11/09/2010 08:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

There Are Too Many Rules About Women's Hair

Dominique Browning writes in The New York Times that her hair is sexy. She's 55. It's gray. It's long. You gotta problem with that? I don't, but she feels the world's disapproving eye on her, even as it reaches out bony fingers to stroke a wafting strand. Being a middle-aged woman with long hair is rebellious, she says. There's a rule. Women are supposed to cut their hair at a certain age. They're supposed to do it quietly, complacently, and stylishly. And then their friends will all say, "Oh! You look lovely!" and exchange approving looks.

But Browning wants more than that fleeting, compulsory interaction with other women. Toward the end of her article, she asks, "Is it not wonderfully sexy the way our grandmothers, those women of the prairie, or concrete canyons, would braid their hair up in the morning and let their cowboys unravel them at night?" That does sound pretty sexy. She then concludes the piece with a bit about how much men like long hair.

Like the author of the blog Beauty Schooled, I'm not sure that the argument "but men love it!" is really the most empowering or interesting one. There are a lot of men. They like a lot of things. In fact, as far as I can tell, they pretty much will like whatever it is that women are doing.

But I am sure that women should not feel a huge amount of pressure to cut off their hair at any age. And I am sure that women should do whatever they want with their hair, and do it proudly. And if growing their hair makes them feel sexy, I'm all for it.

Recently, I've been thinking about cutting my hair off. I got married a week ago, and before that I kept saying, "After the wedding" (which I also said about things like writing a book, founding a successful internet company, cooking, cleaning the bathroom sink, and doing laundry). I was not going to let myself look like a boy in a wedding gown. I was going to be a sexy, elegant, womanly woman. With long hair.

I found out about six months ago that I'm anemic. I decided to go to the doctor because I was exhausted all the time and my hair was falling out. I was concerned about the exhaustion, and terrified about the hair loss. He put me on an amazing amount of iron and said that my hair would start growing back soon. It did, a little, but its thinness has proved a source of constant self-consciousness for me, the sort of thing that I can't manage to forget for a day. After all, one of the most basic marks of feminine beauty is thick, lustrous hair. When my hair started falling out, I felt a little like I was being punished for some unknown sin. The sin of writing a body-image blog. The sin of eating cookies all the time. Something like that.

The only thing that made me feel better was imagining shaving my head. Just getting rid of the shame and the awkwardness and the waiting. The waiting for it to be beautiful. Enough. Just shave it off. But then I'd look around, and I'd see that there are no young women with shaved heads, and very few with crew cuts. The only ones who can do that are the ones who are rebels for specific causes of which I'm not a part. Or the occasional model, with the long, slender neck.

There are unspoken rules here, too. You must be stunningly gorgeous, and have the sort of features that can "carry" the look, or you have to not care at all, and have a stunning number of facial piercings, or you have to have cancer. Those are your three options. But what if you just want to cut all your hair off? What if you just want to shave your head? What if you are just anemic? Or just tired of shampooing and brushing?

Browning is right. But she's also right about a larger point that she of course implies but never makes: women (not just middle-aged ones) aren't allowed to do what they want with their hair.
Can I, as a young woman who leads a religious congregation, stand on the bima without any hair? Can I take a job interview without any hair? Can I meet the powerful people in my field, and attempt to make connections with them, without any hair?

Maybe I can, but I can't do it without making a statement. Everyone I meet will think the statement is about something else. And maybe I would be making a statement. The statement that I don't want my hair right now, and that I should be able to make that decision myself.

If I do cut all my hair off, or shave my head (granted different levels of no-hairness), I will make a point to get in touch with Dominique Browning. Maybe she and I can do lunch or something.