“You carry your brush with you?” my friend Abeline asked me incredulously the other day. We were studying in a coffee shop and I pulled a brush out of my backpack to comb my tangled hair.
“It’s a new development,” I said.
I’m not exactly sure what drove Abeline to comment, but it made me think about the impetus of the new brush situation. I am half-Arab, one-quarter Italian; my hair is very dark, very thick, and, right now, very long. Usually I don’t bother with it much. It takes too long to style. If it’s in my way, I either put it up in a bun or in a braid. It’s kind of heavy and sometimes it looks pretty, but in general I don’t think about it that often.
Until I started working at a school. At my job as, essentially, a classroom assistant, my sixth graders are constantly commenting on my hair. A couple of the girls love to twist it into elaborate braids during lunch. When it’s down, I often flip it from side to side because it gets in my eyes, and my students always yell, “Why do you always do that?” The running hair commentary makes me pay closer attention to my appearance than I normally would. I have never put much effort into my looks because 1) I never developed the skill set and 2) I was never presented with the incentive. Around sixth grade, when one starts processing these things, I noticed that there were “pretty girls” in class that got a lot of attention. The most popular was Destiny. She had huge boobs, naturally tan skin and an easy smile. A cute boy with dimples, blonde hair and green eyes moved into our class—Sean—and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Destiny and Sean would become a couple—the couple. One day during reading period, Sean walked up to me and said matter-of-factly, “I like you and Destiny.” Then he walked away. I was sort of shocked. I was not unpopular, but I was not one of the “pretty girls.” I was one of the “smart girls.” Nevertheless, Sean was interested, so he became my first boyfriend, and also taught me a rather trite life lesson: looks aren’t everything.
I have a very clear memory of watching Grease when I was a kid and feeling like at the end, when Sandy got the perm and the tight clothes and ended up with Danny, that I was missing something. There was something I didn’t get. My mom didn’t really ever talk about looks, so at that time I didn’t have the language to frame what had happened at the end of Grease. When I got older, I understood that it was a ubiquitous cultural narrative: you get pretty so you can get a boyfriend. My sixth-grade experience, though, held true through high school and into young adulthood. No matter what the ads and movies said, I had seen no evidence that I needed to wear makeup or invest any undue effort into my appearance to attract men, and so I never learned how. I never figured out how to use a curling iron or put on eyeliner or choose my lipstick shade. I learned that as a very hairy girl thanks to my Italian-Arab jackpot, I felt more comfortable with my appearance when I got threaded, and that I liked how my nails looked with a manicure, so I began to invest in those beautification procedures. Beyond that, I didn’t really get into a beauty regimen.
Once I reached young adulthood, I realized that girls do not adopt beauty routines strictly for the benefit of the male gaze, that some young women feel empowered and excited by makeup and fashion—but I didn’t understand that until I was through my formative years, when a lot of those interests and habits form. Thus, I felt like I basically missed the window for developing a proficient beautification skill set, and I wasn’t troubled by that since it had never seemed to work against me. The last thing I thought about when I decided to become a teacher was the way it would affect my beauty routine, or lack thereof. I anticipated all sorts of challenges: having to learn to censor myself in certain situations, dealing with disruptive kids, defusing angry parents. What I didn’t think about was my hair. And yet, as soon as I was surrounded by sixth graders who were, like my sixth-grade self, becoming situated with beauty standards and social messages about looks and the dynamics of a classroom crush, my appearance became part of their conversation. My hair is no longer just my hair; my choice of shoe is no longer just my choice of shoe—these are potential classroom distractions.
I always thought there was a current of sexism running through requests for women to look “office appropriate”—which to me suggested a full face of makeup and immaculately blown-out hair. The implication seemed to be that a woman in her more natural state would somehow be a hindrance in the workplace, which fit into the larger cultural narrative that women should conform to certain models of femininity in order to be accepted. But now that I’m working with youth in a school setting, I am more aware of some of the subtleties at work when it comes to self-presentation. Luckily my current position is still fairly casual, but once I begin teaching full-time, I’ll definitely have to learn to strike a balance between being myself and looking professional—whatever that means.