Hairy Days Are(n’t) Here Again

1 week in

In January of this year, I decided to grow my hair. This might seem like a minor decision if you don’t know me personally, but I’ve been bald, or near bald, for 15 years.

During that time, I’ve been mostly happy with having no hair. However, last fall, I started feeling the weight of expectations of others about how I “should look” at my age, and in my position, and for my sex. So, with that as my underlying motivation, I decided to see about growing my hair.

The decision was rather fraught. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to start what I knew would be a period of funky looking hair. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to let go of my trademark bald head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give in to what I felt like I should do, after so long of not doing it. I wasn’t sure if all of that was wrapped up with a useless clinging and refusal to change (abhinivesha), or fear, or vanity. I felt guilty for the amount of time I was spending considering my self in this way (a little asmita, anyone?). I ended up deciding that I would just take it 1 week at a time, record my process with pictures, and see how it went.

5 weeks

After a few weeks, my hair was longer and I was getting less happy about it all. I couldn’t tell if my unhappiness was just because of the awkward stage the hair was in, how slow it seemed to be growing, or that I felt less like me. But, I wasn’t digging it.

An interesting social phenomenon was happening by that time, however. People who had never said a peep about my bald head suddenly had all sorts of questions – and I don’t mean from family and friends that I was deliberately engaging about the process, but people I wasn’t saying a thing to regarding what I was doing – about why I was bald before, what was making me grow my hair, and which option they thought looked better. Some I told about my reasons for baldness and for growing my hair. Some I didn’t. But, by about 10 weeks in, I really really was not interested in discussing my hair with people I don’t know that well on a personal basis. I had had it with explaining myself and was tired of feeling like both my justification for being bald and for growing my hair sounded silly in my own ears. And (AND), I just didn’t understand why everyone cared so much about the whole situation.

Just after week 13 hit, I was trimming the sides to keep them from looking funky when I got too close in one area and created an awkward set of bald patches. I was quite annoyed by this (very very) and complained about it for the whole evening to Mr. VeganAsana and a couple of my friends. The next day, I was even more annoyed, and by noon, I had decided that I was just done.

At the end of that day, I came home and pulled out my trusty clippers. I set them on the lowest setting and started cutting. The very first swipe made me smile. By the time I had my head half done, I was feeling so relieved and much more comfortable in my own skin.

So, now I’m back to being the bald me. Who knows if I’ll ever try again, but it almost certainly won’t be soon. I am comfortable with my bald self. I know that some other people would prefer that I cut it out (see what I did there?) but it’s not my job to make everyone else happy all the time. It is my job to feel ok with who I am. And, right now, who I am doesn’t have hair.

What Will You Let Go Of?

LettingGo by Mr Littlehand

Many parts of life are a process of letting go (or, at least they are to get through them in a healthy way). Having children means letting go of the self you were before children, and letting go of your privacy and “me time.” Raising children means gradually letting go of what you expected/planned they would be like so that you can see and enjoy who they are. Looking for a new job means letting go of the understanding of self as being part of the company you are leaving, and the idea that they can’t function without you. And there are so many more examples.

Sometimes, this process of letting go, or aparigraha, involves things that you expect to let go of. For example, all parents understand that they need to let go of their children some when the children start school. But, sometimes, it turns out that what you thought was not about letting go really is, or the letting go is really about something different.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing two “letting gos” that I didn’t realize were happening until they were (there are actually four, but I am going to only discuss two here).

After an odd conversation with a medical practitioner who didn’t really know me, I decided to grow my hair. This is a big deal because I’ve been bald for 15 years. I don’t really know if my hair will grow (due to autoimmune disease, which is why I shaved it in the first place), but I’m giving it a try. I went into this not realizing how much letting go it would require. The understanding of myself as a bald woman has apparently become very deeply ingrained over the last decade and a half. It’s a big part of my identity and has come to symbolize, for me, things beyond hairstyle: buddhism, rejection of gender standards, individuality, etc. As I watch my hair grow (very very slowly), I’m struggling with how to let go of this part of who I have been for a long time. It’s interesting to me, because I expected it when I cut my hair, but didn’t realize it would happen when I started growing it.

In a second experience of unexpected letting go, I’ve had an ongoing increase in body struggles over the last year. This has resulted in a range of things including, but not limited to, decreased strength and range of motion, reduction of fresh fruits/veg in my diet, and increased fatigue and tremors. The combination has had an interesting impact (and I probably mean awful) on my understandings of self as yogi. A few years ago, when I completed yoga teacher training, I felt so strong. I had a 5-6 day a week practice and it was kickin’. Headstands, handstands, arm balances, I was developing new abilities all the time. My diet was very sound, with about 80% raw food. I was meditating regularly. There have been a lot of changes in all of that. I’m finding it challenging to adjust my understanding of self as a yoga practitioner with a very different practice – very challenging. I didn’t expect this to happen, yet is has.

Despite the struggles that I’m having right now on my physical yoga practice, I know that yoga is a good way to practice letting go, and finding out what you need to let go of. The act of taking a pose and scanning the body and mind to see where the resistance is to moving into the pose is helpful and instructive, and good practice for the letting go we have to do in so many other arenas.

