Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taking Control for Myself

I recently read a theory that women make drastic physical changes when their life is in turmoil. The theory posits that we do this as a means of taking control over the one thing we feel we can control: our own bodies. The theory specifically cited hair cuts as an example; when happy and stable, women prefer their hair long, but when in times of crisis, stress, or difficulty women cut their hair off.

There is some demonstrable truth to the theory. Think of Frida Kahlo’s statement upon learning of yet another of Diego’s affairs… she cut off her waist-length tresses, at home, on her own, into a rather “manly” short cropped cut. Certainly we can all think of instances in our own lives or the lives of women we love who have suddenly cut it all off after a divorce, prolonged illness, death of a family member or other “trauma”. In the same way, we know of women who after having been conservative or simply “stuck” in one style or color for a long time suddenly begin changing color frequently or trying completely new cuts and styles, and we wonder at the seeming schizophrenia of their hair.

There is another truth also that isn’t accounted for in these theories. The theory assumes chaos, trauma, depression, angst – negativity. But what of the positive side of such changes? What is so wrong with a woman taking control of her body and her style and expressing herself as she desires?

Where the theory falls short is that it a) neglects to take into account differing cultural norms, b) fails to recognize that the changes in ones life may be good changes and that the physical changes are marking the transformation, and c) some women have been “forced” into a set way of looking and finally feel free to express themselves through their physical choices.

I have recently made some changes. You could say it is trauma, but I would beg to differ with you. I was divorced more than a year-and-a-half ago and am still wrestling with that emotionally. It has taken me this long to come to terms with the fact that my husband probably really isn’t coming back. Though we remain friends, I can see that he doesn’t want to be a husband, doesn’t want to be the kind of husband I need. I also recently made the decision to start looking for a new husband and very quickly found that I was mistaken that it is what I really want. Perhaps it is that I am still not ready, or perhaps it is that I have become comfortable with my independence and don’t find much that a husband can really offer me that I don’t have on my own. This is a drastic and frightening step for a Muslim woman to take, though I am convinced that I am not the only Muslim woman to feel this way.

As I said, I’ve just recently made a few changes. Initially, I shaved off all my hair for medical reasons. I was having surgery in early July and the prospect of six weeks of semi-bed rest, all alone, in the summer, made me think I wouldn’t have the energy to properly care for my hair. After the surgery, when I healed quite quickly and found that I was able to care for my needs much easier than anticipated, I decided I had better start growing it back out right away. My concern for growing it out, however, was because “that is what a husband is going to expect”. I was planning to begin marriage discussions, and I was embarrassed to think I might get married and be seen for the first time by my husband after the contract was already signed, and he would be shocked by my lack of hair.

It is only after those talks have fallen through, and upon further discussion with my ex-husband and my acceptance that he is not going to change, that I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to do something (or not do something) because of what a potential spouse might think of it. I want to be accepted as I am. I had worn my hair short for years before my son was born, and on various occasions since. It is easier for me to manage and more comfortable for me. My hair is quite heavy when long and difficult to keep inside my hijab scarf. The weight of it contributes to my frequent headaches, and the mess of it makes me crazy. So I’ve decided to keep it very short. And to dye it a color I like. My mother asked me “why dye it if no one ever sees it anyway?” and I said “for me.”

Another change I made, just for me, was to get some new earrings. In high school, I wore five earrings in one ear and two in the other. For years now I haven’t worn an “odd set” of earrings because I wanted to be “pretty” for whichever husband I was with at the time.
Despite not wearing earrings in any of the upper holes in years, they are still open. The first holes, I have worn earrings in but they itch and bother me quickly so though I have a huge and fun earring collection I rarely wear them. Yesterday I purchased two sets of small gold hoops. I now have three earrings in one ear, and one in the other. I considered putting studs into the higher holes, but they would be pressed against by my underscarf and uncomfortable.

Rather than worrying what any potential spouse expects of me, I have decided to just be me. Any potential spouse, if there ever is another potential spouse, isn’t the right one if he can’t accept that. I feel beautiful and comfortable as I am and don’t want to conform to someone else’s ideal. So whereas the theory claims that it is a sign of distress when a woman takes control of her body, and indeed there is some truth to that, I would argue that just as often it is a sign of self-acceptance and freedom for a woman to do so. And I recommend it!

Besides, hair grows back.


Nadia said...

i love this post! i have been experimenting lately with different changes, doing my nails, changing my hair, altering my piercings/jewelry, so i feel this. <3

Aaminah Hernandez said...

Thanks Nadia! I really wanted to explore this idea that making physical changes must be negative. I don't deny that sometimes it is due to trauma and sometimes it is self-destructive, but I believe just as often it can be a positive thing.