Holly dyed her hair: more on myths of female frailty, our fear of women’s anger, and what happens when the truth comes out

I posted earlier this year against the “myth of female frailty” and the lie that “one mistake will ruin your life”. The topic of that myth arose again this week when I met with one of my former All Saints youth group kids, “Holly.”

Holly, whom I’ve known since she was in eighth grade, is now headed into her senior year of high school; she’s 17. When I first met Holly, and indeed for the next several years, Holly “presented” outwardly as the pretty, outgoing, poised and popular blonde whose passage through adolescence seems almost unfairly graceful. Holly was much sought after as a friend (and more) by boys and girls alike; at our Wednesday night youth group meetings, I often saw not-very-subtle attempts by kids of both sexes to sit on “Holly’s couch” and be near her.

Of course, Holly was far more than the walking embodiment of a stock American stereotype. Not only was she exceptionally bright and a particularly talented writer, her childhood had been touched by tragedy and loss to a degree that set her well apart from most of her peers. A few — a very few — of her friends got to know the depth of that loss and its impact on Holly’s life; I was one of the small group of adults to whom she also regularly turned. I watched her struggle with the disconnect between how the rest of the world perceived her and how she felt on the inside, and we talked often about her frustration with the realization that she was the object of desire, admiration, jealousy, and envy when for the most part, she felt out of place and frequently lonely. Holly’s is not an unfamiliar story — at its most extreme, call it the “Richard Cory” phenomenon after that famous Edward Arlington Robinson poem so loved by generations of misperceived adolescents.

This summer, Holly broke up with her first serious boyfriend, got her first lead in a play, and let go of a great many of her old friends. When I met with her earlier this week, her long blonde hair was mahogany brown. Despite the heat, she wasn’t wearing the short skirts that had been her trademark since junior high school. She wore corduroy pants, a t-shirt, and a vest. Not a trace of make-up on her face, but when we met at a local coffee shop, there was a sense of real happiness behind her eyes. Holly’s making changes; the outside shift reflects an inner transformation — and the brunette tresses a greater willingness to expose to the world the darker, more complex aspects of her personality.

Holly told me that she’s been spending a lot of time along recently, a huge change for her. She takes long walks, and she’s consuming books at an extraordinary rate. She’s journaling, and brought to our meeting a bag filled with novels as well as the notebook in which she records what’s going on. (Practically her first question was “Do you have a reading list for me?”) Her old friends call, she says, but she tells them she doesn’t have time. Her ex-boyfriend and her mother tell Holly that they’re worried about her; “This isn’t like you”, they say; “What’s wrong?” Her mother has muttered about putting her on anti-depressants, a suggestion that appalls Holly. “I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time”, she says. “Yes, I’m going dark and inward, but that’s not a bad thing for me right now. I need to work on another part of myself. Why is that so scary?”

When you’re a teenager, I told Holly, folks tend to freak out when you make sudden changes. When those changes involve cutting ties with friends and retreating into contemplative solitude, the tendency of peers and parents alike is to pathologize the sudden shift. Pretty blonde girls who suddenly stop playing “the game”, who opt out of the “in” circles in high school, must be acting out of a deep and profound unhappiness. But as I said to Holly, only some of the concern about all of these changes she’s manifesting is motivated by a legitimate interest in her well-being. Much of it fits into something else: the classic way in which our culture seeks to discourage women from displaying anger.

In her fashion choices and in her increased willingness to say what’s on her mind, Holly’s making folks uncomfortable. This is because, seemingly overnight, a classically feminine young woman who outwardly embodied all of the “rules” for her sex (demure, polite, fun-loving, cute but unthreatening) suddenly decided to start telling the truth. She’s not rude or cruel; she’s not shouting from the rooftops in rage. For that matter, she’s not getting sleeved in tattoos or sporting new piercings in places that make might parents ill to contemplate. All she’s done is cover up, go brunette, and start telling the people in her life a bit more about how she really feels.

The myth of female frailty tells us that when a young woman starts exploring her dark side, she’s begun down a very dangerous road that could have life-damaging consequences. Obviously, if she starts shooting heroin, that’s true. But Holly — like so many other teen girls whose fascination with darkness is made manifest — isn’t doing anything life-threatening. She’s started reading Kerouac and Inga Muscio instead of Vogue and Seventeen, she’s getting showered and dressed and out of the house in less than half the time it took her a year before. This is healthy as can be — and yet it’s genuinely terrifying to many of the folks around her. Fed by a culture that falls all over itself with (often faux) expressions of concern about teen girls, many of her friends — and some of the adults in her life — are scared that Holly’s gonna “do something stupid now” and “ruin her life.”

