Monday, November 8, 2010

Transgressive Hairstyles

A few weeks ago, the New York Times' published a piece from a middle-aged woman who wears her hair long and naturally grey examining how her family, friends, and strangers all vehemently disapprove of her hairstyle. Beyond the questions of middle-age-related gender expectations, it made me think about how women's hairstyle choices always seem to elicit discussion, disdain, and efforts at conformity. Including, of course, our wedding day hairstyles. 

As a bride, short hair is transgressive. Long hair is the youthful, romantic, Rapunzel-esque wedding ideal, despite the fact that many of us are no longer young, not terribly romantic, and we've managed to discover that short hair can be sexy as hell.  Jason still thinks my sexiest haircut was when I chopped it all off and debuted it by striding into his office holiday party with four-inch stiletto boots. And he'd be right because short hair is brave and daring. Short hair is punk rock. Short hair is what happens when you finally get the bad ex out of your system and go out barhopping with girlfriends.

And then, somewhere along the way, as discussed in the New York Times piece, long hair becomes daring for a middle-aged woman and short becomes de rigeur. And as for natural... natural is always daring. Whatever age of race you are, natural is daring. And by natural, I mean natural color, natural kink, and minimal product. (And yes, this post is mainly going to lean on my white-girl hair perspectives, so I apologize in advance, though I'd love to hear more from non-white readers in the comments.) And for those of us getting married, even if we've made some sort of peace with our hair before now, the wedding raises all sorts of new questions about hair expectations and cultural beauty transgressions.

A few years ago, a girlfriend got married. Aside from the big white dress, they did things their own way. When I mentioned how beautiful she looked, an uncomfortable friend made a comment about her hair. Instead of really talking about how she was uncomfortable with a wedding that wasn't "typical," she said our friend "should have had an updo" because her (gorgeous) blow-out didn't fit the big dress or the occasion. This was my first introduction to bridal expectations, and I was shocked. A year later, when I was talking with my mother about our budget, I mentioned that I might do my makeup myself and that I should probably start learning how to do fancy things with my hair. She. Was. Horrified. My mother offered to immediately pay for my hair and makeup because it was absolutely necessary and because - wait for it - I couldn't do an updo on my own.

Oh the bridal updo. I think my mother got a little bit teary when I broke the news that I have no intention of having an updo (though I have decided to splurge on professional hair and makeup). Each intentional curl feels a little bit strange and overdone for my sense of style. I like understated style with an unexpected element or two, and updos don't really fit that. And yet, updos persist as the dang bridal expectation.

From the day we get engaged, there's this weird wedding hair expectation looming over all of us, imbuing each haircut with the potential for irrevocable bridal doom. When I got bangs a year ago, my stylist warned me against it because of the wedding. I got them anyhow... but only because I knew I had time for them to grow out if something went terribly wrong. Since then, I've refrained from my normal I'm-bored-and-want-to-chop-off-all-my-hair tendencies. I'm suffering through everyday hair ennui, all in pursuit of having longer wedding hair. I'm jealous of all the other women who just got married and are now rushing pell-mell to their hairdressers, begging for bangs and short hair. I'm tired but resigned to putting my personal style on hold until after the wedding. Because I want something like this:

For the moment, this is my front-runner hair option. I've been holding onto the unfussy fussiness of this hairstyle since I saw it. It plays with the edges of bridal and it hints at wildflowers in the hair. It reminds me of how I used to weave tiny braids in my hair. I like it because I appreciate the way my hair frames my face when it's down, but I'm practical enough to know it will become a wind-whipped tangle if I don't DO something with it.

A wedding is one of those turning points that allows you to pause and see glimpses of an entire presumed lifetime. We feel the weight of the wedding as a (presumed) turning point from childhood to adulthood. We look towards our future and can feel the weight of upcoming expectations, as people begin asking about children and mortgages. The signposts for important life-moments approach ever more quickly as you swing past Wife and possibly into suburbia and "matronly" short hair. It's a surprise to realize that long-haired updo expectations are going to shift quickly into short hair expectations.

