Friday, February 6, 2009

Hairy Times

I hope that this Freakonomics blog entry is the last we'll see of the idea that the length of women's hair is tied to the health of the economy. But since beauty editors are starved for fresh takes on the same old stuff (there are only so many ways to apply lipstick, but editors have evermore pages to produce -- and if those pages can have some grounding in research instead of fashion whims, they'll even get the whiff of legitimate news instead of product shilling), I'm sure some enterprising beauty editor will fashion a short-hair story around the Dow.

The whole concept irks me. First of all, it's based on Japanese research, and superimposing Japanese cultural and beauty norms onto European and American ones doesn't track. We're talking about a nation whose women have the lowest perception of self-beauty in Asian countries -- and a culture in which youth is highly prized as a mark of beauty (scroll down to the "I Think a Woman Can Be Beautiful at Any Age" chart). What signals youth? Long hair. Certainly the U.S. isn't suffering from an abundance of old women who they're they're the shizznit, but Japan has its own rigid set of beauty standards that can't be applied to the west.

Then, this is a mighty convenient way to potentially get women to actually spend more. Short hair requires more maintenance, both in frequency of haircuts and in the number of products the average woman requires to make it look good. Sure, foot-long tresses require greater quantities of, say, shampoo and hairspray -- but they don't use pomade, or waxes, or "hair muds," or any of the number of products that exist for short hair. Short hair may project the image of being carefree, but in my experience it's very easy to make it require as much or more work than long hair. With luxury sectors -- like, say, $150 haircuts -- plummeting, it only makes sense to suddenly hype short hair.

But really, what's upsetting to me about this idea is that it illustrates how women, for all of our mighty advances, are still thought of as chattel. The past American century can be charted by the idealized shape of women's bodies: boyish, bound-breasted women of the 1920s (when the economy was flush and women were doing novel things like voting); ampler bodies in the Great Depression; girdled, heavily maintained hourglasses of the 1950s, when America was collectively holding its breath during the beginning of the Cold War.

One of the greater achievements of third-wave feminism is calling attention to the beauty standard, most tragically reflected in the eating-disorder epidemic. We're still a long ways from the goal (to wit, Jessica Simpson's "weight battle"--good thing we have Pete Wentz to give us voice!), but at least now women by and large know that there's a huge cultural effect on the way we're encouraged to eat, exercise, and shop. So it would be a wee bit suspect if suddenly "curvier" women (like, you know, Jessica Simpson) were suddenly being hailed as recession babes.

Instead, we get to wear the recession on our heads, supposedly. But hair length is intensely personal for many women. In the algorithm of what hair length feels right at any given time, you'll find femininity, maintenance, male attention, weight, breakups (and, for some, Jennifer Aniston). There's no denying economic influence on fashion -- pajama and lingerie sales aren't suffering as much as the rest of the fashion market, because people want to stay at home, either on the couch or in the boudoir -- but for something we wear literally every day whether we like it or not, we're less likely to even unconsciously succumb to the need for variety among visual pleasures (which is the reasoning the cultural economist in the Independent article provides for the supposed trend). We're not stupid, after all -- if the need for variety increases in dark times, we're not going to seek that variety in the form of $45 haircuts every six weeks. If anything, the women I know are finding ways to eke out their styles so they can go to the salon as infrequently as possible. (Me, I'm pulling the French-twist trick, in which I wear my hair up every other day, a style I can't do with short hair. This also means I don't have to wash it on French-twist day, which means decreased shampoo costs! Recessionista, c'est moi!) Note that the term "lipstick index," for the totally bogus idea that women buy more lipstick in poor economies, was termed not by economists but by Leonard Lauder, chair of Estée Lauder.

We also can't forget that ever since codes of women's appearance relaxed to the point where it wasn't unseemly for a woman to go out without a salon-perfect hairdo, there hasn't really been such a thing as "long hair" and "short hair" trends. Sure, sweeping trends like The Rachel dictate a certain length. But Twiggy's uberfeminine pixie is just as emblematic of the late '60s as Catherine Deneuve's flowing tresses in Belle de Jour, or the totally free Mama Cass-style locks. Even in the 1980s, the epitome of big hair, the world's leading style icon was short-haired Princess Di. Once the rule of long hair for girls, short hair for boys had been broken, American women haven't really looked back as a mass trend. To say that short hair is suddenly a trend, especially as a response to the economy, smacks of engineering.

I can't help but feel like the reporting of this trend is simply serving to highlight the notion of women's appearance as being less about our own desires and more about literally being a commodity. (Quick, invest in Frederic Fekkai!) The numbers show that we buy according to climate -- that's the whole idea behind the stimulus package, after all. But it's suspect that women -- we silly, frivolous women who have done things like paint seams on our legs to mimic pantyhose in past times of distress; we vain women who might be laid off but supposedly are jumping at the chance to join the short-hair bandwagon -- are being painted as being the ones to act illogically in these times.

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