Wonder Woman Is the Epitome of Feminine Power. But I Had To Give Up My Femininity To Unlock My True Strength.
Type hair into a search engine, and you’ll get 4.2 billion results. Long, short, colorful, natural. A woman’s hair is her crown, and the way she wears it often gives deep insight into her identity. Talk to a woman about her hair, and you’ll learn about how she sees herself, and how she wishes to be seen. Her insecurities are often tied up in her hair — and her strengths. It’s as if her hair grows directly out of her brain, transmitting her secret thoughts to the world around her.
Wonder Woman is no exception. I was one of the millions of people who saw the movie this month, and probably not the only one who noticed Diana’s hair. She’s a woman, in spite of her divine origins, and her hair is thick with codes of femininity, power, and desirability.
Stepping out of a trench into the mortar-pocked mud of No Man’s Land, Diana reaches up, not to draw her sword, but to let down her hair. It cascades down her back like a brunette flag. In that moment, her power surges— she walks fearlessly towards her enemy, a beautiful juggernaut, curls bobbing in slow motion.
Why would a warrior grow her hair long, much less wear it loose in battle?
It is summer in Portland — wedding season — and everyone is wearing fishtail braids. Walking through downtown, I am head and shoulders taller than the people around me. I’m adrift in a sea of sundresses, sandals, and beach-messy hair, though we’re two hours from the coast. The girls around me smell like Lush body cream and texturizing spray, and look more and more to me like extras from Wonder Woman.
When I had long hair like them, I passed for female. Now, with my man’s haircut, they’re not so sure if I belong.
I have been a spy in the land of women my entire life. I was born with a female body, and all the weird power, privilege, and liability that comes with it. More often than not, my body feels like a suit that someone has sewn me into. The long, dry hair that hangs off most women’s heads looks like a wig to me. I look at those braids and think, something to pull on.
When you’re attacked, the first thing your assailant will do is grab your hair. It’s the easiest way to control someone — get someone by their hair, and they’re not going to be able to get away. Even a very strong woman can be driven around by her hair. There’s a whole fetish built around hair pulling. There are stories about women who, submitting to an inexperienced or overexcited man, ended up with fractured neck vertebrae. Like Rapunzel, the hair becomes a rope, a handle, a grip on an otherwise slippery body.
This is what I thought about when I saw Diana let her hair loose. Isn’t she afraid? I wondered. And then I realized, no, she is not afraid. Wonder Woman may be female, but she is also exempt from the perils of femininity. She has been chained up and tied down in comic book after comic book. She’s been caged and packed into coffins and bolted to walls. But her hair is not her weakness — and when she loosens it in battle, she demonstrates her power.
Wonder Woman is not afraid of being grabbed. Warriors in every human culture cut their hair short and wear it close to their scalps. It eliminates a handhold. Short hair has become code for ferocity — women with short hair are often seen as butch, masculine, or aggressive. Think of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, or Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. These are fighters.
Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince is a different story. As Wonder Woman wore on, I kept thinking about Themyscira, the mystical island populated by warrior women in elaborate fishtail braids. In a country where justice and peace reign, the Amazons’ hair is proportionately long. There is no rape here. Women can walk freely and safely anywhere — even the animals are partially tame, and unafraid of humans. In such a place, the Amazons have nothing to do except practice their highly stylized martial arts, braid each others’ hair, and study the disciplines that contribute to their civilization’s well being.
What a contrast, to the world we live in. Walking through the knots of pretty, sundress-wearing girls, I thought of the function of feminine beauty. It’s like a paper fan: one side attracts the right kind of desire, and the other deflects the wrong kind of attention. The men who complain about female fickleness of resort to disgusting pick-up artist tutorials to manipulate women are usually the ones that haven’t learned to read the subtle signals in a woman’s appearance. She likes you, she doesn’t like you. Her wish to be desirable, or to conceal her desirability, is usually as plain as the nose on her face.
Wonder Woman, who looks ridiculous when costumed in modest human clothes, does not know about these rules. It never seems to occur to her that she should cover herself, or that she may need to protect herself from toxic male desire. It’s impossible to imagine her inspecting herself in the mirror, tugging her clothes into their right place, and worrying if perhaps her skirt is too short, someone will say she looks like a slut.
Asking for it. Wonder Woman never asked for it, could never be accused of asking for it. Released from the threat of male privilege and male entitlement to her female body, she can let her hair down without worry. She can relish the sensation of her long, soft hair tickling her shoulders. Her pleasure in herself is one of her superpowers.
I discovered this superpower the first time I cut my hair off.
To be fair, it was never that impressive in the first place — unlike my sister’s naturally white-blonde, thick ringlets. My hair was darker, finer, and wouldn’t grow past my shoulders. I didn’t agonize over this. I was reading a lot of medieval history then, because I was very young and had the well developed sense of honor that comes with lack of experience. Childhood is a dangerous country. These books gave me a sense of rightness and justice, which existed in the hearts of a few courageous people. I was taken by the story of a page — a girl, dressed as a young boy — who heroically saved the knight she served in battle. Her hair was cropped close to her head. This was the haircut I wanted.