Underneath that concern, however, is something simpler and uglier: we don’t like uppity women. We like pretty blonde girls in short skirts who say “Yes” more often than they say “No”, who get good grades, flatter their teachers, who hang out with popular girls, talk about hot boys, stay thin, perform umpteen hours of community service and effortlessly manage to avoid displaying desire or rage or any other emotion that might be threatening. Holly was that girl, and she doesn’t want to be that girl anymore. And her anger is real, she’s started saying “No”, and she’s trying — with real success — to figure out what the hell it is she wants.

In our culture, we expect boys to go on “hero’s journeys” when they’re young. We send them out on camping trips and vision quests and ask with reverent awe to see their scars and bruises. We smile indulgently as they get shaggy with their first beards and talk romantically about driving — or hiking — across America. We see them retreat into their rooms and into monosyllabic isolation, and we dismiss it as a phase out of which they are sure to emerge (or so we hope) ambitious and centered and ready for the great adventure of life. And when they’re rude or ill-tempered, we’re inclined to indulge that as a natural, even healthy expression of their testosterone-infused selves. But let one of our daughters — particularly one from a middle-class family steeped in all of the latest pop psychology — start displaying similar behavior, and we react with horror. And make no mistake: that horror has far more to do with the fear of hearing the truth from the lips of young women like Holly than it has to do with legitimate concern over their well-being.

Please understand, I’m not saying it’s bad to be blonde or to be outgoing or to wear short skirts. There is nothing magical about corduroys and auburn hair; they are simply, for Holly, outer and visible signs of an ongoing inner transformation. That transformation puzzles some and frightens others. But what Holly needed to hear, and what we all need to understand, is that that concern is rooted in the myth of female frailty and our very real fear of women who make manifest their anger, their wanting, and their wildness.

25 thoughts on “Holly dyed her hair: more on myths of female frailty, our fear of women’s anger, and what happens when the truth comes out

  1. Kudos to Holly, Hugo, and I hope that she does well and continues to express herself as she enters young adulthood.

    Is there something more, though, that could be said about the gender-specific or determinative aspect of what you’ve described here? I don’t doubt that myths regarding female frailty or a fear of women’s anger exists, but I had to say that I found your description of what happens when boys or young men act that way, that “we’re inclined to indulge that as a natural, even healthy expression of [young men's] testosterone-infused selves”, rather pat. From what I’ve seen and remember, adolescents and young adults of both sexes go through these sorts of transitions, and both often inspire fear or overreaction from parents and peers when they do.

    It would be interesting to compare and contrast experiences between the sexes on this score.

  2. I’m an adolescent guy, and I’m sort of going the opposite way. I was an engineering school geek, and I’ve since moved to a bigger university in a large city. I’m taking a lot less pleasure in the solitary brainy things that I used to, and I’m starting to repair the relationships that decayed in the last year and a half. that decayed over two years; being alone went from being where I was at home to being painful. All and all turning outward.

    As for how people have reacted; it’s been nothing but positive (except for some good natured teasing about giving up on engineering from the people I connected with there). I like to believe that I live in a relatively enlightened circle, and trying to take more care of emotional and social needs above economic/result oriented things surprised some people, but I never get the sense that anyone’s worried or thinking that I’m ruining my life. It could be that the more I do this, the less depressed I get, which I think is a relief to everyone around me.
    Like Holly, I’m getting happier than I’ve been in my adolescence so far, even though I’m going the other way (spending more than i should on clothes, taking the time to gel my hair and actually shave every morning. There’s only so much you can include in a male beauty ritual) I’ve gone from a no-maintenance crew cut to relatively long, and people react noticeably better to my new appearance (vanity?).
    It really reflects a change in my values, given that I’ve always prided myself on my cold logic and problem solving focus.

  3. Holly’s much braver than I ever was (or am even now)–I’ve never been able to give up the outward presentation of pretty blonde unthreateningness, though I’ve discarded most of all the rest. Good for her–I’m awash in admiration, especially given her age.

