Hair As Self — The Journey of Coif: From Aqua Net to Bettie Page Bangs #Tenx9Nashville #Storytelling

The following was performed at Cafe Coco in Nashville on Sept. 16th at the TenX9 event. Nine people tell ten minute true stories from their lives. 

“The higher the hair, the closer to God.” – Karen Gillespie


It started simple enough, when I was about six, I asked my Mom, “What color is my hair?” Her answer, “Dishwater blond.” Not honey blonde or brownish blonde or dark blonde or even dull blonde — but honey your hair is the color of leftover food and grease in the sink. Thus my journey toward hair acceptance began.  

Age Six

Age Six

To appreciate this story, you have to know I’m a preacher’s daughter. You have to understand that my parents were and are Southern Baptists and any sort of attention-getting was imprudent. From Ecclesiastes 1– Vanity, vanity…all is vanity. I wasn’t supposed to be preoccupied with my hair…God only cared about my soul right?

It wasn’t until high school that I felt free enough to experiment with my hair. I loved Stryper (yes, Stryper — Google it youngins), U2 and what was playing on the radio — Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. It is important to realize that until the age of 13, the only music sanctioned was Christian music and 50’s music — everything was new to me or came under “contraband.” I was a straight-A student with church friends — my big rebellion was sneaking in cassettes of Queen.

The hair began its ascension though, modeled by what are now called “hair bands” — the big hair product at that time was mousse. I had what you might generously call a mullet for girls. Tall hair damage party in the front — curly hair damage party in the back. Bono had it too (1983 baby…look it up!). Although I’m fairly sure Bono did not use a curling iron and sleep in pink foam rollers…not that there would be anything wrong with that of course.

The middle of my junior year of high school, my parents moved us outside of Nashville to Hendersonville. My perception of Nashville wasn’t generous. I was so incensed by this heartless decision that I barely spoke to my parents for six months. I went from an urban high school with a population of almost a thousand to Beech High School – population: Hick, tiny and oh so white. It was dreadful. Almost everyone at the new high school had grown up together. I knew I was in for it when they rescheduled prom because it fell on the same night as a Hank Williams Jr. concert. Big hair was everywhere.

The only kids that really accepted me where my peeps in Chorus and Drama. It was here that I fell in with the Goth kids. One of my closest new friends had hair like Siouxsie Sue (emo before emo was cool) and the full embrace of LA Looks with a side of backcombing and an Aqua Net finish began in earnest. It was 1988 in Nashville…it was then I heard the Karen Gillespie quote and there that I began to believe it.

Bottom row, 2nd from right

Bottom row, 2nd from right

By the time I finished high school, the top of my hair went up about 3 inches and the back became straight. I was now listening to Sisters of Mercy, Janis Joplin, Patsy Cline and Led Zeppelin. The flood of new musical influences had the impact my parents feared…sort of…I was crazy about Michael Hutchence, but I really wanted to be the one to share the Gospel of Christ with him. There were other less saintly thoughts mixed in, but we won’t go there.  

By the time I started college at a small Baptist college, my hair was as confused as I was. What exactly was I? A hippie? A goth? A punk? Could a Christian be any of these things?  I was tired of trying to understand where I fit…truth was, I had no freakin’ idea who I was or what it meant for my faith.

College Freshman

College Freshman

In college, thanks to British Lit and REM, my experience ran ahead of faith…and I embraced my inner flower child — with a punk sensibility. The hair grew long, flat and straight and the boots became Doc Martens. My Christianity was changing fairly radically too. I went from a Fundamentalist designated driver, to a Marxist Christian who didn’t deny any of the Earth’s pleasures. I became a protesting-about-hunger-and-housing kind of gal — making many trips to DC and arguing publicly with Al Gore about the immorality of the Gulf War — the first one. (Another true story for later — years after this I had breakfast with then candidate for VP Gore & he remembered me taking him on!) I took a job as a live-in night and weekend manager at a homeless shelter ran by my college. I lived there for my last two years of college. I was a radical for Jesus man. All hair product was suspect — it took precious time away from raising hell.

This state of affairs continued until I went to graduate school. Now you have to understand context to understand the next hair evolution. I graduated from college with two majors and two minors at the top of my class. I had been so hopeful. And then the only work I could get was at the same mall that employed me in high school.  Demoralized and broke, I chose grad school out of desperation. I chose it the way I make most major life decisions, I threw a bunch of crap in the air and waited to see what would come back to me first. I applied to law school, a Master’s program in Social Work, a position teaching English in china, a Master’s program in Political Science, and lastly a few Theological schools–I had no real intention, other than moving out of my present state of destitution…whoever gave me the most money — that’s where I’d go.

