Thoughts on a really bad haircut

bad hair day.bmp

More trouble on the hair front. As faithful readers of this blog will know, I have very short hair. I like to think of this as my tribute to Jeffrey Katzenberg and a touchingly frank acknowledgement of Hollywood’s influence…even on my hair.

But the real reason I have short hair is that I am going bald, and it seems better to remove my hair by an act of will than have it taken from me follicle by follicle. It’s better just to get it over with. Plus, thanks to Jeffrey and other metrosexuals, it’s the fashion.

But trouble today. On my holiday to Vancouver Island, Air Canada managed to break into my luggage and lose the electric razor with which I shave my head. (Their way of saying “thanks for flying with us…and the razor.”) On the Island, I resort to one of those blue Bic razors and this did a good enough job cutting things back. Pam, my fiancee, said, “no, it looks fine. Really. It’s fine.” You don’t have to be a highly trained anthropologist to see this for what it is: absolute affirmation of your skill with a Bic and the fact that you have returned to the shores of high fashion.

I tried the same thing today, but this time I used one of those small-bladed Schick razors and the result was disastrous. Great patches appeared on my scalp. “Hmm,” I thought, looking in the mirror, “this is not good.” Of course, I could just shave right down to the scalp, but I thought in the interests of anthropology, I would leave the patches and see what happened.

It was worse than Kansas. People sidled away from me in the drug store. I got alarmed looks on the side walk. Dogs regarded me with grave suspicion. Clearly, my hair has become a declaration of something people just don’t want to hear. And looking at myself in the mirror, I can’t say I blame them. Well, not every one reacted badly. The woman at a bookstore give me a look of the warmest sympathy, as if too say, “it must be awfully hard being a poet.”

We have seen lots of experiment with haircuts in the last few years. New subcultures use new looks. The Punk movement gave us several striking innovations, including the Mohawk and the Chelsea. Goths prefer something dark, dyed, long and moody. Country and Western gave us really big hair. Sassoon supplied an asymmetrical architecture for a decade. Career women in the 80s declared their seriousness with the blunt cut.

But no one has resorted to the “patchy look.” How strange. If the object is to send a signal of disaffection, of refusal, of new citizenship, surely patchy hair is just the thing. It says, “Screw you, I don’t care how I look. I just took a Schick to my head and this is what happened. I am no slave to fashion. No captive of convention. I am my own man. This is my remaining hair.”

All of the new looks (Punk, Goth, Sassoon) carried the shock of the new on first introduction, but eventually we said, “Ok, I get it. Carry on.” The innovation starts as a departure from the rules and eventually, as it forms, it becomes a new rule, a new form. But patchy hair appears to be un-formable. It will not “take.” Even the most radical social actors seem to know this. However innovative their intentions, patchy hair is one place they will not go.

And that for anthropological purposes is interesting. We are a society that streams with innovations. Even the really radical looks eventually shoulder their way into prevailing practice. We get used to them. Patchy hair shouldn’t be any different. (It is, for instance, less irrevocable than bolts or tattoos.) But patchy hair is where we draw the line. This says that there are some things that are inassimilable, some signs that will never scan, some innovations that are truly off limits.

Why patchy hair? I am sure “this blog sits at” friends and readers will tell me. And I know Steve and/or Leora will point out that artist X wore patchy hair for the whole of his concert tour in the American Southwest in the spring of 1993. (To which I reply, “yes, but no one followed suit.”)

Apparently, patchy hair stands as a declaration of personal distress and disorder. The patchy look says not “behold, I have departed from the world.” This is the look of a “masterless man” who stands not apart from social convention, but utterly outside its ambit. It says, “here’s a guy who is really fucked up.”

So what’s the anthropological moral of the story? It’s that there are some innovations that cannot innovate, some sounds that will register only as noise.

Patchy hair says that, for all our dynamism and diversity, there are shared rules and a commonality. All the post-modernist moaning aside, there is still, an irreducible set of rules, a “smallest instruction” set, still in place.

We have been so wowed by the post-modernist conviction that culture is “over” that we have failed to look for these rules. This is one of the tasks that must engage an anthropologist of the culture of commerce. What are the rules that continue to govern us even as we set about rewriting every other cultural convention? We must keep looking.

Next experiment: no pants!

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on a really bad haircut

  1. Steve Portigal

    “No pants” – that ties in nicely with your previous “Late Night Television” post since David Letterman would frequently yell out his window with a bullhorn and include the phrase “…and I’m not wearing any pants.”

  2. Tom

    I wonder if our resistance to the “patchy look” has some bio-evolutionary foundation, since “mangy” (sorry, Grant!) is a look that only unhealthy animals sport.

  3. gary

    The difference between patchy hair and shaving your head bald is the same difference as putting a potato down the front of your swim trunks at the beach, and putting it down the back.

  4. Grant

    Steve, my head’s for hire. And, yes, I was thinking of Letterman. The going rate for no pants: around $14 million a year. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, yes, that’s possible, isn’t it? I was wondering if the patchy looked was also a declaration of bodily distress. And this get’s us into Sontag territory. Thanks. Grant

  5. Grant

    Gary, I am laughing out loud here in Montreal. But there are some things I will not do for science. Thanks! Grant

  6. 'burb mom

    Grant, maybe you should write a book on the subject, call it “Small Hair” and sell it in a double book deal with your “Big Hair” book.