  4. This honestly brought a smile to my face, which in turn left me in awe. I’m so happy for Holly. I’m really glad she’s been able to get out of the circle that prevented her from expressing her inner self. This is definitely a break through, and I’m so happy she did it on her own! This is just a fantastic story. Holly is definitely much braver, aware, and more of a lightsome person, than I could have ever hoped to have been at her age. Simply amazing. Thanks for this post Hugo.

  5. Good luck to Holly.

    But one mistake can ruin your life. You’re speaking from privilege, where the resources of other people have cushioned your mistakes. Not everybody has that option.

    Yeah, the odds that the one-night stand Holly has at 19 will give her mega-AIDS and three welfare babies and cause her to die from a meth overdose at 23 are very low. The scare stories can be very silly, and they are indeed be used as a tool of social and gender control.

    That doesn’t make the world a padded safe zone.

  6. It’s quite common that we’ll see a feminist argue that women should take more risks so they can realise more rewards. What we don’t see is a corresponding effort to acclimatise people to the idea that this also means women will suffer a lot of additional hardships and that’s something we ought to accept. Robert’s correct to attack Hugo’s “it’s really not risky” position; it’s as risky as it is, but we let men/boys take more risks than we let women/girls take, and as a consequence women get to do less. You rarely hear feminists saying “women should be getting hurt and killed more on the job”, or “women should be getting hurt and killed more during leisure activities”, but it’s necessary convince people that women should be as free to say “worst case scenario: I die” as I am. This kind of idea needs to be expressed explicitly and directly, and not backed down from. Without it, or worse, denying it’s truth, leaves the argument full of holes.

    It may stem out of us, as a society, seeing women as more valuable then men (some may argue the point, but I don’t think it’s any different than why my niece is allowed to use plastic cups from Dollerama but not Grandma’s fine china), or having more of a stake in womens’ value (I’d certainly argue both are in play here, but it’s unnecessary to argue over the first if we can all agree the second holds.) I suppose it doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that we’re willing to say “Yeah, she might get hurt, she might ruin her life, she might lose her life. But if we don’t let her risks these things, she’ll never have her life; she’ll never live her life; and we’ll be assured of it’s loss.”

  7. hi hugo. i’m a long-time reader, first time commenter. thanks for this post.

    at any rate, i really wanted to respond to robert, who it seems is eager to perpetuate the myth you were just talking about. i don’t think the fact that holly is attempting to become more authentic amounts to a life of one night stands and poor decisions, especially considering her choice of books, which is actually evidence of her becoming more thoughtful, not less. but then again, trotting out the straw-welfare queen with 3 kids is a favorite with people who don’t actually consider women as people. few people, even privleged blonde girls, believe that this world is a padded safe zone.

    for my part, i’d like to continue to encourage this self-discovery of holly’s. i did some of that myself and (despite my 8 kids with 6 dads all serving jail time – kidding!) i have never learned to regret becoming more true to myself.

  8. Correct, Brian. Feminism should be about telling women it is all right to take these risks (and their costs). It shouldn’t be about pretending the risks don’t exist.

    Steph, I also encourage self-discovery. But self-discovery is not an implicitly safe process, and it is irresponsible to teach that it is.

    Ammonoid, one mistake can ruin your life. “Missing the point” or no, this is a fact about the physical world. Taking one drink too many and getting behind the wheel can kill you, and other people in the bargain. Sleeping with the wrong person can kill you. Going to the wrong city in Afghanistan can kill you.

    Understanding that mistakes can have consequences, even horrible ones, is not the same thing as saying “never take any chances” or “girls need to stay home where it’s safe”. By all means, encourage exploration, discovery, growth.

    Do so while telling the truth about the risks.

  9. Wow. I love this post Hugo. I so totally understand Holly’s story…I was the same age when I did this. I went from being christian club sweetheart to a darker and more honest and true version of myself…a self I had only discovered in corners of my time and life before. I remember the freedom I found in reading The Catcher and the Rye at that age…and how my writing came out of that…freedom to say the things burried inside.

    This time in my life is still viewed by many as a season that was a “close call” where I almost went down a dark road.

    Give her a high five from a sister who’s been on a journey to live this life authentically and beautifully for the last 13 years since I was 17. :) I didn’t have blonde hair…but light brown did become burgundy…and now is even darker brown.

  10. Brian and Robert, if society were actually interested in keeping girls and women safe, then accurate risk assessments would be more present in public discourse. As it is, we get told that walking alone at night is risky, and sensational kidnappings by strangers get a lot of news coverage. But the warnings that your husband, boyfriend, dad, stepdad, uncle etc. are the most likely men to hurt or kill you, those are few and far between. (Statistically, at least… your mileage will, of course, vary.)