Part of me really wishes I were brave enough to say screw waiting for the post-bridal chop. I could start to think beyond the wedding. I would be forced to live for today. I could celebrate my short hair while it's considered something worth noting and not simply the norm. And yet, although I like playing with expectations, my rebellions are a bit more subtle. I definitely want to let my hair down and release it from the updo. So I'm looking for what that sly bridal transgression might look like, when accessorized by a flower and a merest hint of tulle. How did you wear you hair? And how did you find something that felt right for your wedding while balancing who you really are with all these hair expectations?

Reference for short-haired brides: I love the list of short hair images Ariel pulled together at Offbeat Bride, even if I can't quite embrace it myself... at least until after the wedding...


  1. I remember before the wedding, I had had short hair for months. Months! And then all of a sudden I got engaged and people were now asking, "So, are you going to grow your hair out?"
    WTF? I wasn't before. Why would I now?
    I generally gave them a confused look and said no, but wish I would have thought about it enough to actually ask them why they would think that.

    Silly silly social expectations.

  2. First of all, how do people explain all the brides with their hair down in bridal magazines? Their hair is down because it's romantic.

    I have never understood the whole bridal updo thing and I'm early fifties. Those of my friends who got married young (early 20's) never did put their hair up no matter how formal their wedding dress was. We were wearing our hair down in the late seventies and early eighties a lot.

    You know one bad thing about an updo is that if it gets messy, you can't brush it. It's harder to keep up.

    Anyway I am definitely not living up to expectations. My hair is shoulder length and I don't color it. It's still brown with subtle silver streaks at the temples.

    I just don't want to be tied to constantly covering up roots. All my life, my hair has consistently been the thing I've gotten compliments on - even from total strangers. I still get the compliments even though I'm not coloring any gray out. The fact that it's healthy (no processing) and super shiny helps.

    My mom went prematurely gray and had salt and pepper hair in her thirties and didn't color it. She also got a million compliments.

  3. I wore my hair up solely because it is far too unpredictable down. In contrast to Anonymous before me, I find an updo much more worry-free. But that's because I have fine hair with just a bit of wave, and it will easily frizz out or droop. I wear my hair in some sort of ponytail/bun thing more often than not, anyway, so my wedding day hair was just a slightly more "done" version of how my hair usually looks. I'd think if I were a bride with hair that behaved well when down and was a PITA to put up, I would have worn it down.

  4. @Anonymous - I think the updo is easier to manage, mostly because it's up, doesn't get tangled throughout the day, and because huge amounts of hairspray get used. And while there have always been non-shellaqued and short-hair expectations, I was surprised by how many people expected me, as a bride, to have long hair (romantic) and then put it in an updo.

    Also, I love natural grey hair. My mom finally grew out her dyed hair and has short, amazing grey hair. I can imagine yours looks great too.

    @Jennifer - exactly. My fine hair would be a disaster if it were entirely down, and I think the updo IS easier... but I don't like it. I want something up, for practical reasons, but I want it to feel natural in a slightly more "done" version of my own style.

  5. How about a undone updo? It's got a really boho chic look to it that's natural but in an updo. Some people also refer to a loose updo. You also don't need a great deal of length to achieve this effortless look.

    Like there

  6. I have a love-hate relationship with my hair. One side of my hair curls romantically and prettily. The other side looks like straw and bends (it doesn't curl) straight out. My mom keeps telling me I need to cut it because at my age and in my profession, long hair is unprofessional. Tony, who for many years had a thing for short hair because I always wore my hair short in high school, shakes his head vigorously when I talk about getting it cut.

    Also, I have absolutely no idea what to do with it, or how to do it, for ANY day, let alone the wedding.

    I'm tempted to go back to my old standard, the just-above-the-shoulders no-bang bob. It's boring, but easy.

  7. Great post! I'm also in the camp of wanting an updo because my hair is frizzy and weird and won't look as pretty down. And I'm growing my hair long to meet bridal expectations.