  7. Grant

    ‘blurb mom: Thanks. what a good idea, and thanks for the shout out! Coming from me, it would have been shamelessly self advertising. Grant

  8. Steve Portigal

    Nice move, Grant. You can go from selling the inside of your head to selling the outside. Isn’t that one of Faith Popcorn’s trends or something?

    Steve, just looking for someone to call “Potato Pants”

  9. Andrea

    Seems to me that Tom’s onto something with his patchy/mangy point. Then again, there are plenty of “unhealthy” looks, like Goth pallor, that are attractive at least to some. My hypothesis is that people will not respond positively to a bodymod when they cannot be absolutely sure it was done on purpose. They fear the embarassment of admiring your new ‘do, only to be told that you are just outgrowing a recent round of chemo or preparing to sue your hairdresser. Thus, to bring off the patchy look you need to stylize it somehow, perhaps by dyeing the longer bits or finesseing the random patchwork into a more deliberate camo-like pattern. But perhaps, given the origins of the experiment, this is more effort than you want to make.

  10. Grant

    Steve, isn’t that Mr. Potato Pants? Grant

    Andrea, why didn’t I think of that, Goths do look like they have been a tubercular ward for most of the 19th century! Yes, and the only way people know an innovation is done on purpose, is when they see it again and again. Then its no longer an accident but a style. But we return to the question: why can’t repetition turn patchy into a look. And yes, dyeing the error is kind of the opposite of gilding the lily. Especially now that I am working on my Mr. Potato pants look. Thanks! Grant

  11. Ennis

    Grant — you shave your head (or almost shave it) weekly? Wow. Fastidious.

    Mazel Tov on the engagement

    and, Andrea, meet Grant. Grant, meet Andrea. Splotchy hair … hmmm … Didn’t Rodman try that with his splotchily died hair?

    Honestly, I think your only hope now is … Ronco spray on hair!

    Let us know how people react to your spray painted scalp …

  12. Grant

    Ennis, No, the shaving was just damage control I intend to let it grow back in till the resemblance to Katzenberg is once more striking, or at least plausible. But I like the Ronco idea a lot. I love the smell of aerosol fumes in the morning. And Mr. Ronco is another personal hero. Thanks for the intro to Andrea. I hope she will post again. And thanks, finally, for your best wishes on the upcoming wedding! It’s late November. Best, Grant

  13. Liz

    Oh, Grant, it is the chemo/radiation look is what patchy hair is. Or a communicable disease, like ringworm. Or mange.

    Image of mangy wolf here:

    Ringworm here:

    Pallor has been in and out of fashion, but communicable diseases? I don’t think so.

    Congrattos on the engagement–I wish you both a long and happy marriage.

    BTW–most pet stores carry handy battery-powered clippers at not too much money, suitable for human use.

  14. Grant

    Liz: thanks, I am afraid you’re right. I hate it when nature, not culture, is the answer. Grant

    Brian, I’m not sure I will ever need a haircut again. Thanks, Grant

  15. alien

    the ‘mange’ is a hair style from eighties hardcore. look at cover from dirty rotten imbeciles first record. nothing is new anyway

  16. Vanessa

    Grant, although I can’t relate to the patches, I can relate to the bad hairdo. I just got a horrible haircut from the Toni&Guy salon at Gwinnett Place Mall in Atlanta. I should have known better when I walked through the door, because all the stylists looked like punk rock rejects. Some may appreciate the punk subculture influence, but I prefer the Hollywood bombshell look, personally.

    I spent a long time talking to my stylist about my hair, what I wanted, what I didn’t like, etc. I even brought a big picture of the haircut that I wanted, which was longish, wavy, with soft layers and fringe. Well, the stylist attacked my hair and basically gave me a mullet. All that was left of my beautiful long hair was a few stringy pieces sticking out from the very bottom. What was she thinking? This stylist obviously didn’t know what she was doing, which was very surprising to me because she was a “Director 2”, which is supposed to be Toni&Guy’s most experienced (and expensive) type of stylist. I’d hate to see what the less experienced stylists would have done to me, although I can’t imagine it being any worse. Before the haircut, my hair was long, all one length, and full of volume. I had told the stylist that I wanted to preserve the volume, and she assured me that layers would do just that. In fact, layers would only add to the volume of my hair by removing some of the weight that was dragging my hair down. She removed weight alright. Half my hair. Now my hair is so thin you can see my neck through it. I am so disappointed in this place that I will run, not walk, back to my old boring stylist.

    My lesson learned is to never let someone touch your hair if you do not like the way that they wear their hair. I don’t like “avant garde” hairdos, striped or green hair, so I can’t trust that someone who does would style my hair in a normal way. I like beautiful hair… like Jessica Simpson, Giselle Bundchen, Jennifer Anniston, Eva Longoria. Not a hacked up haircut that looks like I did it myself.

    My second lesson learned is that more expensive does not always mean better. My regular salon charges less, but has never given me a bad cut, and I have been to 3 different stylists there. I thought that I would get a better cut at a salon that charges more, but that was certainly not the case. I don’t know how they justify their prices, because the other people having their hair done at Toni&Guy didn’t look like they were getting good haircuts either. I didn’t see one person’s hair in the place that I envied. Oh well, at least it will grow out within the year.

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