    So yeah, by all means, let’s tell the truth about risks, because the way we talk about them now smells more like control than safety.

    Honestly, Holly’s self-discovery process might just keep her safe.

  11. So far it seems that Holly is doing her exploration in the context of community…perhaps a different one than before…but she is seeking out Hugo to be someone who is an honest part of her journey.

    Hair dye and good literature aren’t gateway drugs.

  12. Honestly, Holly’s self discovery process might just keep her safe.

    I agree metamanda. It’s amazing how empowering being able to stop pleasing…and start telling the truth can be. Well said.

  13. I’d go so far as to say that Holly will be safer for having gone down this road of self-discovery than she would have been had she remained within the frame she had been in. It’s people with weak self-identities are more vulnerable to bad relationships and bad decisions, not the other way around.

  14. This post really resounded with me. I middle school, where I was supposedly making all the “right” choices. I was active in extra-curriculars, wore more makeup than my mother, religiously watched what I ate (at 12!) for fear of being fat, was obsessively preoccupied with trends and fashion, got home just in time for homework and bed, and was Captain of my school’s dance squad. I was also deeply unhappy and miserable. I hated myself and thought often about running away or had lurid fantasies of how beautiful my funeral would be.

    By high school, I wavered between periods of middle-school like unhappiness—typically accompanied by dieting, an extremely full social calendar, and an obsession with trendiness and politeness—and bliss. The happy periods were associated with intense relationships with female friends, introspective love-affairs with long periods of solitude, short hair, and an utter dismissal of dieting and Martha Steward-like cleanliness. I started speaking up at home, doing what I pleased with my appearance, and only going to events I wanted to go to. Of course, my parents associated the former periods with me being “normal” and good, and the latter periods with me “acting out” and “needing therapy”.

    No doubt due to contradictory messages and an inability to separate my own attitude towards my life towards outside attitudes towards it, the pattern repeated itself in college. This culminated in my Sophomore year with an abusive relationship with a boy I didn’t really have any sexual interest in, intense flare-ups of my digestive problems from stress, and chronic exhaustion because of low-self-esteem-driven spats of anorexic behavior. I dropped twenty pounds and averaged about twelve hundred calories a day. My days consisted of putting up with my boyfriend, going out of my way to resist eating full meals, scraping together the money for expensive clothes and makeup, and utterly ignoring my passion for politics, being outspoken, and generally expressing myself as anything other than the perfect model of femininity.

    I thank whatever higher powers that I discovered feminism, and that I was not so beaten by the positive feedback to my misery that I could extricate myself from that relationship and the repressive silence. I have less friends now, more solitude, and find that I piss many people off. I speak my mind, haven’t worn makeup in years, and wear whatever is comfortable—even if I have to get it in the men’s department. I’m more happy fat than I ever was skinny, and more content queer than trying to fit myself into a role that felt wrong. My living space is a mess, my car is old, and I really don’t care about anything other than my studies and causes.

    I always knew I was happier now than I ever have been since I was labeled a “young lady” and expected to live up to that label. Just until I read your post, I really couldn’t conceptualize why that was so, and what about my silence was so suffocating.

    Now, of course, I’m quite angry. I’m angry that my rebellion and self-expression was squashed whilst my brother’s was “put up with” or encouraged, even if he went to extremes and became an utter loser and all-around jerk. As a woman, speaking up for myself and speaking my mind is more offensive—more pathological—than a young man who “rebels” by becoming an utter selfish jerk. My family makes empty platitudes about how he’ll “grow out of it”. Just like the other men in my family “grew” into abusing their wives and children. Because it’s a “phase”. It will pass. Their anger is acceptable, even when it’s not, and my anger—and even simple self-expression— is dirty, shameful, and needs to be viciously oppressed even when stifling it makes lurid fantasies of my funeral more interesting than my waking life.

    What an absolute horrid thing we do to our daughters. I wish Holly the best, and hope that she can find the strength within herself to do what’s best for her, even when the rest of the world would rather see her dead inside than happy.

