for the 'accidental icon', hair is a statement on self and society

The professor and self-professed "accidental icon" on identity and the passage of time.

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Jun 21 2017, 4:05pm

Calvin Lam

i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.

My hair has always been my personal statement on self and society. Right now, it is shaved on the sides, long on top, icy grey, and directional. It's as decisive and avant-garde as I am.

Every time I have done something to my hair there have been emotional implications including: stretching, excitement, desire, urgency, anxiety, pressure, rebellion, force, anger and yearning. I have often made a radical change in my hairstyle in order to mark an event in my life, to signify a new passage, to defy expectations, to subvert the old and make room for the new. There are social stories and scripts about hair, femininity and culture that I have used to my rebellious advantage or challenged in some way.

As a child my hair style was controlled by someone other than myself and for some reason my mother preferred to cut it quite short. Which was strange to me when hers was always curled and perfectly coiffed like Jackie Kennedy's. In most childhood pictures, I'm sporting a pixie cut like Twiggy's before she even came onto the scene. I wonder now if making me look more like a boy was my mother's way of reflecting her ambivalence about gender roles during a time when opportunities for women were still quite limited. She also gave me the male version of my name: Lyn rather than Lynn. So perhaps my very short hair at that time was actually my mother's statement on self and society.

Once I was old enough to control my hair narrative, I wore it long, not because that is what all the girls did, but because it was rebellious. It was parted in the middle and bone straight. Long hair in the 70s was associated with counterculture figures like Grace Slick and Jim Morrison. Long hair was psychedelic rock, getting high, and breaking the rules that had been imposed by strict parents and Catholic school. Long hair was political. In high school the times and spaces my body could move in, what I could wear, what was acceptable to express were all dictated by the authority figures in my life. Within those constraints my hair was the only signifier I could control. Its movement and length made me feel sexual and provocative. I loved how it hid secrets like the tiny forbidden earrings I wore each day, flouting the possibility of detention. This was the genesis of one of my most important abilities: how to creatively rebel within a "box."

My hair stayed long in college and graduate school as society and I became more free. I cut it right before getting married, a failed experiment in more ways than one. During the next 10 years, I cut my hair when I felt angry, too sexual, or too powerful. I would either have someone slash it all off or make it curly and wild with a perm like Medusa. Reflecting on those transformations now, I realize that I was imposing a forceful and chemically harsh sort of control and punishment upon my hair which mirrored what I was doing to myself.

It was at the end of this difficult period that I learned the real reason I love my hair: hair is alive. Hair is resilient. When you hack it off as an experiment, there's no need to apologize. It is always self-correcting. It is endlessly forgiving. My hair has been a constant companion throughout the years. It has always supported me in expressing what I truly want to say but cannot. It accompanies me willingly when I take risks. It is the catalyst for me to experiment with endless reinventions. My hair has taught me self love.

When I was 40 years-old I moved to New York City. Because this was a kind of second adolescence for me, once again my hair was long. Grey hair began to appear. I colored it the auburn I had inherited from my father's mother, a fiery passionate woman who loved to dance (as I did too during that time). I allowed myself the freedom to explore my identity and creativity, finishing a story that had somehow been disrupted.

Approaching 50, I allowed in the idea that I was getting old. At first, because of the many social constructions around aging, I wasn't happy about it and so my hair remained an unauthentic auburn. Always the pragmatist my hair had taught me to be, I came to accept that aging was inevitable. I chose to embrace it as another "box" and see what I might make of it. I thought it was interesting that lots of young people were bleaching their hair to look grey. They were turning the culture of youth inside out. Intrigued, I wanted to do that too.

My grey hair is the star of my current reinvention. My representation as Accidental Icon on my blog and social media is an aesthetic innovation that challenges notions of how aging should be performed. My hair and body, in interaction with fashion and clothing, builds the character who makes the visual statements I wish to make about this and other social issues. It is a co-construction of my Japanese hair stylist and myself. It has partially hidden undercuts, which feels like having a secret and allows for a surprise when my hair is styled upwards or slicked back. It is shaved to my skull in some places and long in others, allowing me to play with all my extremes and all my ambivalence. It is the manifestation of creativity within a "box" because people do not expect someone my age with grey hair to style their hair this way. It symbolizes complete and total self-acceptance.

I look back at photos of my life and I see now it is the changes in my hair that are telling the story. These shifts show who I am and who I wish to be. My hair, like myself, never remains the same. It's the clay I use to sculpt my story.

Read More: Grey Hair is More Punk Than Ever

Credits


Text Lyn Slater
Photography Calvin Lam, Micheal Paniccia, Calvin Lam, Maizhou Yuan (top to bottom)