    But I do hope to let my hair gray naturally. My mom had really striking white hair by her early 40s and I would be down with that.

  8. Oh my god I'm such a cliche'!! I got married on October 16th, arrived back from honeymoon on October 30th, and by November 6th the urge to chop off all my below-shoulder-length hair overcame me and I went to the hair salon 2 days ago for some drastic action! My hair is now chin-length.....I have to say, that I feel totally and utterly liberated! I have a short, sassy, messy cut and I feel GREAT!! I had short hair from when I was 14-25 apart from a year or so in my early twenties, and I feel like ME again, rather than some stranger with long heavy "dead" stuff hanging down my back! Is that weird!?

  9. @Moni - Thanks! I ideas like that are exactly what I'm looking for... I just get overwhelmed each time I start looking through wedding sites for hairstyle inspiration.

    @Sarah - I think boring and easy has its place (especially when lack-of-time is a factor.) But. You deserve flattering and fabulous too. And that can definitely also be longer and professional. I've found great stylists help you really figure out good, easy, go-to styles. (My hair also doesn't match itself on either side. Grr.)

    @hitchdied - I don't dye my hair anymore because of the chemicals in most dyes, so I'm hoping my grey (which is already growing in) can be striking too. I love women with natural grey and white hair.

    @M - I'm a cliche too, so I'd like to think there's nothing (too) wrong with that. I know it feels silly, but apparently I want long hair for my wedding. And I also can't wait for the liberated chop. Maybe the wedding wait means we'll appreciate the chop more?

  10. Stupid hair.

    (in my first draft of my comment I went on to write a lot about hair, and it being panic-inducing with lots of examples and furstrations. Then I decided that "stupid hair" pretty much sums it up and left it at that. sigh.)

  11. Wildflowers and feathers in your hair! YES!

    (and if you DO use wildflowers in your hair, hairspray the crap out of them so that they won't wilt; I worked in a florist shop during prom season :)

  12. oh the updo
    yay for down, relaxed, flowing natural hair
    maybe a few braids
    maybe a few wildflowers
    so pretty

  13. I had a love/hate relationship with my hair during my entire 2-year engagement. I have always had short, bobbed hair, but decided to try to grow it out a few months before my husband proposed. I had always envisioned wearing my hair up for the wedding, so there was no question to me about continuing to grow it out. And I hated it. There is a reason I have never had long hair. I was so tempted the last few months to chop it off and be a short-haired bride. I am really glad I didn't, since I loved my wedding hair ... but man, that Post-Wedding Chop was just as exciting as the wedding.

  14. I didnt do my hair, at all, and I wish I did! I just ran out of time (was already an hour late) so I showered and pulled it back.

    I love the deliberately messy, romantic styles. I don't like just down and flowing, but that's just me. Only the perfect horse-hair ladies can get away with it.

    My favorite hair on me is short short, but S. likes it long. :(

  15. But if I had straight hair, this all the way:


    man, am I jealous of long, thick, straight hair.

  16. i had an asymmetrical bob on my wedding, and a fascinator. my mom wanted me to grow out my hair so that i can have a proper up-do as well, but if you're stubborn enough, they'll back down.
    i mean, updos, man, it's a lot of pain and worrying while you're trying to party...

  17. I have chin-length bobbed hair, which is thick and shiny but not quite straight -- it curls and warps in odd places and tends to frizz in humidity. After we got engaged, I decided to grow out my hair for the wedding so I could do a cool loose bun at the nape of my neck, or maybe a stylish half-pony with some curls.

    But within eight weeks I hated my hair with the fire of a thousand suns. It was unruly and hard to manage and I missed my bob like crazy. I couldn't imagine making it a whole year without my cut! What finally did it for me was looking back at old pictures of myself and realizing that I look way better with short hair than I ever did with long hair -- even with long hair in a pretty updo (when I was a teen, I wore my hair almost all the way down to my waist, so I had some basis for comparison!). So I decided to just do a chic blow-out the day of my wedding and I went back to the stylist to chop off the extra inches.