So, I keep practicing, because that’s what it is, right?

Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it. It’s like boats. You keep your motor on so you can steer with the current. And when you hear the sound of the waterfall coming nearer and nearer, tidy up the boat, put on your best tie and hat, and smoke a cigar right up till the moment you go over. That’s a triumph.
~ Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer

It’s My Body and I’ll… Oh, Who am I Kidding?

If I was walking around with a piece of cake now, no one would even notice. But before…

I was getting ready for bed last night with the TV on as my ambient light and volume down. I didn’t know what was on and didn’t care much, since I wasn’t planning to watch. As I walked past the dresser to get to the bed, I saw this sentence come up on closed captioning and stopped. The story was about a young couple who had undergone bariatric surgery and lost tremendous amounts of weight.

It’s ok. I understand about when the tummy can’t handle it.

Last week, at a conference, I ordered a water in a brew pub where I was having dinner with a friend. The waiter replied with the quote above, giving me a sympathetic look that swept across my bald head and general appearance.

I like makeup. It’s like coloring, but on your face.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post reviewing some makeup brushes. My opening sentences positioned my interest in makeup, and I wonder (but know) why I felt the need to do that.

You don’t eat that stuff. That’s why you are so thin.

A colleague of mine, both interested in and baffled by my dietary choices, makes this comment to me with significant frequency.

What do all of these have in common and what do they have to do with yoga and veganism, you might be asking? Well, for that second part, I’m not sure that I’ll get to the answer in this post (though I’m going to dance around it some), but I can answer the first. All of these situations have in common the assumptions we make about people, based solely on what they do – or don’t do – with their physical form.

I’m working on a scholarly research piece about this right now (well, right now I’m actually blogging instead of working on that research piece, but I’m using this to help me get my thoughts sorted… yeah, right, that’s it!). We have such an odd relationship with the physical form in the U.S. (honestly, I would say most Westernized cultures, but I don’t have quite enough first-person experience to say that so boldly). We celebrate it like mad in our mass media (who knew that you had to see so much flesh to get the idea of a beer) and even give out prizes to those with the best bodies. Even when we say we are being more body inclusive , like in Dove’s Real Women campaign, the bodies we celebrate are the ones that are still darn close to the physical ideal.

At the same time, we say that the body isn’t important, the “soul” is, and we press the point of the unimportance of the physical appearance in our explicit body messages, treating attention to physical beauty as suspect or shallow. Losing weight is important, we say, due to health (not appearance). Tattoos should be “meaningful” (in some way that reflects social values – like love for a family member), not just pretty.

It’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it? The message seems to be that it’s important to look beautiful and have a beautiful body, but you should get it naturally, not be too attached to it, and we should all pretend like it doesn’t matter even while we celebrate the beautiful.

And so, we judge people – often – based on body and body choices. And by judge, I don’t even mean always harsh or negative judgments. Sometimes the judgments are positive. But, they are still attributions about personal “non-body” characteristics made on the basis of appearance. A person who is thin with a big plate of food has a good appetite. A person who is heavier with a big plate of food is a lazy glutton. A bald woman is certainly ill, unless she is in a cult. A woman who isn’t “naturally beautiful” and doesn’t “improve” her appearance with cosmetics and hairstyling is either lazy or socially inept. A woman who really likes makeup is shallow. A raw foodist is nuts and a vegan is weird/misguided/judgmental.

It’s a lot of information we glean from just looking at those around us. And it points to something about our sense of social ownership of the body. Out loud, we will say that people’s bodies are their own. But a quick look at media messages, social messages, and political messages makes it relatively obvious that a lot of us don’t really believe that. Oh, we may believe that our “own” bodies should be ours to control, but we are pretty sure we know better how others should care for their bodies.

The pull of this way of thinking is almost inescapable. I can describe this all to you and tell you what is problematic about it, but I still do it. I am vehemently pro-choice (in SO many ways), but I’ll still admit that I entertain thoughts about what other people should do for/to/about their bodies, or judgements about who they “are” due to those bodies. Oy.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not something we can really get around. Maybe it’s part of our human mammal nature. I suppose that other mammals make some judgments about each other on the basis of appearance, and perhaps the same great big brains that allow us to think our great big thoughts also lead us to make attributions about things like body almost constantly.

I know that most of us find it frustrating, even while we do it. I was asked yesterday to join and possibly help administrate, two facebook groups related to female baldness. A strong underlying theme in both is a desire not to be judged based on that body element.

Is it that we don’t want this kind of judgment to apply to us, but it’s ok for others? Is it that (as attribution theory points out) we tend to attribute our own, or those of the people in our “in-group,” negative behaviors to forces beyond our control and our positive behaviors to the self, while with those in the out-group we do the opposite? Is all of this inevitable or changeable?

Do I have an answer? Nope! But I’ll be working through it more in the coming months as I work on this article, so you may hear more of my ponderings on the subject. What are yours?