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Image by Adrian Fernandez for Unsplash
Image by Adrian Fernandez for Unsplash

Hair and Social Standards: Is Beauty Really in the Eye of the Beholder?

Hair and Social Standards: Is Beauty Really in the Eye of the Beholder?

Author’s Memo

Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps, the beholder’s perception of what is beautiful is, in reality, the internalization of a construct defined (or dictated) by the dominant culture, societal norms, and the beauty industry. This autoethnographic narrative, focusing on a single aspect of appearance, reflects my perceptions of the subtle and not so subtle ways societal and cultural definitions of beauty have influenced my life. It describes how ideas of what is and is not fashionable, as depicted in popular media, can indelibly affect one’s self-perception and identity. In addition, it details the pressures to conform to idealized notions of what is attractive and acceptable and the concomitant costs, both financial and emotional, of conforming to others’ aesthetic standards.

Hair
Image of a woman in a forest by Radu_floryn22 for Pixabay

My niece and I are walking through the mall and I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.  I’m not the shopper in the family.  Everyone else loves to shop.  Not me.  Nonetheless, a few days ago, my sister volunteered me to take my niece shopping for her junior high school graduation dress.  Everyone else was out of town.  When my sister sent me on this mission, I was a bit panicked because we had precisely one day to find a dress suitable for graduation.  To be honest, I’m not even sure what “suitable for graduation” means.  When I graduated junior high school I wore a floor-length white dresses, so pure, so innocent, not a trace of anything even slightly immodest or risqué. 

At my nephew’s junior high graduation, a few years ago, some of the girls appeared to be wearing skimpy negligees with stilettos.  If negligees and stilettos are now considered “suitable” graduation attire, I knew I was totally unqualified for this assignment.  Yet, somewhat miraculously, we managed to find a dress that my niece liked, that fit perfectly. And it was within my sister’s budget. “Done!  Done! And done!”

Out of what was perhaps an abundance of caution, we decided the strapless dress needed spaghetti straps.  No matter how beautiful she felt in the dress, we didn’t want to raise eyebrows or ruin graduation with any sort of inappropriate wardrobe malfunction.  Luckily, the seamstress at Nordstrom’s knew just what to do and could have the alterations ready in an hour. So, we left the dress in her expert hands

We are meandering through the bright, glistening, florescent-lit mall, when we hear, “Do you want to have your hair straightened?”  We look over and, in the middle of the mall, a lady is standing in front of a little pushcart selling flatirons.

I am an easy mark.  I’m Jewish and was born with very thick, very curly hair. This morning I washed it and let it air dry.  So, Medusa-like, atop my head sits a perfusion of coils unconstrained by hairbands or barrettes.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with my ethnic super curly, super frizzy, very big hair.  Back in the day, Marcia Brady, the quintessence of teenage girlhood on The Brady Bunch TV show, had straight blonde hair.  That is what everyone coveted and admired. But I was stuck with my untamable brown coif, at least until I went swimming. Fully submerged underwater, I witnessed my hair transform as it floated behind me. The water’s magic cast a spell, relaxing my abundant pouf and momentarily transforming my brown frizz into hair that appeared longer, less curly, more acceptable. Yet, as soon as I emerged from the water, the air reversed the transformation and my frizzy curls came back to taunt me.

My mom was born with stick-straight hair.  She had no clue what to do with my uncontrollable mane.  In fact, she thought my halo of curls was marvelous: my crowning glory.  When I was a toddler, she loved that people stopped her on the street to admire my curls.  Sometimes they’d ask her if she had permed my hair.  She thought that was hilarious, hilarious and wonderful; “Who would perm a toddler’s hair?” she would laugh, as she beamed with pride over my natural Shirley-Temple ringlets.  As I grew older, my mom could never understand that the curls she loved, and that others had once admired when I was a young child, were no longer in style.

Then, somewhat miraculously, in high school, I experienced a fleeting reprieve from the fashion outcasts.  The fickle fashion czars smiled upon me and in their capricious omnipotence deemed natural curls “the thing.” Much to my surprise and delight, a shorter curly look was no longer considered an eyesore.  Although I couldn’t rock Marcia Brady’s straight blond tresses, I could easily emulate the suddenly-stylish brunette nimbus of curls her brothers sported.  For what felt like a miniscule interlude, my hair was momentarily chic.

Fashions change; my hair doesn’t.  So, the struggle to conquer my coiffure returned unabated.  Luckily, I discovered hair gel.  Serious, serious, serious amounts of hair gel keep the curls curly and prevent them from totally frizzing out.  Some hair gels are too crunchy, some are too flakey. After a great deal of trial and error I found a product that worked well to temporarily tame my bouffant mop.

