

I came to think of this contrast in terms of a concept from linguistics, my academic field: The men’s choices were “unmarked,” but any choice a woman makes is “marked”; that is, it says something about her. Here’s how linguistic markedness works. The “unmarked” forms of most verbs in English communicate present tense. To communicate past tense, a speaker “marks” a verb by adding something. For example, you can take the verb visit and mark it for past by adding –ed to make visited. Similarly, the unmarked forms of most nouns in English are singular, such as toy. To make the word plural, you add –s to get toys. Like a present-tense verb or a singular noun, a man can have a hairstyle that is “unmarked”—that is, neutral; it doesn’t tell you anything about him except that he’s male. But any choice a woman makes carries extra meaning: It leads observers to conclude something about the type of person she is. That’s why I titled an essay on this subject “There Is No Unmarked Woman.” 

The concept of markedness helps explain many mothers’ seemingly excessive concern with so apparently superficial a topic as their daughters’ hair. They are thinking of how others will interpret their daughters’ character. That concern was explicit in one mother’s warning that no one would take her daughter seriously if she didn’t style her hair more carefully: “If they see someone with loose ends in their hair, they’ll think you have loose ends in your life.” 

Mothers aren’t the only ones who are inclined to be critical of women’s hair (as well as their clothes and weight). Because the range of hairstyles from which a woman must choose is so vast, the chances that anyone—especially another woman—will think she made the best choice are pretty slim. How often do you look at a woman and think, She would look better if her hair were … longer, shorter, curlier, straighter, pushed back, pulled forward, colored, not colored, dyed a different color, highlighted or not, more fashionably styled, just differently styled? We think these things, but we don’t say them. A mother, however, often feels she has a right if not an obligation to say something, because it’s her job to ensure that things go as well as possible for her daughter.  

There is yet another layer to all of this: Women’s and girls’ hair (as well as clothes and weight)—indeed, the preoccupation with women’s appearance more generally—is inextricably intertwined with sex. Our very notion of “woman” entails sexuality in a way that our notion of “man” does not. A woman who is not attractive is dismissed, and being deemed attractive requires being sexy—but not too sexy, because that would lead to her being dismissed in a different way. Furthermore, the line between too sexy and not sexy enough is a fine one and is located differently by different observers, so there is no way a woman can be certain of getting it just right. This criterion drives many, if not all, fashion choices: how short or long a skirt or dress should be; how tight-fitting and shape-showing slacks, tops, or dresses should be; how much skin is revealed, what body parts are glimpsed or displayed. And hair is an essential element in this sexual equation.

Hair, in short, is a secondary sex characteristic: Like breasts and the distribution of body fat that gives women a curvy shape, more head hair (and less facial hair) is one of the physical features distinguishing the sexes that begin to appear during puberty, signaling sexual maturity. Enhancing and drawing attention to secondary sex characteristics can be a way of emphasizing sexual attractiveness. Thus, hair so abundant that it partially covers a woman’s face can be sexy, and more hair can be sexier than less. That is the aesthetic that drives “big hair,” and the anxiety that underlies the concept of a “bad-hair day.” And that is the reason why many societies require women to cover, hide, or remove their hair. The connection between exposing hair and seeking to attract men is explicit in the Orthodox Jewish tradition by which women cut off their hair when they marry, as my grandmother did in the early 1900s Hasidic Jewish community of Warsaw. (My father was told that when his mother was having her head shaved in preparation for her wedding, her younger sisters, who had abandoned orthodoxy, pounded on the door, begging her not to let them do it; she later regretted having acquiesced and let it grow back.) 

This tradition came to mind when I asked an Arab woman whether mothers in her country comment on their daughters’ appearance. She replied that a common mother-to-daughter remonstrance would be, “I can see hair”—a way to admonish a daughter to tighten her headscarf. Though the requirement to wear headscarves might seem at first very different from the “freedom” to expose hair, these seemingly opposite customs are really two sides of the same coin, divergent ways of managing men’s responses to this secondary sex characteristic: on one hand, precluding it by hiding hair; on the other, capitalizing on it by displaying hair in as alluring a style as possible. 

