Thus Spake Zuska

Mr. Z and I went to see “Quantum of Solace” last Friday night. The cineplex was packed and teeming with Twi-hards. I went into the bathroom and found three of them before the mirror, primping and fixing their carefully coiffed hairdos.

And what hair they had! Long hair, thick hair, shiny hair, healthy hair. It was almost painful for me to watch them, knowing full well how they must take for granted their luxurious heads of hair. Because it never occurred to me in the past that my hair would change in any substantive manner – at least not until I got really old and gray.


When I was younger, my hair was so thick that I could barely enclose it in a regular ponytail tie. I always longed for more body or curl in my straight hair, but basically I was not unsatisfied with it. It was good hair. I miss it.

The problems with my hair began soon after the stroke. I was briefly on Depakote, a medication which did nothing for my migraines, but did depress all affect and cause me to shed hair at what would have been an alarming rate, had my affect not been so depressed. I don’t think my hair ever quite recovered from that, and over time the various medications I’ve been on have affected the quality and texture of the individual strands of hair. They are extremely thin and wispy now, especially in the front around the face. The final insult was developing Hashimoto’s disease, which went undetected for quite some time. I thought my inability to get out of bed in the morning was just depression, and my rapidly thinning hair was just aging combined with the effect of various medications. But, hey, once I started taking that thryoid medication – whoa! I could get up in the morning like normal people. And when I washed my hair, it didn’t come out in large amounts in my hands anymore.

I don’t think my hair will ever recover its former glory; at least the damage has been arrested. I am gradually getting used to the idea of thin-haired me, though I still feel mournful when confronted with a movie theater full of youthfully vigorous hair.

Not long after my encounter with the Twi-hards, I read this post about writing and publishable units over at Dr. Isis’s blog. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive because of my recent obsession with the hair issue. If that’s the case, let me know, and you all can ignore everything I say after this. As her intro, Dr. Isis wrote:

Tomorrow Dr. Isis heads back to MRU. Today she traveled into Major Metropolitan City to see Brother Isis and is chilling in his bachelor pad waiting for an acceptable hour to head out on the town. As an aside, Brother Isis has validated Dr. Isis’s total hotness. Brother Isis works in a pretty high-profile, high-fashion joint. When Dr. Isis arrived in his part of MMC, she traveled to his place of employment to meet up and wait for him until he finished work. When he saw Dr. Isis he remarked, “Oh, thank God. If you had gotten all MRU-looking since the move I would have made you go sit in the cafe downstairs until I finished work. But, you’re hot enough to come upstairs and meet the ladies in the office.” I chuckled to myself as he told me this, thinking about our recent discussions of fashion and appearance in academia and thought of what many of you would say about his comment (trust me, I know how many of you would have reacted).

Dear Dr. Isis, I’m sure you know how I’d have reacted, but I’ll tell you anyway. I would have told Brother Isis to go fuck himself. I mean, seriously – he gets to decide whether you are worthy, based on your appearance, of meeting his co-workers? I always thought the great thing about your hotness was that you validated yourself. I suppose, also, that I understood the whole concept of “hotness” to be more broadly metaphorical than narrowly physically literal.

Hotness is a great thing, but unfortunately it comes with an expiration date. Bodies change, making hot fashions simply unwearable; joints develop aches, making fashionable footwear unbearable; hair thins and loses luster and just looks plain terrible.

When I looked at those young girls in the theater, I felt sad and a bit jealous, but I also thought how beautiful they looked, how lovely their hair appeared. Physical beauty – hotness – is a pleasure to the eye for all of us. Youth and health and beauty are things to celebrate, admire, and treasure while they last. Can we celebrate them, though, without mocking women who don’t possess them? The photo of the women in “mom jeans” was a bit much for me. I don’t know where Dr. Isis gets her photos, but I wouldn’t be terribly happy about being offered up as the laughable non-hot example on her blog. Wide hips, sensible flat shoes, poor hairdo – yeah, that could be me in those photos. Dr. Isis, I’m not asking you to mask or stifle your total hotness (as if a domestic and laboratory goddess even could!) and I admire your efforts to create mass cognitive dissonance through conflation of “hot”, “mama”, and “scientist”. Just maybe be a little kinder to the old crones in the audience.

Comments

  1. #1 Luna_the_cat
    November 25, 2008

    Oh, f*** yes. From another wide-hipped-flat-shod-bad-hair-mom-jeans person….

    And the fact that I run the risk of being accused of being upset at Dr. Isis’s characterisation solely because I am not “hot enough.” That is a “Bleah to you too” thing.

  2. #2 becca
    November 25, 2008

    *Thank you for reminding me to treasure my hair. Which I just chopped off, but I can at least appreciate that what’s left is fluffy.

    *Those thyroid drugs really change things, don’t they? When my father was diagnosed (after about 10 years of hypothyroidism) and finally got treatment my mother started telling anyone “oh yes, and he’s got a completely different personality! It’s so much cheaper than divorce”. I think she was joking. I think.