Then, in grad school, a man I was dating seemed to appreciate my unfashionable pre-Raphaelite hairstyle.  This was gratifying until he shared a story about the day his ex-wife came home with her curly hair cut short.

A painting showing Pre-Raphaelite hairstyle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Birmingham Museums Trust for Unsplash
A painting showing Pre-Raphaelite hairstyle
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“She didn’t ask me!” he whinged.

“What?” I asked, appalled.

It took me a moment to process what he had said. “Did this professed feminist think a woman needed to ask a man’s permission to cut her hair?” I wondered.  I did not utter this thought because his message was clear.  He viewed her haircut as a serious betrayal and her shorter hair as unattractive, both further alienating his already waning affections.  Afraid of a similar fate, I let my hair, like our relationship, grow longer and more and more unmanageable. 

The day after I broke up with him, I got my hair cut.  “You cut that man right out of your hair!” my friend teased.  We laughed. Her words could not have been more true.  I felt fierce and free.

Over the years, I found that to make my irrepressible locks look “professional,” it was best not to let my hair grow more than an inch or so beyond my shoulders.  I also tried my best to come to terms with my uninhibited shock of shoulder-length poodle fluffiness.  My sister and my two nieces have not.  Unlike my mother, who still harbors an appreciation for my natural cloud of curls, they repeatedly “suggest” that I get my hair professionally straightened. 

Basically, they want me to spend a boatload of time and money to put a boatload of cancer-causing chemicals in my hair.  I’m allergic to all sorts of chemicals and, to me, the commitment of time and money is totally absurd.  To make matters work, you have to go back to the salon every few months for a touch up to deal with the unsightly curly roots that now terminate in stick-straight strands.  Needless to say, this was never going to happen.

“Do you want to have your hair straightened?” the mall lady, pink flatiron in hand, asks again. My niece, who has no affinity for my curls, exclaims, “Yes, you’ve got to do it! You’ve got to!”  But, I’m not sure, “I don’t know. Let me think about it.”

“Let me do just a little bit,” the lady offers.

I’m not sure why I’m hesitating. I mean, she’s willing to straighten my hair for free.  Of course, it goes without saying she’s hoping that using my voluminous hair for a demo in the middle of the mall will help her sell a flatiron to me, or perhaps to some other passerby. Yet, she insists there’s no obligation.  So, what do I have to lose?  Besides, we have an hour before my niece’s dress will be ready. So, I give in.

The next thing I know, I’m sitting in the middle of the mall, somewhere between Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn, and this stranger is flat ironing my hair in public.  The lady takes a small curly strand and flatirons it. It’s perfectly straight, silky even.  I can’t believe it’s my hair.  Shoppers start to notice.  To be honest, the show is a bit of a crowd-pleaser.  People gawk at the transformation of each strand, just like they do at the before-and-after makeovers on TV. 

They try not to stare as the lady’s flatiron-magic does the impossible. It tames my untamable hair right before their very eyes.  The audience, mesmerized by my miraculous metamorphosis, gazes with admiration.  I feel the love.  Needless to say, I buy the flatiron. Now, with a little practice, I will be able to work this magic myself. My niece and I agree to keep my new hair makeover a secret from the rest of the family until graduation day.

On graduation day, my family gathers at my sister’s house to take some photos before we head over to the school for the commencement ceremony. When I enter my sister’s home and do “the big reveal,” my family is delighted and amazed.  They, too, admire my shiny flat-ironed hair and again I feel the love.  I also feel a tremendous amount of pressure to keep up the “straighter” more acceptable look.  A few controlled curls, what I like to call “Kate Middleton hair,” are fine. But, in my family and in the genteel New England neck of the woods where I currently live, my natural, kinky, curly hair is not appreciated.

At times, when I’m out and about wearing my new do, so shiny and sleek, I feel like I’m masquerading as a native New Englander, complete with an ancestral lineage dating back to the Mayflower.  Yet I am keenly aware that neither my familial roots, nor the roots on my head, reflect Puritan ancestry. To maintain my silky-haired façade, hats, coats with hoods, and umbrellas have become necessities, as even a few raindrops (or a bit of humidity) can instantly reduce my silken tresses into a frizzy mess.

Sometimes, when I have flat ironed my hair to perfection and gaze into the mirror, it’s hard to see the real me: that frizzy-haired Jewish girl from Chicago.  Yet, when I step out of the shower, or unexpectedly get caught in the rain without an umbrella, like magic my true, irrepressible, untamable self suddenly appears.  And, once again, there I am.  If, at that moment, I happen to glance into a mirror, or catch my reflection in a shop window, the Jewish girl from Chicago stares back at me, with crazy curly hair, wild and free.

