Monday, April 02, 2007

Professor Hair

I hate getting my hair cut. I avoid the experience as much as possible, and hence my long non-professorial hair. It always amazes me how quickly the ritual conversation with the hair cutter reveals that I am from Planet Academia and not from the real world. Example:

Hair cutter: You know, when you turn 40, you're going to have to cut your hair short.

Me: I turned 40 a long time ago.

Hair cutter (after a little scream of shock): But you CAN'T have hair this long if you're that old.

Me: But I do.

Hair cutter: Of course you want to look young, but we SHOULD cut it to shoulder length. In fact.. (pointing to my chest).. hair that goes down to there is.. STRIPPER HAIR.

Me (wondering whether I can convince my husband to cut my hair next time): I have never heard of that.

Hair cutter: EVERYONE knows that.

Me: Even so, can I just get a trim?


I am doing everything backwards. In my youth, I had cm-long hair for a time (80's, London) when I should have had long hair, and now that I am 'old', I should have short hair.

My loathing of hair cuts is real, but I think part of my motivation for having long hair relates to my wish to change how people perceive scientists and science professors. Life certainly would be easier if I fit the science stereotype more -- or at least as much as a female-type person can -- but I also feel a stubborn wish/need to NOT look like I am supposed to and therefore to surprise people.

Obviously I am not being too extreme about this -- I am not that interested in piercing my eyebrows or getting a large visible tattoo, just as examples. I also don't walk around campus in my lab coat (unlike med school students, even though wearing such attire outside makes me wonder what they are learning about hygiene).

My somewhat delusional hope is that maybe in some small way the daily/weekly experiences that other women scientists and I have of changing people's minds about what a scientist 'looks like' will have a positive effect. Some women I know do this stereotype-busting even more effectively than I do, as I am by no means stylish or particularly socially skilled. Clearly the best way to accomplish the goal of having it be natural for women to be scientists and engineers and mathematicians and presidents is for there to be more of us in these professions, but a little stereotype twisting might help in the meantime.

19 comments:

Susan B. Anthony said...

This reminds me of a story.

When I was in junior high, my mom went back to school to get a Ph.D. in literature, and as she was exposed to feminist theory for the first time, I picked up some of it by osmosis and began proudly labeling myself a feminist. Soon thereafter I got an Easter dress that was white and lacy with a long skirt and puffy sleeves, which I loved. The first time I put it on, my dad said to me teasingly, "You don't look like a feminist in that dress!" When I repeated this to my mom, she said to me, "Honey, a feminist can wear... ANYTHING SHE WANTS."

I'm a believer in stereotype-tweaking myself, so sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't be wearing my hair boyishly short. But the truth is, I really like it that way. So ignore the idiots, FSP; we women of science can wear our hair ANY WAY WE WANT.

Ancarett said...

I chopped my long hair off around forty not to conform to any stereotype, but because I'd broken three enormous alligator clips. None of those things were big or strong enough to hold all the hair on my head. Lacking a useful way to contain my hair, I went ultra-short and donated it all to Locks of Love.

Then I started to go gray and growing it out a lot has lost the appeal. Don't have time or inclination to colour (some of those chemicals are nasty). But I do think about growing it out every time some interfering hair stylist starts to suggest what would be a good hair cut for a professor which apparently involves a great deal of boring.

tom s. said...

The solution to the conversation problem, if you have the skill for it (which I don't) is to lie outrageously.

When we were students together, an economist friend of mine would make up all kinds of things while talking to the hairdresser. They would ask "what do you study" he'd choose an obscure but interesting subject at random (Viking archaeology) and then see how far it would go.

His reasoning was that it made both their days more interesting, so no harm done.

Anonymous said...

I heartily approve, having hair to my waist and knowing I will never cut it without a very good practical reason! Admittedly, water concerns, finding oneself in a remote village, radiation therapy and so on are good reasons. However, my solution, because I am also cheap, has always been to have friends cut my hair. I don't do layers or anything absurd, and once you find someone who knows how (and better still for whom you can return the favor) it saves a lot of time and hassle.

Anonymous said...

My perspective seems to be quite different from yours. Long, simply cut hair actually fits my stereotype of the female professor. There's a sense that fashion is not important, and that there are better things to be spending time and money on than a stylish do. Maybe this is because I'm in math, where we don't have the practical issues encountered in lab work. Or maybe it's because I've always had mine long.

