06 June 2004

Tattoos, hair, and authenticity

Update March 2018

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was persuaded that my comments on hair here were completely wrongheaded style- and identity-policing horseshit.

If you need to manage where and with whom you are different degrees of out about any aspect of your life, you should have my support, not me sniping at you.

I regret the error.

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?


Marcy said...

Every time we walk into the world, how we style ourselves (hair, makeup, clothes, etc) sets up a series of consequences. Personally, I think it is all an illusion that we create in order to justify the feelings we allow ourselves to experience. For example, I did a test a few years ago where I dyed my hair blonde. And you know what, I did have more fun. Was it the blonde hair or was it my expectation of the consequence of dying my hair?

Jonathan Korman said...

Marcy is the author of a spam blog promoting a brand of hair straightening iron, which is why her comment is a bit of a non-sequiter—it was put here by an advertising robot.

Really, her comment is such a cunning piece of spam, so close to being a plausible comment, that I cannot resist leaving it up that others may marvel at it.

d a r k c h i l d e said...

I'd be interested in finding out if those tattooed arm stocking things come in a "plain" style to keep covered the already tattooed arms. I, for one, know that I would appreciate being able to again wear a short sleeved dress on a work day in the summertime, but my arm and back prevents me from doing so without offending the sensibilities of those I work with and the company that I enjoy working for. For me, it's a compromise.

On to the lesbian hair thing. In my personal days of undergraduate-hood which was happening at the same time as your own, but in the Ohio mid-west, I was doing the feminist-certificate track program as well. I thought I was already ingratiated with the feminist philosophy. I appreciated the choice and decision to sleep with members of the same sex as well as to pair-bond with them. And yet, as much of an activist and essayist as I was, it was rallied very strongly to try to throw me out of any feminist-organized events, and after that failed, there was a very high-schoolesque attempt at social blackballing. Why, because to finance my education I found it more cost-effective to work in a strip club and use my assets to get my degree AND be able to attend those activist events! Thankfully I have the thick skin that often comes with someone who is a veteran of the sex industry. You just can't guilt or intimidate me out of anything. Plus, they were wrong.

So, as you can imagine, as someone in the sex industry I lived day in and day out with a façade of the "voluptuous character" which I altered ever now and again. Who I was, was NOT what I looked like. So I've always rallied that uniforms are not indicative of who you are or what you believe. I think that feeling strong enough to "die for a cause" is a great thing, but so is being flexible enough to infiltrate your perceived enemy and to start and change the thinking from within. Sometimes just another inch from the inside out is more adoptable and long-lasting as a sledgehammer trying to beat its way inside.

Who know…until next time, chop wood and carry water.

Katherine Summer said...

I don't find the tattoo shirts offensive in the least. I would wear one. I think they're kind of neat, and they're obviously shirts, not real tattoos. What I think is weirder is that special noncommital ink that they're making these days.

Alan Armstrong said...

Years later, I am still marveling at the cunningness of Marcy's piece of spam.