Credits

Featured Image by Adrian Fernández for Unsplash

Image by Radu_floryn22 for Pixabay

”Proserpine” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti By Birmingham Museums Trust for Unsplash


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Wendy K. Mages, a Mercy University Professor, is a Pushcart Prize nominee and an award-winning poet and author. To learn more about her and her work, and to find links to her published stories and poetry, please visit https://www.mercy.edu/directory/wendy-mages

  1. The aunt was viewed differently from the time she was small up until adulthood. Her hair was very unique in some ways people loved it. Her hair was different so she felt like an outcast. Her mom had straight hair and she had curly hair but as she grew older it was getting hard to tame. Everyone around her didn’t have the same texture hair as her. Straightening her hair could cause damage that’s why she really did not want to do it at first. The woman in the picture has shoulder length hair which represents the aunt’s hair. This also can symbolize growth. The vines in the back can symbolize spreading out and growing as well. The green clothing can symbolize her mother’s warmth and comfort that she gives. This piece and story line connects to me in the sense of being a black girl and being different from other girls hair texture. My hair is puffy and wild if not tamed with products. If I don’t tame my hair with a comb or brush then it will look very crazy. All girls should love their unique selves. God made us this way, we shouldn’t have to flat iron our hair if it’s naturally a different way. Love yourself!

  2. This article was about the societal pressures that ethnic women feet to fit beauty standards. I resonate with this article as I being a WOC have experienced peer pressure that influenced me to make changes to my physical appearance to adhere to certain beauty standards. Throughout this article, a young curly-haired Jewish woman describes her experience with managing her curly hair. Like myself, the woman in the story describes receiving compliments and appraisal when straightening her hair. I vividly remember straightening my hair for the first time during my freshman year of high school. My peers and acquaintances would always tell me “You should wear your hair like that more often” or “Your new hairstyle is so pretty”. Because of this, I wanted to straighten my hair nearly every day. It is important to remember that although a lot of compliments may not be said with malicious intent, they are also reinforcing the idea that WOC looks better with typical euro-centric features. A huge problem that can come along with this is an identity crisis. It can feel like you are hiding a part of your true self to be more digestible to others. So when you do showcase your natural beauty, it can feel like you aren’t looking at yourself, when in reality you are looking at the most authentic version of yourself.

  3. Hair can be a very tiring struggle. In this society if you have big curly hair you could get hate from that. They think it’s too big or doesn’t meet beauty standards. Most girls with curly hair always straighten it and you’d never know their hair was even curly. Straightening your hair everyday can cause heat damage though. People also think the longer your hair is the prettier it is. Your beauty should not be defined by how curly or straight your hair is. It is also very hard to deal with your hair alone especially if your parents do not know how to deal with it from their different hair texture. You have to try and find the right products for your hair. Not all products will work for everyone’s hair. Hair products are also very expensive and so is getting it straightened. The only time I felt pretty was when I had my hair straightened. I learned though that your natural hair is beautiful.

  4. This particular post stuck out to me because I feel in this time and day we live in a society with a number of unrealistic beauty standards. It is important that you learn to love yourself for who you are and how you look. Self love is something I had struggled with and had to work on for quit sometime. It’s not always easy to wake up and accept everything about yourself, to love yourself. You can do things that make you feel good and confident but not with the thought of pleasing others or under societal pressure. If something as small as straightening your hair gives you a bit of confidence and joy, go all for it. But at the end of the day you should know your self worth. Whatever is and isnt accepted in the society shouldn’t be your concern. You shouldn’t call your self names or give names to your features for example in the post we read how the girl refers to herself by names that aren’t so kind such as “bouffant mop”. When you know how to love yourself, you then can bring change in the society, and bring a whole new vision to build a more accepting/loving society.

  5. Beauty standards tend to sway towards what is currently trending and what is conventionally considered beautiful. Society’s standards of common beauty tend to be straight, blonde hair. Due to this many people find curly hair, untamed and unprofessional. Most people do not stop and think about this standard and just roll with it letting it decide that for them. Most, but not all there are some people that question about who created this social standard and what makes their statements the end all be all. These individuals are very strong-minded and actually take the time to self-analyze determining what they find attractive for them regardless of society’s opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder even if it does not feel like that. Everybody is somebody’s type it just will not be inherently obvious due to the overbearing standards that social media shoves in the faces of our youth. This is a problem, especially considering it is something so swallow as analyzing people’s genetically obtained features.