    I hear you, though, on how odd it feels to see so few short-haired brides and so many updos. I posted very few photos of our wedding, but I got up the courage to do a full-on shot of my face by telling myself that short-haired brides needed more inspiration! (In fact, I tagged the photo "short haired bride.")

  18. @Kerry - indeed.

    @Lira -So *that's* the secret! My prom hair roses could have benefited from that knowledge.

    @Verhext - I've always been jealous of women with curly hair. My high school idol wore hers short and proud, and my straight(ish) hair and I have been entirely covetous since then. Also, I love that chignon.

    @ila - My poor mom is well-aware of my stubbornness. And I love asymmetrical hair. I bet it looked amazing with a fascinator.

    @petite chablis - My hair is equally unpredictable. Which is why I'm putting up with this grow-it-out madness. You are a better, more honest-with-herself, woman than I.

  19. Yeah, I'm kind of with Kerry. Stupid hair.

    I have fine, limp, flyaway hair. It's pretty awesome, except not at all. For this reason, I was desperately afraid of leaving it down. But I also didn't want a formal updo, because that didn't match my personality nor my wedding's. So I settled on a messy updo. It had a lot of hairspray and a little curling iron action was involved, but it looked great, all day long.

    And I think that's the real message of your post: we need to support others in going for the hairstyle they WANT, and that works for them and their weddings -- not encourage them to do a traditional bridal hairstyle because "that's just what you DO."

    I also think we all need to leave off this talk of being horrified at ourselves for going short after the wedding -- for living the "cliche," as it were. Yes, I kept my hair on the long side to assist my efforts in putting it up for the wedding, and then after the wedding I was tired of it and cut it off. So? How is this series of actions embarrassing or regrettable at all? If you want to do it, OWN IT. Period.

  20. @Lyn - it's not embarrassing or regrettable at all... unless you're miserable for the 9 months leading up to the wedding as you grow your hair out. Then, I think it's worth questioning why we're putting ourselves through the ridiculousness. But you won't hear any complaint from me. I'm living the cliche too. And it IS cliche, but I want long hair in a loose/flowy/up style and then I'm probably going to do something drastic afterwards because I've been bored for months now. But the long hair feels authentic for me and our wedding, if irritating right now. But a lot of short-haired women try to go for something inauthentic, which is the issue.

    "Own it" is a pretty good motto for all of this confusion.

  21. I agree so much with Lyn, down to having the same kind of hair. My hair rarely looks good all day long and with the heat we had all summer, I was worried that I'd be about to faint if I left it down, since even fine hair is hot around your neck when it's 90 degrees. My mom wanted me to wear it down, actually, kind of in a bob, but I just wanted it up and out of my way and settled on an Anne of Green Gables type of old fashioned hairdo (at least to me): It ended up being one of my favorite things about the whole day!

  22. @Becca -- Hmm, I'd say that I'm simply a more impatient woman! :-)

  23. @Kaitlyn - You had me at "Anne of Green Gables." And your hair looked elegant and entirely fitting for your dress and location. Since I also have fine flyaway hair, I like seeing fine, flyaway hair success stories.

  24. I'm a long haired girl and have worn my hair up for years. I like the way it looks on me. I can't see myself ever cutting my hair. It's one of my better features (despite the naughty curliness) and I will be wearing it up, but then that looks like me.

    A close friend wears her short hair so beautifully and so chic and looked so beautiful and chic on her wedding day with said short hair.

    I say whatever looks best, will look best. Stupid naughty wedding weevils.

  25. I like ariel's theory of "just a smidge" above what you look like day to day. Some extra tousles or something, but pretty normal to what you look like day-to-day, you know? I like the links to Moni's recommended updos as well...I'm doin' the bob, because i didn't get a haircut for a year and wanted long hair..but didn't feel like myself with it. judge how you feel about your hair...if you don't feel like yourself, cut it off..if you do, grow it out.