  15. I find it interesting that people are so fascinated with teenage girls and their activities. There’s a sense of the forbidden, even here Hugo must mention her “short skirts.” I’m a 41 year-old woman who is beautiful, confident, educated and accomplished– are you outraged I dare to describe myself so? Now what if I were male? Who cares what I look like– What’s most important and interesting to me is how *all* young girls, not just the pretty ones, navigate adolescence, develop true self-confidence and can withstand assaults on their morals and convictions. Look at Chelsea Clinton and the Bush girls– no matter what you may say about the parents, the girls all seem to like themselves and work hard, and I bet their parents didn’t let them wear short skirts or too much make-up when they were young! I’m waiting for a day when a discussion of girls can be held without mentioning their sexual attractiveness, probably forever.

  16. Another great post.

    So true – women are just meant to be pliant and people-pleasers. If people can’t tell the difference between a teenage girl being *more* herself and problematic behaviour…it doesn’t sound as if she’s becoming problematically introverted or depressed at all, but just taking time for herself.

    I am currently trying to kick the people-pleasing and be more assertive, and the number of people who seem to think I am being pushy, obnoxious and rude when I am NOT – just calmly being assertive and standing up for myself! And hell, even if I am a bit of a jerk, sometimes, I’m only human. The social penalties for women for showing mild selfishness, aggression, etc. are far worse than for men.

    Brian, I wanted to pick up on your comment, as I completely agree. Women should absolutely do anything men do, even if it does mean physical or risky jobs, even if it’s serving in the military. I was watching a documentary on women in the Army today, which showed 2 privileged young women undergoing officer training, and one very perceptively picked up on this. People would say to her parents, ‘How can you let your daughter do that?’ and so on. People think it’s worse in some way if a woman dies in combat. Why? It isn’t that we value women’s lives more; I think it is more rooted in benevolent sexism, the notion that women are purer, more delicate, angels who must be protected. Which is in its way, dehumanising.

    So – yes from me to more accurate risk assessments, and encouraging women to take said risks if they choose to. It is simply treating women as fully human, responsible adults who, given accurate information, can make sensible choices. And who can sometimes make errors and learn and recover from them, as people do. One mistake rarely ruins anyone’s life, even if they do screw up quite badly. People do recover from dropping out of school, drugs, alcohol problems, teenage pregnancy…not saying Holly is going to do any of those things, but that in general, even when girls do them, it’s not necessarily !THE END OF THE WORLD!!!

    metamanda, absolutely. The current discourse isn’t actually about keeping women safe – it’s about othering women, whether through keeping them at home, or (as I alluded to earlier) seeing them as delicate angels.

    MER, I went the opposite way at university, too. I think there is a balance between pleasing others and ourselves.

  17. @metamanda

    I think you’re confusing an ignorance with a deliberate misrepresentation. Very few people (men, women, whoever) really believe we have more to fear from people close to us, whether or not it’s true. To argue that society would do an accurate risk assessment if it were truly concerned about safety simply doesn’t reflect at all how people behave. We live in an unscientific age. That people can know statistics doesn’t mean that they do know statistics, nevermind believe them.

    I’m all for accurate statistics. As a professional scientist, I’ll say plainly nothing makes me happier than the phrase “let’s measure it.” But make no mistake, this makes me an oddity.

  18. I have a tremendous amount of respect for girls like Holly, who decide to put themselves first and do what’s necessary to find happiness (and do it in a healthy way). I’d love to meet more young women like her. This was a wonderful post and very inspiring, thanks Hugo.

  19. But let one of our daughters — particularly one from a middle-class family steeped in all of the latest pop psychology — start displaying similar behavior, and we react with horror.

    Seriously, what? Holly is cutting her hair and going mountain-climbing? She’s giving up her cheerleading classes to go volunteer with Doctors Without Borders? She’s joining a rugby team?

    No, she’s changed her behavior radically and gone ‘darker’. You know, like teenagers do when they start shooting heroin, or sleeping around without condoms, or contemplate suicide.

    Hugo, you seem to vicariously revel in your charges’ “rebellion” and “independence”, whether or not it is real independence and whether or not it’s a good choice for them. Did it cross your mind that maybe Holly’s parents are just fine with her being uppity and independent – they just don’t want to find their daughter in a landfill someday?

  20. Myth, what I’m arguing is that folks like Holly’s parents have a poor calculus for distinguishing the healthy from the unhealthy rebellion — and that when it comes to girls, almost every radical decision gets lumped into the latter category.

  21. Pingback: Lust doesn’t cancel out empathy: thoughts on an all-male sexuality workshop | Hugo Schwyzer

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