  6. Beauty standards tend to sway towards what is currently trending and what is conventionally considered beautiful. Society’s standards of common beauty tend to be straight, blonde hair. Due to this many people find curly hair untamed and unprofessional. Most people do not stop and think about this standard and just roll with it letting it decide that for them. Most, but not all, there are some people that question who created this social standard and what makes their statements the end all be all. These individuals are very strong-minded and actually take the time to self-analyze, determining what they find attractive for them regardless of society’s opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder even if it does not feel like that. Everybody is somebody’s type, it just will not be inherently obvious due to the overbearing standards that social media shoves in the faces of our youth. This is a problem, especially considering it is something so swallow as analyzing people’s genetically obtained features.

  7. Wendy, this article spoke to me, the idea of beauty standards and how they impact our lives and the reasons behind them affecting us has been something I’ve through about since I was a kid. From the article my takeaway was that what people view as beautiful is a construct determined by social factors including the dominant culture, societal norms, and the beauty industry. This made me think of the of how I view myself and what influences these perceptions, most of which originate from early childhood exposer to the internet and different media sources. Understanding despite the norm, we must cultivate our own beauty standards, and live freely in all our states of being. Having grown out my hair, my extended family have always made comments, but I push past the boundaries they have set, and I do what makes me feel beautiful and free. Moving onto the idea that social norms are everchanging, which is something that can lead back to racism, classism, and sexism. I mention these social issues because to this day there are a significant amount of people who view black hair as unprofessional to uphold systemic racism and keep black people away from opportunity. How overtime people are stealing from different cultures and making it the beauty standard has been a real issue in my lifetime. We all must let go of these social constructs and do makes us love ourselves, not what society tells us to.

  8. In the article the author spoke about the beauty standards for hair is based on either culture, social norms, and the beauty industry. The author grew up having curly hair so nice that even as a baby people would stop her mother on the street to admire her curls. But as she started to grow into her teenage years, and found her love for Marcia Brady because of her straight blonde hair. At some point in time she changed her hair style from her Jewish curly hair to it being straight. Even in my own life, I myself have gone through so many different hairstyles because of seeing someone else’s and liked it so I decided to go for a change myself. In the end of the article the author looked at herself and decided that she doesn’t feel like herself when she straightens out her hair, but when she has her curls and frizz, she sees herself a lot more. As for me, I eventually found the style that best suited me. I am not able to have a new style but feel like myself and not have to result to the standards of society and what others have to say.

  9. Wendy K. Mages is a Jewish women living in a western society with a curly hair, a hair texture that is considered undesirable by today’s western beauty standards. The western society’s perception of the right way for a women to dress influences what is deemed acceptable or not. This creates pressure on individuals to conform to society’s beauty standards, which evolve over time while human appearance remains constant.

    Although the author is comfortable with her curly hair, societal beauty standards impose pressure to make her hair look acceptable. During a shopping trip for her niece’s graduation dress, a lady offered to transform her hair to meet these standards as a straightened hair. Despite her sister and nieces suggesting fixes for her hair, she refrained due to allergies and the financial aspect. Eventually, she agreed to the “makeover”, mesmerizing the audience with the transformation.

    The new hairstyle made her feel like she was concealing her true identity, yielding to societal pressure. However, through this experience, she embraced her uniqueness and accepted herself for who she is, choosing to be different from others and be true to herself.

  10. In the article the author spoke about the beauty standards for hair is based on either culture, social norms, and the beauty industry. The author grew up having curly hair so nice that even as a baby people would stop her mother on the street to admire her curls. But as she started to grow into her teenage years, and found her love for Marcia Brady because of her straight blonde hair. At some point in time she changed her hair style from her Jewish curly hair to it being straight. Even in my own life, I myself have gone through so many different hairstyles because of seeing someone else’s and liked it so I decided to go for a change myself. In the end of the article the author looked at herself and decided that she doesn’t feel like herself when she straightens out her hair, but when she has her curls and frizz, she sees herself a lot more. As for me, I eventually found the style that best suited me. I am not able to have a new style but feel like myself and not have to conform to the standards of society and what others have to say.

  11. A curly haired Jewish girl has a love-hate relationship with her hair because of how difficult it is to control her hair from frizzing up and going all over the place. She believes that having her hair straightened is more acceptable in society. All throughout her life she has been told her curls were beautiful but her own thoughts and experience made her think otherwise.

    The perception of beauty is subjective. What one person finds to be attractive and appealing, another might find as repulsive. Everyone has alike and opposite views, however, what really matters is what beauty to you looks like and what finding beauty in yourself. Also, beauty is pain. Although this woman was always being complemented, she would always have trouble finding the right thing to control her hair.