  26. Ah, some of you have a point about it being easier for some people to wear their hair up.

    I guess I was coming from my limited perspective. See, there are trade offs for different types of hair. Mine is super fine, super straight, and super shiny. The trade off is that I don't have a particularly pretty hairline and my hair is super slippery, so it doesn't stay in an updo.

    I'm into side bangs in a big way because that's what works for me. Leave my hair down and it's a shiny sheet of glass - put it up and it looks thin. I can't even get a pony tail with any volume.

  27. i wish wish wish i had chopped for the wedding. i feel most like myself when my hair is way short.

    and i've always planned to do the long+gray thing when i'm older.

    i love the mini-braids style.

  28. I know it is overwhelming to browse through the thousands of pictures of hair styles out there. I complied a good number of favorites. Perhaps one of these inspirational hair styles will work for you. G.L BTW I suggest trying at least TWO looks that differ/contrast to give some perspective.

  29. On my wedding hair: Without question I was going to go with something "up." I wanted to dance and party hard at the reception, and y'all, I turn into a sweaty mess when I do that. My hair isn't as frizzy as it once was, but it still gets crazy with I'm hot. Having my hair off my neck and off my face in a controlled fashion was such a good call, as I knew it would be. It didn't look shellacked, but it definitely was not budging (thanks to hair spray and 50+ bobby pins). It was my perfect party hair. Functional, comfortable and beautiful.

    Day-to-day I don't wear any makeup or do anything to my hair, but I have always loved to dress up, so my friends and family are used to seeing me both ways and I feel like myself both done up fancy and not. That was helpful in thinking about my wedding style, because I wanted to be sure to look like myself, only fancier (which seems to be a common sentiment).

    I had boy-short hair from mid-high school to mid-college, and then commenced an exceedingly awkward growing-out phase of what I fondly refer to as 80s Man Hair. I've worn my hair loooong ever since it reached that point again, partly because it's easy and partly because, dammit, I worked so hard for that long hair! I've thought about hacking it off so I look more professional or less like a teenager, but for now I want my hair on my neck through the winter so I can keep warm. Come springtime I think I'll be ready for a change.

    Oh, and a note on that times article -- I sent it to my mother-in-law, who has the most glorious, wavy, waist-length silver hair. We had a chuckle about how she is so thumbing her nose at society with her long hair. When she decided to stop coloring it, a long time ago, she basically shaved her head, much to the embarrassment of my husband and his brother, who were preteens at the time. Too short then, and now too long! (Interestingly, she told me she was going to have it cut before our wedding -- I discouraged her from doing so because it's SO GORGEOUS, and it seemed to me she felt some sort of pressure to have more "normal" hair. She ended up not cutting it but pulling it back in a low-updo/bun situation. Looked awesome!)

    Ok, done with my rambly comment now. Great post!

  30. I feel most comfortable with short hair, so that's what I'll be rocking for the wedding. But I guess I am guilty for worrying about it so far out by finding a new stylist and getting things sorted out right now.

    I say your hair should make you feel like yourself on your wedding. If updos come natural, then that's the best. But obviously for you Becca that's not right, so some kind of hybrid that keeps the hair out of your face, is manageable, but still pretty is what you need. I love the little braids. I think those would be really beautiful.

  31. I have had short hair (pixie to bob) off and on since college, but for the last couple years had been lazy and cheap and decided to let it grow out.

    Then Mr. Magic proposed and I started trying on wedding dresses and I just couldn't get over how "Not Me" the long hair felt. So I chopped it off and got married with my pixie.

    More than one ignorant observer was shocked, but I was thrilled, as was my loving husband. (pictures at my link).

    Take that social expectations!

  32. I kept thinking my hair 'should' be in an updo, but I was hating the hair trials because it just didn't feel like me. When I finally relented and put it half up, it looked like me and I loved it. Go with what you normally wear and how you like to look. The most important thing is to look and feel like yourself at your wedding.


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