So I stumbled across this harsh, provocative little essay, COINTELPRO Tactics and the Elimination of the Tattoo Menace, which rails against a new faux tattoo technology.
They’re flesh-tone shirt/stockings with high quality prints of large tattoos on them. Unlike fashions that simply co-opt tattoo designs (which I have no fundamental problem with, and think is flattering), the goal of these is to actually make it look like you have large-scale tattoos — it’s a costume.
To me the issue is in the conversion of a permanent message into a transient message (to say nothing of the elimination of the “message of the message” altogether) — the exchange of commitment and loyalty for transience and whoring.
That essay reminds me of something that bothered me when I was a college student.
At UC Santa Cruz around 1990 there was a very dopey crunchy / lefty student culture. Free Mumia. Zionism is racism. Meat is murder. Sometimes I think it's a wonder I didn't become a Republican out of exasperation.
It was common for female undergrads to have a kind of feminist epiphany: take Introduction to Feminism, read Adrienne Rich's essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum”, find it resonates with some of her experience ... then try out flirting with her TA, who was a Real Live Lesbian.
Yes, I'm mocking a bit — but gently, gently. I walked in to UCSC already an unequivocal feminist, so I have every reason to mostly respect the awkward zeal of the newly converted. And the Goddess knows, at that time in my life I had my own share of goofy enthusiasms.
But there was a style thing common among those young women that bugged me.
Some women took the plunge into short hair as a lesbian signifier, or at least as a challenge to mainstream ideas of femininity. Now I've got some investment in the cultural politics of hair myself: I entered college with shoulder-length hair, graduated with it at my waist, and I still have it a dozen years later. So I respect a challenging hairstyle.
Shannon Larratt's tattoo essay points to getting a tattoo being a committment to being read a certain way by other people, and hair is similar. Obviously, a hairstyle isn't as permanent as ink, but you cannot switch it back and forth on a mere whim the way you can change your clothes. You're making a choice to have some sorts of people respond to you badly, and other people respond to you well, when you do something with your hair.
But many women found a way around that. They would shave their head at the sides and back, but leave their hair long at the crown. In their sociology classroom, they would tie back their hair, creating a sort of butch/punk look. But wearing it down at Thanksgiving dinner, Aunt Laura would never notice that anything was amiss. Which seemed to me like missing the point: the street cred of butch hair comes from making your identity visible to the disapproving Aunt Lauras of the world. It's a style choice, but not just a style choice — a style choice with consequences.
If you can't even commit to your style choices, what kind of person are you?