Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Political Cost of Hair

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Hair has once again caused a political tempest in a blow dryer.

This week, the Washington Times published a story saying that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had spent $80 on a haircut and $180 on color at a Washington, D.C. salon, a styling choice the newspaper presented as hypocritical, given she “regularly rails against the rich and complains about the cost of living inside the Beltway.”

Almost immediately, charges of sexism and superficiality began to fly online (also, a debate about the average price of a woman’s haircut, and how little men seem to understand the cost of certain aspects of life).

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez herself tweeted out a statement, saying that Vice President Mike Pence “used *taxpayer funds* — not personal ones — to spend several thousand haircuts’ worth of public money on a visit to Trump golf courses.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as mere distraction, except it is also the latest in a long line of hair-related controversies in the corridors of power that have surrounded both men and women. Hair is, it seems, a particularly — well, tangled, subject. Not to mention an equal-opportunity target.

Hillary Clinton acknowledged it in 2014, when she joked that the subtitle of her memoir, “Hard Choices,” should be “The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair.”

Though Mrs. Clinton is probably the most famous hair lightning rod, whether it was her chopping and changing while in the White House as first lady (seen as reflecting the opportunism of her husband’s policies), her I-don’t-care-I’m-getting-down-to-work scrunchies as secretary of state, her John Barrett styling trip while on the campaign trail (average price per cut: $600) or her postelection lank and limp blues, she is far from the only politician scrutinized.

Her husband was also mocked as far back as 1993 for having a plane wait on the tarmac in Los Angeles while he received a trim from Cristophe of Beverly Hills. The New York Times reported: “Questions about Mr. Clinton’s runway razor cut dominated the White House news briefing today, with the communications director, George Stephanopoulos, scrambling to explain why the populist President tied up one of the country’s busiest airports to have his hair trimmed.”

John Edwards, of course, became something of a poster boy for follicular faux pas during the 2007 presidential campaign when it was revealed he had indulged in two haircuts totaling approximately $800 at a time when he was attempting to sell himself as a champion for working class Americans.

It’s not just an American obsession. In 2016, François Hollande, then the president of France, came under fire for a reported $10,000 a month styling bill, which was seen as inappropriate for a socialist (it even got its own hashtag: #Coiffuregate).

During the 2015 Canadian election, Justin Trudeau’s hair, which, in its lushness, seemed to represent his youth and privilege, had its own Twitter account — @TrudeausHair. The Economist referred to him as the “hair apparent” (a reference to his father, former Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau). And he wasn’t the only one under a follicular microscope: the hair of all the (all-male) candidates played a fairly public role in that election.

And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s singular flyaway blondness has inspired RTE, the Irish broadcaster, to write that his hair is “key” to his “political brand,” “symbolizing the chaotic and gaffe-prone style that charms his supporters and appals his critics.”

It’s fair to say hair is not just some stringy stuff on the top of our heads.

According to Grant McCracken, an anthropologist and author of “Big Hair,” our hair is “our court of deliberation, the place where we contemplate who and what we are.”

It is visible, accessible, gender-freighted. It has associations with sex, punishment, class and power. It is probably not happenstance that the United States has not elected a bald president since Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961.

When it comes to politics, to care too much about hair, to spend too much on it, makes one seen as superficial and vain; focused on yourself at the expense (literally sometimes) of taxpayers. Ignore it and you are sloppy and lack attention to detail. Men have traditionally used their ability to get inexpensive barber-trims as bragging rights and something of a badge of honor. In the Washington Times story, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is lauded for the fact he got his cuts at the Senate Hair Care Services in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building for a mere $20 — though it is acknowledged that “men’s haircuts there and everywhere else are cheaper than women’s.” In turn, women have often complained about a double standard in price and scrutiny.

This has only become more true in the age of Instagram, and during a White House administration where hair has played an outsize symbolic role, from the glossy, blow-dried locks of pretty much all the women in the Trump orbit (the first lady, Tiffany Trump, Vanessa Trump, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Hope Hicks — and Ivanka before the bob) to the orange-hued and complicated comb-over worn by the president himself.

People joke about it, but no one forgets it.

Fact is, we’re talking about hair more than ever these days, not less. All of which suggests that, whether we like it or not, when it comes to politics (as when it comes to a lot of life), a trim is rarely just a trim. It’s a weapon, and a tool. If we don’t admit that and wield it ourselves — with humor, ideally — then someone else will.

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