I believed that, if I could make my outsides match my insides, I would be free.
This was in the days before Pinterest. Back then, we had special magazines with names like Short Hairstyles that sat in shabby piles in every salon’s waiting room. I flipped through a few issues, noticing that the shorter the model’s hair was, the more meticulously styled she was. They wore thick eyeliner and their bangs were spiked. They looked ignoble, like carrion birds picking through a corpse’s pockets. The makeup was supposed to counterbalance the “masculine” short hair, so nobody would mistake them for anything other than female.
There was no equivalent magazine for men’s hairstyles.
I sat in the stylist’s chair and seized a hank of my hair. “Can you cut this off, please? I want it really short.”
She looked at me closely. Normal girls wanted horsey braids, curls, those weird knobs Gwen Stefani rocked in 1997. I wasn’t a normal girl, not at all. I was a stranger in the land of angora sweaters, French braids with ribbons in them, and perms. I knew I didn’t belong there. A decade of wearing dresses, using the women’s bathroom, and being called she didn’t make me into a girl. Neither did my hair.
“All off,” I said. She started to cut.
Long strands fell onto my shoulders. I could feel the cold metal of the scissors on the back of my neck. I closed my eyes. They’d shaved Joan of Arc’s head before they burned her. Every warrior in history had sacrificed her hair. I was sure that, when I opened my eyes, I’d see my real self looking back at me.
The scissors hesitated. “You want to look?”
I shook my head, pinching my lips tight against the clippings. “Just make it really short.” And then, daringly: “Like a boy. Make me look like a boy.”
She continued cutting, easing the shears around the tops of my ears. I don’t remember if she used the clippers on the back of my neck.
“There,” she finally said. She pulled the hard plastic cape off me and dusted at my t-shirt. I felt her hand move over me. It was the same brusque movement you’d use to shake off a cicada — not good, not bad. Just a pesky creature, out of place.
I opened my eyes.
A boy stared out of the mirror at me, his wide blue eyes crinkling into a smile. I could see my whole face, my ears, and the shape of my skull. I didn’t look ferocious at that moment because I was so deliriously happy.
“This cut is called a pageboy,” the stylist said. “Next time, just tell them you want something like this.”
When I want to feel like myself, all I need to do is cut my hair. If I grow it out, which I sometimes do, I start feeling like I’m in drag — wearing a wig, someone else’s hair. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, or how patiently I waited for it to get long enough for a ponytail. It isn’t mine, and I cut it off without drama or guilt.
I feel that way about my female body, too. As bodies go, it is a nice one: Amazonian, tall and strong, beauty standard optimized. But it doesn’t feel like me. When someone compliments me, I always have the impulse to sidestep. This isn’t because I’m modest. (I’m not.) It’s because I don’t feel a sense of ownership. My body is my container, not my self.
If my body behaves badly, I act like it’s a child having a tantrum in the store, and pretend it isn’t mine. And, like a toddler, it’s always misbehaving. Exploring. Getting into trouble. I have so little control over it. When I meet women who have dramatically transformed and tamed their bodies, I am impressed. I, too, exert my will over my body — but for very different reasons. For me, changing my hair or my weight or my muscle definition is a way of getting closer not to an arbitrary standard of beauty. These changes help me become closer to myself.
I don’t aspire to female beauty. What I’m looking for is androgynous and strong. I’ve known this about myself since I was very young. Standing in my bedroom, I’d slip my rainbow loop belt around my waist and tighten it until I felt like I was going to be cut in half. My clothes, and even my shoes, were never tight enough. I pulled on my shoelaces so hard that they broke. I wanted to be smaller, more compact. I never wanted my body to change, but it did, betraying me a day at a time, growing from the way it ought to look into this other, adult, human, female thing. I fought every curve. It did me no good.
Now, trans is becoming synonymous with transitioning. As though you aren’t trans unless you identify with the other dominant gender, and are taking steps to alter your physical body, behaviors, and pronouns with that gender. But what about the time before that transformation, if any? What about people like me, who don’t necessarily want to change anything?
Why should I change my appearance in order to express my identity, when my identity comes from inside of me?
When Wonder Woman walks into No Man’s Land, she is entering a space that has been destroyed by the two armies fighting to claim it. Her armor shines with a dull, certain glow. She has not yet drawn her sword, but she is smiling gently, wearing the expression of an angel delivering an apocalyptic blow to the world as we know it. She is the only feminine thing on that battlefield. She has not come to civilize — she has come for victory. Her hair is her banner. The wind catches it.
If there’s music, or gunfire, we can’t hear it. We listen anyway, and look, afraid of this goddess, who crosses from one side to the other. She crosses it with her head high. As she goes, her flag is flying.