Androgyny Through the Ages

When I was in kindergarten, my mom gave me a bowl cut—yes, I still hold this against her. A rulebook should be given to each parent concerning their children’s hair and fashion, and the first rule should be never to cut your daughter’s hair shorter than her ears unless she requests it. I suggest this not because kids are cruel—though they certainly have the capacity to be so—but because children have yet to learn that blurring the lines of gender can be a good thing, even a stylish thing. Children learn that boys have short hair and girls have long hair, that girls wear dresses and lipstick, and boys wear pants and jerseys with their dads’ favorite athlete’s name and number plastered onto the back of it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my classmates told me I looked like a boy. No matter how many dresses and skirts my mother put on me, I looked like a boy. I always had a stronger, more masculine jaw. And five-year-olds aren’t exactly allowed to wear makeup to hide these gender-bending qualities.

Needless to say, I grew my hair out until it went past my shoulders and down my back, but the damage had already been done. Elementary school was a mess of Sketchers platform sneakers and misfit hand-me-downs. Middle school was more or less the same. High school became a place where I did my best just to go unnoticed because at that point, it had gone beyond my hair and my clothes. I hated my face, the cleft in my chin, the fluff that would later become a chiseled cheekbone, and my long, spindly body. I had the legs of Kermit the Frog and what had to be the palest skin in New Jersey. My closet housed flared jeans and sweatshirts, nothing very flattering.

But something strange happened when I went to college. I bought a trench coat. Okay, I know, not really strange. Lots of people buy trench coats. But this coat hit my waist just right and billowed out around my legs in a fashion that was nothing less than majestic when there was a blustery autumn day on campus. And when I walked into the freshman seminar that I shared with my fellow English majors, they cooed over this coat, causing my squashed ego to inflate just a little bit. That was the beginning.

Sophomore year did the trick for me. For a long time, I’d been wanting to chop my hair off again, give it another go now that I was older. I finally committed to the pixie cut sported by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. But I was worried. I thought I would be told I looked like a boy or a lesbian—something I laugh about now because really, I don’t know why I cared so much about what other people thought.

Finally cutting it off was the best decision I ever made. I was no longer hiding behind my hair. And along with this major change to my head, I went through a kind of rebirth. I learned how to use makeup. I began painting my nails and wearing high heels. This was all a way of letting the world know that I was a woman, of course. So my journey was not yet complete. But I was getting there. I took an interest in fashion, in what I was putting on my body and what message that was sending to others.

Then the compliments came rolling in. Random strangers would stop me to tell me how much they liked my hair or my shoes. I’d never felt so good in my life. It was like I’d finally figured out who I was. The features on my face that I’d hated for so long became the characteristics I liked the most.

After I graduated, my heels went back into the closet and stayed there. I’d been dressing up for class since sophomore year, but now had no reason to get up and put on the makeup and the skirts and blouses that had made me feel so good. There was no room for them now that I was an unemployed graduate and the most exciting event of the week was a trip to Target.

I began to play with my casual style. I turned in my blouses for v-neck t-shirts and my heels for a pair of classic Keds. Everything became oddly unisex. I even shaved the sides of my head. My boyfriend knows this side of me, this casual, borderline-hipster look.

But see, now I’m going back to school. In about a week, I’ll be packing to head to New York University for their Summer Publishing Institute. Nine to five every Monday through Friday, I’ll be meeting important people in the publishing industry. And though part of me is excited to dust off the high heels, another is bemoaning the loss of another phase in my life of fashion, one in which I was happy playing with my androgyny.

The June/July issue of Harper’s Bazaar arrived just in time. I flipped through its glossy pages at all the beautiful clothes, jewelry, and makeup until I made it to the back of the issue, to a segment called “What’s Chic Right Now.” Nathaniel Goldberg photographed a beautiful blonde with choppy, short locks in typically masculine clothes. One photo had her in a Georgio Armani suit with a cropped pant and a jacket that was so beautifully cut that it could look both masculine and feminine at the same time.

This is what I want. I want little girls to see these images and know that they can be whatever they want to be. They can have short hair and wear suits and play football and wear makeup and play with dolls and cars. I think this is what my mother was trying to instill in me when she cut my hair all those years ago. She never wanted us to be held back by anything, especially not by our gender.

Still though, a bowl cut?

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