Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bristle-topped males

When we were little, Dad cut my brothers' hair. It wasn't Mom's job, God forbid! Mom couldn't even color between the lines, let alone wield sharp scissors around tender ears. No, Dad was the architect, the steady hand with design instincts, and thus, the only parent eligible for the job.

On haircut nights, Dad would sit my brothers down one by one on a stool under direct light, their hair shiny with highlights, their uncertain faces in shadow. As he set to work, his tongue ran studiously over his lips (like it always did) while we kids held our breath, hoping for the best.

The first cuts I remember were the bowl-over-the-head variety, but by the time I was ten we'd reached the buzz-cut era, when boys and grown men alike sheared their heads, seemingly eager to leap over the draft board fence to the Vietnam battlefield. Bristle-topped males were everywhere--from the Boy Scouts to the high school principal to the Presbyterian church minister.

Ever slaves to fashion, our family joined the ranks. In order to properly buzz cut my brothers, Dad bought an electric clipper, which apparently tickled, judging by all the wiggling and squirming my brothers did. When it was all over, there were gasps of dismay as they beheld themselves in the mirror. Quite plainly, the style was all wrong--it made their car-door ears stick out even more and exposed the soft, pale vulnerability of their fuzz-covered scalps.

Dad didn't venture to cut my hair, though. I got the drift: men and hair were straightforward enough, but women and hair were an entirely more complicated prospect. Indeed, it took an expensive trip to a sophisticated salon to give birth to the pixie cut you see here.

Years later as I behold this picture, it reeks to me of gender confusion. I mean, was I a boy or a girl? I'm wearing a prim dress, ankle socks, patent leather shoes, baby blue cat's-eye glasses, topped by a blatantly masculine haircut.

It was around this time, in 1967, when our fifth grade gym teacher made the whole class race around the playground five times to determine who was the fastest. I was a great runner back then. I ran everywhere I went, and I'd been doing it since I was born. And I won that race!!! I beat every last kid in the fifth grade. At which point, the gym teacher pulled me aside and said: "You should have let the boys win. Girls aren't supposed to be the fastest."

If I'd been offered the choice--Would you like to be a little boy or a little girl?--I think I might have picked little boy. Little boys got to be on baseball teams, little boys got cool presents instead of awkward-fitting clothes and blank-faced dolls, little boys were allowed to run as fast as they wanted.

But then again, it was a big relief not to be male. If I'd been slightly older and more cynical, I definitely wouldn't have given a damn. If I'd been a boy, the next stop would be Vietnam. And even at ten, I knew for certain I didn't want to go there.