    *As an only child, I can’t be sure, but my impression was that part of the function of brothers is for them to ocassionally say things that necessitate telling them to go fuck themselves.

    *I, of course, think you are far hotter than you give yourself credit for (and I hope Mr. Z agrees on that count!).

    *Outside the narrow physical definition of hottness, hottness is a state of mind. A state of mind perhaps not most easily achieved in mom-jeans. At least for Dr. Isis. Frankly, I think anyone who can achieve hottness in mom-jeans has goddesshood that rivals (or trumps!) Dr. Isis.

  3. #3 PalMD
    November 25, 2008

    I must respectfully disagree with Zuska that “hotness comes with an expiration date”. Perhaps some definitions of hotness are age-limited, but others are not. One’s perceptions of one’s peers and one’s appreciation of different kinds of beauty often changes over time. The 16 year old who would have been hot to me 25 years ago is “just a kid” to me now, and the women in their 40’s or even 50’s are often much more attractive. I have patients in their 80s with active, er, dating lives and they clearly find each other hot, and it would be hard to disagree with their assessments, given the way they look after themselves and the air of confidence that surrounds them.

    It is unfortunate, perhaps, that we are judged by our outward appearance an mannerisms, but it is inevitable that these cues will be used (along with more “internal” qualities, should we be lucky enough to get close enough to someone).

    That being said, it is certainly useful to, for instance, grade a paper or rate an interviewee as blindly as possible to avoid allowing their appearance influence you unduly.

    I say “unduly” because appearance obviously matters, it it’s difficult to tease out one use of appearance from others, sometimes. For example, when interviewing a candidate for med school or residency, they must–MUST–exhibit adequate grooming a personal hygiene. Period. That doesn’t mean that they have to fulfill a particular interviewer’s definition of “hotness”, but if they can’t pull it together for one of the most important days of their career, they probably won’t be a good doctor.

    You may commence with my evisceration now.

  4. #4 Isis the Scientist
    November 25, 2008

    My dearest Zuska, I appreciate that the things that we write have the capacity to be read so many different ways and to affect people differently depending on the contect of their lives. However, I hope that you will read my posts considering the snark and sarcasm with which they are written. I’m not so shallow, Zuska, but I find humor in the difference between being hot because you are confident in your abilities and in the person you are and “hotness” as a facade to alienate others with one’s self interest in mind.

    You’re a tough woman, Zuska. I am in awe of the things that you’ve been through and how you remain a gifted and talented writer. Teenage girls in a movie theater are awkward. You, however, are totally hot.

  5. #5 ScientistMother
    November 25, 2008

    What is “hot” is an excellent question, especially when it come to mom. Terms like MILF, yummy mummy never bothered me until I both became a mom and started reading an excellent blog by Catherine Connors, in particular this post is an excellent commentary on the stupidity of claiming moms to be non-hot.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    November 26, 2008

    Sometimes I whinge about the increasing numbers of gray hairs on my head; my mother was prematurely gray in her 30s, whereas my father did not gray until he was in his 50s (except for his beard). I, and my sister, seem to have split the difference, in terms of the onset of graying. But my hair isn’t any thinner, and I haven’t lost hair to medications or thyroid disease; my hair is still sufficiently abundant (and uncontrollable) that I could share with others, and not miss it. Thanks, Zuska, for some much-needed perspective on personal vanity.

    I have patients in their 80s with active, er, dating lives and they clearly find each other hot, and it would be hard to disagree with their assessments, given the way they look after themselves and the air of confidence that surrounds them.

    That’s very heartening to know, PalMD. Thanks for sharing!

    In the world of science blogs, it’s somewhat depressing to me that the majority of obsessing/lamenting/preening/boasting about physical appearance seems to come from female writers (and commenters). I’d like to be proven wrong about this – show me posts from male science bloggers who bemoan their balding and/or graying heads, their expanding abdominal fat, their flabby muscles, or their saggy faces. Overweight middle-aged men are “cuddly”, “fluffy”, or “teddy bear-like”; women, on the other hand, are lazy lardasses who lack the discipline to modify their eating habits as they age. Male academicians with graying hair are “distinguished”; female scientists need to go to the hairdresser and cover up the gray.

    At a seminar, I once overheard a female grad student, sharp face made ugly by her contempt, go on a tirade about the physique and graying hair of her 50ish female mentor. Not about a science or writing clash … no, it was entirely focused on the weight, appearance, and clothing choices of her advisor. I can’t imagine that I would have chosen such a topic (physical appearance) to rant about my male PhD mentor, even during the dark days of dissertation writing, when students typically loathe their advisors and develop tics when the offending professor’s name is mentioned.

    Why do we continue to obsess about the superficial?

  7. #7 Mike
    November 26, 2008

    I find it a bit depressing that so many women feel they need to spend ages “primping and fixing their carefully coiffed hairdos” to be viewed as “hot”.