 

WHILE I WAS WORKING on this essay, my phone rang. It was my cousin Elaine calling. “I’m visiting my mother,” she began. I was concerned, because I knew that her mother had recently been discharged from the hospital after a life-threatening illness. Elaine continued, “What do you think was the first thing she asked me?” Still living in this essay, I offered, half-joking, “Was it about your hair?” “Yes!” she exclaimed. “That is what she asked! I had been here maybe ten minutes when she said, ‘Don’t you think you need a haircut?’” 

“You won’t believe this,” I said, and then read her the first paragraph of this essay.

After we both laughed at the uncanny similarity, Elaine continued, “I’m trying to assert myself now that I’m 60, so I told her, ‘I just had it cut!’” She explained that she’d made sure to do that because her mother always thinks her hair is too long. At that I read her the second paragraph of this essay.

After more shared laughter, Elaine resumed her account. Her mother kept returning to the topic: “Are you sure you don’t think it would be better shorter?” and “We have to go to my hairdresser.” Elaine capitulated: “I was in her house for less than half an hour before she was whisking me off, walker and all, to her hair salon!” But Elaine drew the line at cutting her hair; she submitted only to having it blow-dried. Then she questioned her own sanity when, upon hearing her mother say, “Now you’re a pleasure to look at,” she heard herself say: “Maybe it would have been better shorter.”

After we laughed together, our conversation turned serious. Wondering aloud why her mother’s concern with her hair bothered her so much, Elaine said, “It’s a symbol of lack of acceptance.” Without doubt, that’s part of why we all react so strongly to perceived criticism, no matter how subtle, from our mothers—and why many of us are so quick to perceive criticism in any comment or, for that matter, gesture (like reaching out to brush hair off our faces) or facial expression (“I didn’t say anything”; “But you had that look”). There is an exquisite irony—a perfect relationship storm, you might say—between daughters and mothers. Because girls and women are judged by appearance, mothers want their daughters to look as attractive as possible. But any suggestion for improvement implies criticism. And therein lies the irony: For mothers, the person to whom you most want to offer helpful suggestions is the one most likely to resist and resent them; for daughters, the person you most want to think you’re perfect is the one most likely to see your flaws—and tell you about them.

My cousin then told me something I hadn’t known: Her mother hated her own hair, because her mother had told her it was ugly. Indeed, Elaine’s mother had gone to medical school to ensure she’d be able to support herself, because her mother had led her to believe she was too unattractive to count on getting married. How, Elaine wondered, could her mother not see that she was doing to her daughter just what her own mother had done to her? There are many ways to answer that question. One is that Elaine’s mother wanted to make sure her daughter didn’t suffer the same fate, by making sure she was attractive. Another is that she was doing what many women do: Both mothers and daughters often regard each other as reflections of themselves and consequently look at each other with a level of scrutiny that they otherwise reserve for themselves. For mothers, especially, that isn’t entirely irrational: They are held responsible for their daughters in a way that fathers are not. Someone who disapproves of a girl’s appearance will often think, Why did her mother let her go out looking like that? 

Maybe it doesn’t matter what mothers’ motives are. The challenge for daughters is deciding how to respond. I always chuckle when recalling the woman who told me she silenced her mother by saying, “My lifetime interest in the topic of my hair has been exhausted.”

Or perhaps more important than figuring out what to say in response to perceived criticism is how to stop feeling bad about it. Women tell me it helps to realize that criticizing and caring are expressed in the same words. That way, a daughter can shift her focus from the criticizing to the caring. This often happens automatically after our mothers are gone, or when we fear losing them. One woman told me of getting a call that her mother had been hospitalized. Full of worry and fear, she caught a plane and rushed to the hospital right from the airport. Distressed to see her mother with an IV bag attached to her arm and an oxygen tube in her nose, she approached the bedside and leaned over to give her a kiss. Her mother looked up at her and said, “When’s the last time you did your roots?” Rather than reacting with her usual annoyance, the daughter heaved a sigh of relief: Her mother was OK. 

As for me, it is now nearly a decade since my mother died. Several years ago, I began getting my hair cut shorter. My mother was right: It does look better this way. 

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