JUNE 1999 IN

Rude Hair

Everyone, growing up, faces no-win situations that demand a decision. In my case, it was the shape of my head and the shape of my hair that presented one such dilemma.

American society at that time was far more intolerant in matters of style than it is now. I knew about this firsthand because I had curly hair. Curly hair, then, was considered rude. The picture people had of hair that had been taken care of didn’t allow for curls. If you had a few curls on your head, well, you needed to go comb your hair. And if your head was covered with curls, it was as good as thumbing your nose at the whole world. If you had the misfortune of having naturally curly hair, what you were supposed to do was cut it short enough that it wouldn’t show any curls. In my case, that meant cutting my hair to a length of no more than about an inch. I did so.

It didn’t work out. With my hair that short, the shape of my head became a problem. The combination of my extra-large skull and miniature face made it impossible for people to think of me as a normal person. Add in my heavy eyeglasses and uncanny intelligence, and people invariably saw me as some kind of freaky mutant genius. I struggled with that image for years and never could make it work for me.

I had to grow my hair long enough to disguise the shape of my head, regardless of what people thought. I was a teenager by that point anyway, and being taken as a rebel worked out a lot better than being freakishly ugly. Times changed, and by the time I started to work as a computer programmer, my naturally curly hair no longer looked odd to very many people. By then, if you wanted to make your hairstyle stick out, you had to color it orange, put gunk in it to make it spiky, or shave a lot of it off. Or better yet, do all three at once. And even that didn’t have much impact after several million ordinary people tried that look.

While it’s good that American society has become more tolerant of the natural variations in human hair, it’s really not that impressive an achievement. After all, only about one seventh of Americans ever had hair that naturally fit the ideal image that hair used to be compared to. And people are still holding onto many ideals and standards that have intolerance built into them. The old-fashioned ideal of business attire, for example, is based on an arbitrary picture of the ideal businessman, a picture that excludes women and, for that matter, works poorly for most men. When people look for leaders who can stand tall, it makes them vote disproportionately for political candidates over six feet in height. People who decide they’re “sick of whiners” are setting themselves up to be conned by people who may be just as self-centered, but phrase their selfish complaints in complete sentences spoken with hearty, resonant voices. I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples just like this. Nearly every reference to the physical human form in standards of or complaints about people’s conduct is just such a mistake. The idea of “rude hair” may sound silly now, but people still talk about the “stature of a leader,” a notion that is every bit as intolerant.

There is reason to hope that we may, as a society, learn to accept the whole range of the human form. The nineteenth-century Victorian idea that the human physical form was an evil that needed to be overcome has gradually lost its currency over the course of the twentieth century. The phrase “only human,” once a commonplace excuse for people’s most egregious misconduct, is now rarely heard, because people now understand human nature more as a positive, sustaining force in human relations than as the cause of all human problems. All we need to do is extend this faith in human nature to an acceptance of people’s natural physical variations. This will eliminate a whole category of imaginary conflicts and open up a world of new possibilities for people. And it’s the right thing to do. It never did do any good to be pointing fingers at people who, on closer inspection, could be seen to be doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

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