The biggest offer came from a Theological school in Northern NJ on a full scholarship because I was a minority…I was “Appalachia.” (Who knew, right?!?)  I never visited (which I generally don’t recommend), I just showed up with a trailer full of my crap — covered w/a blue tarp. I was quite a site on this ivy-draped campus. I loathed New Jersey pretty much instantly. Grad school was also a nightmare – I was wholly unprepared to study with a diverse group of students who had almost all attended prestigious colleges. I was also unready for the intense stereotyping about southerners as dumb, racist inbreds.

Another thing was happening…the more I studied religion — the less I believed in it. I no longer cared a whole lot about being close to God. I discovered a more radical feminism around this same time and Ani DiFranco came into my life. I went Pixie in one fell swoop, donating my elbow-long locks to Locks of Love without any regret.

It was years after grad school before my hair even got near my shoulders. By this time, I was working as a Social Worker and frankly didn’t give a flip about hair and makeup — I was working with people getting out of prison and still incarcerated. I didn’t really want too much attention for obvious reasons, but also because I was a MASSIVE martyr. How could a person be so shallow when people were struggling to survive? I enjoyed looking down at well-coiffed women. It made me feel more pure.

Around 1997, a hairdresser friend, who knew I was a sexual assault survivor, pulled me aside one day and asked me if I was intentionally sabotaging my appearance because I didn’t want to attract a sexual glare. GUT PUNCH.

So I let her do my hair –she dyed it eggplant and gave me lots of layers. The positive attention was empowering and I didn’t feel as if my activism was compromised. My feminism had softened and I even started wearing eye makeup again! I was fighting the patriarchy with red lipstick now. And although I wasn’t sure at this point if I even believed in God…I sure as hell didn’t believe in a God that would call basic self-esteem, vanity.

Maybe I didn’t have to be miserable, feel miserable and have miserable hair to be a good person after all! About this same time, I discovered BR549 and Patty Griffin. All of a sudden, I had permission to merge my love of all American music with my Appalachian heritage. What a liberation! I could twang like Emmylou AND love the Butthole Surfers (Again millennials…Google is your friend). The push to be in one genre/style had disappeared and my hair & I felt free — for the first time,  to evolve without need for definition.

So that happened.

So that happened.

Since then my hair has been pink, purple, blonde and many shades of red. It has never gone past my shoulders, because I don’t have the patience for primping. The layered bob has served me well. Red has also become a staple. Since having kids, my need for simplicity has become more pronounced. I am known for my hair and by my hair now.

Any hair I have must be fixable in less than ten minutes. Thankfully, I live in an age where “disheveled” is considered a style. I even have product to make it look more piece-y to exacerbate the chaos and some to make it behave when I need to look more sleek and sophisticated. If God doesn’t like it, he or she can suck it.

All sleek and cool

All sleek and cool

Hair color, style, favorite product and means of preparation — all are used to classify, to help us understand ourselves…to find our spot. For me, hair has always been a reaction against something…a symbol of what I am rebelling against at any given point in time. But insurgence gets exhausting after a while. At some point, you just get tired of reacting.  

Thankfully, in my 40’s I am much more interested in my hair telling you what I am for — a woman with an insistence on ease & style & a lifetime affinity for all things Retro. The bright red is bold and assertive — an external expression of a hard-won internal confidence. Becoming comfortable in my own follicles has closely mirrored me getting okay with me.

Self-acceptance and hair acceptance are related, particularly for women. I’d like to think I’ve made a lot of progress making peace with the not-so-pretty stages of my life and my hair. The only thing I cannot yet abide? My cowlicks. But my Bettie Paige bangs cover them up quite nicely. 

Taken two weeks ago at my hairdresser's

Taken two weeks ago at my hairdresser’s

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About Kristen Chapman Gibbons

Loosely connected facts: Storyteller. Curator of a Better Internet. Lifelong Politico. Social Media Maven. Creativity and Empathy Evangelist. Performer. Creator of Content Worth Sharing. Digital Strategist. Former Social Worker. Decade teaching in Higher Ed. Master's Degree in Theology. Married to an Irishman. 3 darling kiddos. Preacher's kid. Appalachian. Music maker. Music devour-er. ENTP. Bohemian. Geeky. Obsessed with thrift stores and all things vintage. Lover of species.

View all posts by Kristen Chapman Gibbons

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4 Comments on “Hair As Self — The Journey of Coif: From Aqua Net to Bettie Page Bangs #Tenx9Nashville #Storytelling”

  1. Leann Strobel Says:

    LOVED this! I too was/am a dishwater blond. Summers spend in the sun and pool would get me to golden blond but by winter’s end I would be back to dishwater. Were you also a towhead as a very young child? I will have to have my daughter listen to this because she will be able to relate to it even more, as another dishwater blond AND as one that has enjoyed a myriad of colors for her hair. I like her hair a burgandy color leaning more to purple highlights. She is also familiar with the Memphis area, that’s where she had to go to find her a husband (actually, right out of high school, she went to stay with her best friend).




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