On Hair

I usually keep my hair short because I’d rather not have to think about it, but I did have long hair years ago. I was having an identity crisis. Not that I didn’t know who I was, but other people seemed unable to discern my gender. For most of my life, I have endured the discomfort of being taken for whom I am not. One Saturday when I was about ten, I was in line for the matinee, anticipating Zorro’s next heroic adventure. A kid who had been staring at me said, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Who was he to me, or I to him? I was embarrassed at his question and ignored him. Later I seethed that I didn’t have a ready answer to what I thought was a rude question I would hear in other forms many times.

A variation on the theme occurred after I got married. When Robert and I were camping, our androgynous outdoor clothing was never a problem while hiking. Everyone wore the same practical clothing. But we decided to bicycle to Columbia, South America starting from Yachats, Oregon in January. Why January, you might ask? Because we were ready to go. We wore the same hiking clothes with heavy boots, and carried our same camping gear. It rained intermittently that first day, and we chose to stay in a motel where we could dry out.

In the office, the clerk asked the usual question,   “One bed or two?”

“One, please,” Robert said as he filled out the registration form. The clerk gave me a peculiar look as he gripped the room key firmly. Oh, my God. Not that again. Red faced, I pulled the key out of his fist while Robert signed his name.

The rain continued, so we put everything on a Greyhound and headed south. At the first stop, we trooped off the bus with the other passengers. Robert followed the men and I followed the women, single file and with single purpose. Just as I reached the bathroom, I was startled when the tight-lipped woman in front of me turned suddenly and slammed the door in my face.

“You can’t come in here. This is the Ladies,” the self-appointed toilet monitor said.

Still lacking a barbed retort, I just hissed, “I’m a woman”.

She moved aside, but when I entered a stall, she stood guard at the sink. I knew she was listening, skeptically, for feminine tinkling sounds and was momentarily victorious during the long silence as I struggled to focus on the task at hand. When I was through, I was tempted to rip open my shirt and throw back the stall door with my breasts bared, but, small as they were, I doubted it would convince her of anything.

Back on the bus, I was steaming. I said to Robert, “I am sick of being taken for a man. I’m going to let my hair grow.”

“Well,” he said carefully, “That won’t hurt my feelings.”

In a few months, I had a respectable pony tail. Sadly, it did nothing to further my cause, since in the early seventies, plenty of men also wore their hair the same way.

Long Hair
Harriet with Long Hair Looking over Mazatlan

I kept my hair long anyway. The next year, we were living on a sail boat, anchored in Mazatlan Harbor. One day, I encountered what many women suffer, I guess, but I never had. I bicycled into town for a block of ice. I had on the lime green one-piece jump-suit shorts outfit I purchased when Robert and I were working on my gender identity problem. He had suggested I buy a padded bra, too. A padded bra for bicycling!  The padding was bigger than I was and I called them my bumpers. I couldn’t help poking those squishy lumps on my chest with the same obsession I might have had picking at a scab. I hope I didn’t do it in public. The lace got grubby quickly and the rubber overheated in the dryer of a public laundromat and set off the smoke alarm. I threw it out. That day in Mexico, the jumpsuit was the last remnant of feminine cues.

So there I was, riding slowing down a side street full of chuck holes, a short cut I’d found to the ice factory. A local boy, maybe eleven, walked toward me.

“Buenos,” I said.

Strangely, he avoided eye contact but muttered under his breath, “Hey, lady. You fuck?” Then he sauntered off, as if he hadn’t spoken to me at all.

The good news was he knew I was a woman. The bad news was he treated me like one.

I kept the pony tail for a few more years, but eventually convenience won over the desire for gender clarity. I cut my hair and hung it in a pear tree for the birds to use in their nests.