Global Girl said...

I support your long hair. (My mother had long hair into her 50s, until she chopped it short because it was thinning out and started to look worn because of it - the length accentuated the effect) I have long hair too, and what's worse for conforming to the scientist stereotype, it's naturally blonde and I have blue eyes. And a figure. And I follow fashion. I worry about my handbag matching my shoes in the morning, right before I worry about what a strong texture coefficient for a particular film of mine says about the growth mechanism. So there. I hope to do some stereotype busting of my own.

I suspect I do it best at bars, however. The guys who look like deer in the headlights when I reply "I'm a grad student in materials science and engineering" to "What's your major?" probably got a stereotype or two busted.

Anonymous said...

Wait, wait, wait. Scientists are supposed to have short hair? Then how do you explain Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists?

Susan B. Anthony said...

That is awesome. I'm nominating some of my friends immediately.

Anonymous said...

I can do you one worse: I wear a ponytail, of shoulder-length hair.

It's the perfect hairstyle for me because a) I *hate* hair in or near my face, b) it's neat and tidy but requires no effort or styling, c) it's long enough to only need cut about twice a year.

As a scientist, I know a good solution when I see one. However, I recognize that this is a little-girl hairstyle, and I have no idea what else I would do when I need to look like an adult.

I'm just grateful that the dress and appearance code in academia is so ... flexible, and not a priority. I would just loathe *having* to worry about pantyhose and matching shoes every day.

Anonymous said...

Why do you think tattoo and piercing are extreme ? I have a visible tattoo on my back and a pierced tongue. Combined with the fact that I'm a very good student, people think it's very sexy ....... Maybe they would have a different idea if I wasn't a good researcher with excellent accomplishments.

Female Science Professor said...

It's extreme in the context of professorial norms today, but that could of course change. I have pierced and tattooed students, and they hope to be professors one day.

Mr. B. said...

Hmmm...

If you want to see a picture of a non-stereotypical female scientist google "Ellen Vitetta." Use the images button. She is in her mid fifties right now and has long blond hair. I once heard her give a scientific seminar in a backless white blouse, dark skirt and red cowboy boots. She has the scientific chops - see Wikipedia - including belonging to the National Academy.

Vitetta's former student, Linda Buck, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004.

Hey, according to some people there are no American women female Nobelists...

Another female scientist with long hair is Batman's Poison Ivy, but that is another story.

An amused Mr. B.

Ms.PhD said...

great post.

I feel your pain re: doing dance of the chitty-chatty, and heartily endorce practicing your fiction skills as a way to make it more fun.

i liked susan b. anthony's comment the best of all of them.

JoAnne said...

I have had meter long red hair since I was old enough to evade my Mother's insistence on haircuts (10 yrs) and have absolutely no intention of ever cutting it. One of my great-aunts had waist-long hair until the day she died (at age 98) and it was always beautiful.

One day recently, I went to work at the lab with my hair tied in a bun. And people actually didn't recognize me! I would start a conversation and then have to tell them who I was....

Irie said...

Stripper hair, huh? I guess you learn something new everyday.

It's just hair. How you wear it is such a personal decision that I don't see how it could reflect your career choice (with the exception of the military). I bet that stylist doesn't do so well when it comes to tips since you're probably not the first person she's shared her *wisdom* with.

Propter Doc said...

Hair dressers? Appointment early on Saturday morning, walk in looking very tired/hungover/ill, fantastic excuse to sit there in silence. I manage hairdressers less than once a year but I make it worthwhile - like brastap lenght hair to chin length hair in one visit - that way I get my money's worth, and I don't have to go back for a while. Also the compliments for the 'radical change' keep me going for a week or so!

Geeka said...

obviously your hairdresser has not heard of the luxurious hair club for scientists, run by the people that do the igNobels.

I have been told that I look like a scientist, but not a student. I guess I can't have it both ways.

Carrie said...

What is it with hairdressers? My favorite story: I'm in getting my hair cut and we're discussion my upcoming move to Hawaii (for my post-doc). And the hairdresser asks me "so, your husband is actually going to follow you all the way there?". Egads.

betty said...

You can't need to have your cut to "look young" if your hairdresser, a woman who spends all day looking at women, can't tell you're over 40.