Tracy and Emma Discuss Their Complicated Relationship with Beauty
We asked daughters and mothers to have a conversation about beauty, hair, and heritage. The result: timeless lessons and fresh perspectives, made to share this Mother’s Day.
From a very early age, I had a distinct style. Long before I could tie them myself, I demanded to wear two different colored shoes; in third grade, I introduced the playground to what would become the wildly popular but short-lived dresses-with-pants trend. When it came to my hair, I cycled through several different looks born from the depths of my imagination and the scrunchie aisle at RiteAid. And my mom, Tracy—the brave woman on the frontlines who endured screaming matches about hairbrushing and has seen me through every style change—has her own complicated relationship to beauty, and especially hair. Here, we share early memories of hair care—hers from before and after her parents’ divorce—and the insecurities and sensitivities that we may not always be aware of in ourselves.
Emma: Well, when I think about memories of the two of us and my hair, I think of me screaming at you while you brushed my hair when I was really little. That’s kind of my predominant memory. I had this really intense sensory issue with someone else brushing my hair.
Tracy: I remember a little of that. I mean, I partly come at it from my memories of being brought to the barbershop with my younger brother and getting a little pixie cut because my mom didn’t want to wrestle with my hair. I wasn’t allowed to have it. I think I was able to start growing my hair out when I was in, like, second grade.
E: I didn’t realize it was a rule.
T: Yeah, she just didn’t want to deal with it. What I remember from my childhood is that she very proudly told me that she didn’t want to get into fighting over hair. And so she came up with this solution of just taking us to the barbershop. And I had a very cute little pixie cut for quite a few years, but I know once I was old enough to grow it out, I really wanted to.
And I didn’t want to do that [with you]. I really wanted to let you have long hair, but I also remember thinking and probably saying to you “I have to be able to comb out or brush out your hair, in order for you to have it so that I don’t have to cut it off.” I think some of it also is just at that age it’s a control thing, too.
E: Yeah, I mean, I definitely liked to play around with hair accessories when I was little. Hair bands and, I don’t know, bows.
T: When you were very little, you had your little tuft of hair and we were definitely not going to be those parents who put barrettes or hair bands on essentially bald little girls.
E: *sarcastically* This one’s a girl! Make no mistake.
T: Right. But once you were old enough, and that was probably two, that’s when you started having very strong opinions about what you liked and how you liked it. You had this very pretty flowered headband with a little bow…
E: I remember that one. It was white?
T: Yeah, with flowers. You were sure that it was meant to go around like this. *she indicates around the front of her forehead, laughing.* It was cute as could be.
E: Yeah! You gotta stand out.
T: I don’t know that it was about standing out. I think it was just that this is what made sense to you. And some of it was I’m sure that you didn’t want me to tell you what was right.
E: It might have just been a need to be contrarian in some way, even at that age.
T: I don’t know if it was contrarian, but you had your idea of how to do it.
E: I remember when acting on an impulse to cut my hair, I would almost always feel sort of devastated afterwards. Like [the hairdresser] wrecked my hair. And I feel like you were always there to reassure, or sort of absorb those moments also.
T: Do you think it was more that you had an idea in your head and it never came out exactly like that? Or do you think it was more that it was this idea of change that just never quite materialized?
E: I think it is a mix of both. To some degree, every time I get a haircut I feel like I’m shedding a version of myself, and with that comes some loss and sadness. And I can’t process that feeling until after the fact. The idea of getting your hair cut and changing yourself is always so exciting in the lead-up. I would get caught up in that excitement and feel like it was an impulse that needed to be carried out right away.
T: I sometimes wonder whether it would have been helpful for me to have challenged you to sit with things a little bit more sometimes. And I think maybe, I enjoyed your ability to be more spontaneous. [Letting you get frequent haircuts] may have been a way to play through you in some ways.
E: Yeah you haven’t really—you’ve kind of had the same relative hairstyle for a long time.
T: Well, for quite a while. But my hair was a lot shorter when you were little. I went through a period where I was coloring it for a while, different shades of reds and browns. But it’s interesting you talk about that sense of loss because I think even when I’ve made a significant change in my hairstyle, there’s always been this sense of “it’s all temporary.” But I haven’t done anything very significant in a long time.
E: Do you have a sense of why not? Or when you did make a significant change, why? What drove that?
T: There’ve been times when I was more restless or more eager to have a big change in my appearance. I remember in high school I went from long to pretty short. And then after I graduated college, I wore it very short for a number of years. And I think I was interested in that time in sort of playing with gender stereotypes a little bit. When I was first teaching [after college], sometimes I would wear a shirt and tie to work. There was a little sort of contrarian part of me, feeling like I wanted to play a little bit with expectations.
E: What did that achieve for you; what did that make you feel?
T: I was trying to get a sense of being independent and sort of finding my own voice. But I wasn’t going way out on a limb in playing with these ideas; that was probably around the era of Annie Hall, you know.
E: Did your parents have thoughts or comments when you cut your hair short?
T: By then I was living with [your] dad. And I think he liked it short. He’s really never commented on my appearance one way or another. Sometimes there’s this part of me that’ll think “ugh I wish he’d tell me how great I look” or whatever, and then I think, “you know. In many ways, it’s really nice to not feel there’s judgment there one way or another.” But I remember thinking that he liked the short hair.
E: That’s interesting because positive judgment is something that I need quite a bit of. It’s hard for me to decipher whether choices that I’ve made aesthetically come from a place of needing to rustle up a response from other people. I have a pretty fraught relationship with beauty as something for the self versus an external performance. Ultimately, it feels kind of like a loss if I don’t get some kind of reaction. But it’s funny that, as much as I have always had this propensity for personal and distinct style that we were talking about before, I still have this insecurity around personal expression. You and I both, we don’t really do much of anything to our hair. We don’t style it. I really do not have the skill to do anything to it, really. I can barely even blow dry it.
T: Well, you’re right. There’s been a certain amount of pride—I mean, I think as a family there is a sort of devaluing of fussing. So there’s a little part of me that’s in some way a little proud or vain about, well, “I don’t have the patience to blow dry my hair, or to learn how to do it well.” And I think there’s a message underneath that; maybe that [fussing over your hair or appearance is] frivolous. You’ve sort of referred to feeling like the message was always “less is more.”
E: Totally. My insecurities revolve much more around my skin than my hair, but when my acne was at its most challenging, it hurt so much to not have perfect skin and to feel that I needed to fuss over it and I needed to cover it up in order to be “beautiful,” or something that someone would want to photograph or paint. And I think I internalized a very deep sense of shame and failure associated with that. So I think there’s that side, and also as I grew up I always felt a little judged or uncomfortable the times I would play around with my style and wear like dramatic eye makeup or think about dying my hair or even when I got a tattoo on my arm. I think there’s a lot of anxiety for me tied up in personal appearance and it feels like a very narrow tightrope to be walking.
T: Right. Or risk disapproval. I mean, it is. But I mean, it sort of cracks me up. It’s like there’s an implication in this family that [dying your hair or getting tattoos] is you not thinking for yourself, which is not necessarily the case. But also, like, who cares? It’s fun! And for whatever reason, I’ve always been able to think about hair as something that grows and changes anyway. Some of the reason I don’t do anything with my hair now is vanity because I like the way my hair is graying and if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t feel as strongly. And I like the idea of being playful with how you look. But I also think that we have such a strong anti-aging culture, and I remember very distinctly when I decided to stop coloring my hair. Just seeing somebody out there with this big, thick braid that was partly gray and just thinking, “that’s beautiful. What am I doing?”
Gift your mom Prose
To read the other conversations click on the images below!