Note to reader: This is a long-ish post, with lots of self-indulgent rambling. Apologies. Then again, this is a blog. What do you expect?
Like many women, I have a long and sordid history with my hair. I've had perms and mullets; I've been dyed maroon and fuschia (and not on purpose) and have had blonde highlights so often that my hair has fallen out; I've had mallbangs and layers and bluntcuts and pixiecuts and bobs and shags; I've had anchorwoman helmets and feathered sides. I'm the kind of person who will wake in the middle of the night feeling that something is missing in her life and, deciding that the missing thing is bangs, I will cut them, only to wake the next morning horrified and regretful. This happens every six months or so. I dye my hair at home because I'm too cheap to have it done at the salon, and I only have my hair cut every few months for the same reason. I have no idea what my "natural" color is anymore. And I am rarely satisfied with how my hair looks, which usually results in it being pinned back with a bobby pin or put up in a ponytail.
Part of this dissatisfaction is a result of genetics. I have what I call hybrid hair, meaning that the bottom layer is naturally curly while the top layer is bone-straight. So, unless I dry my hair straight or get it permed (and who does that anymore?), it looks like a disaster when I leave the house. Have you seen Being John Malkovich? Do you remember Cameron Diaz's hair in that movie? That's what I look like when my hair is left to its own devices. I also have a crapload of premature gray. I started graying when I was 20, in fact. And we're not just talking a few stray hairs. My ex-boyfriend used to teasingly call me the "gray fox." Which I suppose is sort of a compliment. When you're 50.
All this means that my hair looks and feels rather tortured. It longs to be curly where it is straight, longs to be straight where it is curly. It is dry, over-processed, and split-ended. It is mad at me, and I am mad at it. This also means that I can freakishly remember everything, positive or negative, that anyone has ever said about my hair. Ever.
The other source of torture for me is that I am the most hopelessly unphotogenic person on the planet, with the exception, perhaps, of William Hung. I would say that out of every 100 pictures someone takes of me, I may sort of, kind of, only really half-like one of them.
This has created a self-image crisis for me. See, I'm pretty satisfied with my life most of the time, despite the incessant complaining featured on this blog. I have a great family, a job I love, good health, things I enjoy doing and feeling and learning, on and on. In short, my life feels like I should look like Christy Turlington.
And yet. Somebody snaps a picture, and I don't recognize myself in it. I honestly expect to see Christy Turlington in my picture. Instead, I get...well...somebody else. Somebody not-Christy-Turlington.
My sister says the same thing happens to her. She does her hair all nice and puts on make-up and leaves the door feeling like, "All right. I'm looking pretty good. I may not be drop-dead gorgeous, but dang, I look pretty good." Then someone somewhere takes a picture, and she sees it, and wonders what the hell happened. Because it won't be a good picture. And my sister is a beautiful woman. But her odds of taking a good picture are sort of like mine: not good.
In other words, we have learned not to trust our perceptions. I look in the mirror and think, Dang, I look pretty good. Then some sort of metamorphosis happens between the time I'm in front of the mirror and the time I get in front of a camera, and out comes a picture featuring not-Christy-Turlington Jen but this other being, who has a squarish, long face, and hair that looks like someone lacquered it into a cubist sculpture, and two squinty, not quite the same-size, almost-lazy eyes. Like my sister, I wonder WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED.
This raises some horrible self-doubts, of course. One has to wonder if one is just horribly un-photogenic, or horribly unattractive. And if one stands before the mirror and finds one's self fairly attractive, but then takes horribly unattractice pictures, one must ask one's self: Am I horribly unattractive and just don't know it? Have I fooled myself into seeing something in the mirror that just isn't there? The result of this schism is often that one seeks lots of affirmation from others. Which, of course, is a very, very risky mode of operation. Notice that I am referring to this anonymous "one" as if it might not be me. Schisms galore.
All this is a preface to a conversation I had with Eric last night. I am on a "growing-out" cycle at the moment. My hair has been bob-short for quite a long time, and now it's about shoulder length, which is a demonstration of epic discipline for me. I've been thinking the long hair looks kind of good, is kind of feminine and versatile. And when we first got together, Eric admitted to me that he liked longer hair on women (an example of my freakish hair-comment memory). In other words, I have been almost, sort-of liking my hair. And, unfortunately, I thought I'd seek a little affirmation from the old man to double-check this perception. You know, because "one" has reasons for not trusting one's perceptions.
So, we're crawling into bed, all sleepy and bone-tired like the parents of two little kids that we are, and for some mis-guided reason I think this would be a good time to ask Eric what he thinks of my long-ish hair, since he's never said anything about it. The reaction that I wanted, of course, was this:
Eric (burying his face in my hair and luxuriating in the shoulder-length glory of it all): "It's gorgeous! You're gorgeous! It's so feminine and sexy! Let's get it on!"
Me: "I'm so glad you like it! I've been growing it out just to hear you say that! Rock my world, big boy!"
The reaction that I got in real life, and which eventually led to me sleeping in the guest room, was this:
Eric: "Um, I don't know. Really, I guess, it's fine."
Me: "Oh." (Totally, totally shocked at the utter blandness of this reply. Rolling over and trying not to cry).
Me (five minutes later): "Sorry to obsess over this, but is that all you have to say? I mean, do you like it better short, do you think?"
Eric (almost asleep and wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into): "Well, I just want you to feel good about yourself. So whatever makes you feel good."
Me: "Oh. What? I mean, what?"
Eric: "Well, I can think about pictures of you with long hair. And I can think about pictures of you with short hair. And they're both fine with me."
Me (five minutes later): "I think I'm going to go sleep in the other room."
Have I mentioned that Eric is an understater? Well, obviously, he is. And these sorts of conversations make him extremely nervous and clam-up-ish. If he ever read this blog, I'm pretty sure it would make him glaze over because of all the "processing" that goes on. Eric hates "processing." And my seeking approval dangerously approached "processing," I think. I mean, he probably doesn't really care about my hair at all. Whether it is long or short probably, objectively, doesn't really matter to him. Cognitively and rationally, I understand that. At an emotional, rational level, however, this not caring is the equivalent of being suckerpunched.
Because my relationship to my hair, as I think I've demonstrated, is not cognitive or rational. My relationship to pictures of my hair is definitely not cognitive or rational. Thus, the need to sleep in the other room. It was either that or hit my husband over the head with a frying pan. Because I need him, sometimes--as pitiful as it sounds--to be my mirror for me. To sync up the satisfaction I feel with my life with the distorted view I have of how I look on the outside.
Maybe next time I should just ask for that straight out. I went with a girlfriend the other night to a party, and as we were walking in, she said to me, "Okay--my ex's new girlfriend is here, and I'm feeling a little insecure, so I might need a lot of affirmation tonight." And I affirmed her. I reminded her of how beautiful and smart and funny she is, and none of it was manufactured. I just told her what I knew to be true. Maybe that sort of priming is what I need to do for Eric. It could go like this:
Me: "Honey, I saw a picture of myself today in which I looked like an overgrown werewolf. I need you to tell me that my newly grown-out shoulder-length hair is gorgeous and luxurious and that in real life my eyes look like they match and are full of lively mirth. Tell me my skin is like porcelain cream and my cheeks are preternaturally rosy, and sound like you really, really mean it. But do it in, like, five minutes, so it sounds like you thought to say all this on your own, without prompting. Okay?"
Eric: "What? I mean, what?"