    Different people will have different views, of course, but the less natural a woman looks, the less attractive I find her. Plenty of men find women Olympic medallists straight after their event look far better than Paris Hilton does…

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    November 26, 2008

    $HERSELF just turned 60. Hot damn, damn hot dame!

    Which doesn’t negate the stress of worrying whether I’ve done an adequate job of supporting $DAUGHTER’s self-acceptance independent of appearance (which, as a besotted father, I of course cannot objectively evaluate.)

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    November 26, 2008

    Why do we continue to obsess about the superficial?

    Since this is ScienceBlogs, I take it that the question is rhetorical.

  10. #10 Danimal
    November 26, 2008

    Zuska at least you still have hair. That is more then I can say, I started losing it a 18.

  11. #11 Silver Fox
    November 26, 2008

    “Hotness is a great thing, but unfortunately it comes with an expiration date. Bodies change, making hot fashions simply unwearable; joints develop aches, making fashionable footwear unbearable; hair thins and loses luster and just looks plain terrible.”

    Thanks for writing that. And whereas I’m aware of the kind of “hotness” that doesn’t leave with age but is internal rather than external, that is not what that word really invokes in most people. And whereas I’m also aware that not all those things necessarily happen to all people when they age – actually, I sure can’t think of very many people I know for whom those things haven’t happened to at least some degree! Only people who can afford or who care for plastic-type surgery… which is not what I’ll be doing with my time or money.

    Great post. Thanks again.

  12. #12 Lora
    November 26, 2008

    Lesson I learned in my 20s, still holds true lo these many years:

    Beauty is not related to hotness. No, it’s NOT. I’ve seen it over and over in many examples and venues–personality and perceived availability (or, depending on how you look at it, opportunity costs) go much much further than physical beauty when it comes to sexual success and perceived attractiveness. Even, and this is important, even when society says otherwise. Seriously, you could be a completely bald troll with suppurating herpes lesions, but if you were really funny and interesting, engaging and made it clear that you were interested in sex with no strings attached, you’d have more takers than a Gwyneth Paltrow ice queen.

    Best of all, the really prissy women who DO use appearance to get what they want (as opposed to, you know, competence) will never believe that this is true. So it’s kind of a secret weapon, type of thing.

  13. #13 Samia
    November 26, 2008

    Mmmm male gaze.

  14. #14 DDeden
    November 26, 2008

    coincidence, was just reading a blog by a 17yo who always covers her thick long straight hair with a headscarf, her words to herself: “Find a guy that will call me BEAUTIFUL instead of HOT”.

  15. #15 iltc
    November 26, 2008

    If you really want to feel old, I saw this documentary the other day where an expert endocrinologist (?) was talking about menopause. Apparently it’s a relatively new thing, because, well, we generally died before it happened. Yeah…

  16. #16 Anne
    November 27, 2008

    I think hair is not just a question of hotness, for women: it’s a question of femininity. Hair is one of the ways we signal our gender to everyone who sees us, and long, luxuriant hair is a very traditional feminine signal. That can be a problem for those women for whom long hair simply doesn’t work, for one reason or another. Apparently one of the things that women facing chemotherapy worry most about is whether they’ll lose their hair. They’re not being silly – not being able to present the right gender is very painful even if you don’t actually get taken for a man. This isn’t purely social either – male pattern baldness is very much a male signal. Think how startling a woman with a shaved head is.

  17. #17 Penny
    November 27, 2008

    “Think how startling a woman with a shaved head is.”

    Exactly–which is why, in my mid-40s, I’m growing my hair long–because on my 50th birthday, when I shave my head and start fresh to mark the occasion, I want the contrast to be as stark as possible.

  18. #18 Zan
    November 27, 2008

    This kinda makes me think, as far as traditional hotness, my hair is the only thing I have going for me at all. And I’d still trade it for my mum’s pin-straight hair any day.

    Feh. Curls.

  19. #19 Sandra Porter
    November 27, 2008

    Ah Zuska, you know true hotness is a state of mind.

  20. #20 JLK
    November 30, 2008

    I’ve had gray hairs since I was 20. My grandfather on my mom’s side was completely gray at age 25, my mom has had gray hairs since she was about 23, and continues to dye her hair regularly.

    I’ll be 26 in less than a week. My hair is noticeably gray (white, actually as my husband remarked just today) because I am a brunette and they really stand out. At first I hated it because the hairs were wiry and curly and would stand up on top of my head no matter what I did to get them to lie flat. Now they’ve grown longer and create streaks down the sides of my head. I’ve pondered getting my hair colored to cover them up, but I don’t think I will. It’s a sign, albeit slightly premature, of where I am in my life in relation to the 18yr old brats who run around campus at my MRU.

    This has got me thinking quite a bit….I think I’m gonna put up a post over at my blog continuing my thoughts on this issue.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.