    I understand where she’s coming from when she explains how hard it is to control her curls from frizzing up and finding the right products that suit her. I was also cautious about how many products were going into my hair because I didn’t want it to cause problems later on. Also, I’ve heard people say they wanted natural curls like mine, but if they knew how much trouble it is to fix it every morning they would think otherwise.

  12. In this post the author describes the struggles of a woman who has natural wild, free, frizzy hair and how she is told to change it in order to appear attractive in society. She made some good points and I honestly loved how in the end she did not fight the idea of changing her hair, because realistically I feel like people would change their appearance to become more acceptable to the public. So her basic point is who defines what is beauty, the individual themselves or the public?
    This can be broken down into a more detailed issue, there are stereotypes about how women’s hair should ideally be long and straight depending on race, there is sexism where men tell women how their hair should look, there is conformity and trying to please the public, along with many more. Each of these thoughts are all related to the text seeing as the author defines her issue and it could have progressed into any one of these.
    I can relate to this because as someone who deals with frizzy hair I know what it is like to do your hair and then have a drop of water ruin it. When I straighten my hair it takes about 2 hours, my hair is thick and contains curly, straight,and wavy pieces naturally. I agree I do feel as though society puts pressure on people to make sure their hair looks good in public, especially those with naturally wild hair. It is common for girls with naturally curly hair to straighten it when a special occasion comes up and vice versa for those with naturally straight hair. I simply feel as though hair should be done and controlled, but to the extent that only the person whose hair it is actually gets to decide what is best, not listening to society and having them tell you how you should wear your hair or what maps it beautiful. This was a great relatable story.

  13. In her autoethnographic account, “Hair and Social Standards: Is Beauty Really in the Eye of the Beholder?”, Wendy K. Mages discusses her personal battles with societal aesthetically pleasing norms. Central is her hair, a vivid representation of the force of cultural dictations, emphasizing the harmful impact these standards can have on individuals. She discusses how her own experiences with hair and beauty reflect the influence of societal and cultural definitions of beauty and how these definitions can be harmful to individuals. She also examines the financial and emotional costs of conforming to others’ aesthetically pleasing standards, including the time and money spent on beauty products and treatments. With social media becoming an increasingly prominent platform for self-presentation and image sharing, societal beauty standards have been further amplified. Even our choice of attire and beauty accessories further illustrates this emphasis on external appearance and the pressure to conform to a certain ideal. Today, the concept of beauty has become a complex and multifaceted topic. It encompasses not only physical traits but also societal expectations and personal preferences.

  14. A jewish-american woman has struggled with her identity for the majority of life and is further asked to change her identity when she gets her hair straightened at a mall. She is facing something a lot of woman with non-eurocentric features experience at some point in their lives. Although hair is one of the easier changes that can be made, nose jobs, skin bleaching, and liposuction are also ways people have changed their bodies to fit these standards. She also goes through a similar journey a lot of people go through. She was very rational about why doing things to change her hair were irrational until she saw the reactions of others to the transformation. My mother has natural hair herself but even she caved to the pressures of having to maintain my hair and got it permed when I was younger. It’s very hard to love yourself when everyone only loves the version of yourself that you created, not the natural you. I connected with this article especially because I did not grow up with other black people that weren’t my family, Even then, my mom has very long hair and I didn’t due to the different curl patterns. Not feeling pretty compared to the other girls in my class impacted a lot of the decisions I make about my hair. However, just as the character in the story does, I missed my natural hair. Lots of people go back natural at some point in their lives and it is part of the hair journey. It is part of the journey and will remain so for a long time.

  15. A Jewish-American woman describes her experience having non-western European features in an area where few people shared her features. She explains her feelings of confusion and isolation due to her family lacking the same features that define her physical identity. I relate to her when she describes her relationship with her hair and beauty standards because I am a black female in this Western society. It can be hard to fit into American society sometimes because of my hair and how my hair can present different opportunities. When I worked at a coffee chain, I had to special request a uniform hat that would be suitable to fit my hair, but if I wore it straight, I know I wouldn’t have had to order it. Oftentimes, I feel that I could somewhat avoid these types of problems by simply wearing my hair straight, but that also hinders the internal progress I make within myself to accept my hair for the way it is.
    I felt proud for her when she told about her journey to loving her hair, especially since she had little support from not only her community, but her family because they couldn’t relate to her as they have straight hair. It is very reflective of the Eurocentric beauty standards that we have in Western society, whether it is from hair, nose shape, lip size, or other features that can be altered to fit a look.

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