Hair Straighteners on the Train – A Perfect Politics?

Katy Pilcher

‘I straighten my hair, and take trains’

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This post is inspired by 2 things – 1) I’ve just been reading Angela McRobbie’s excellent commentary on the ‘perfect’ and the workings of competitive femininity in neoliberal times, and, 2) once seeing a woman straightening her hair on a train.

As Angela McRobbie recounts in her example regarding women ‘making up’ themselves on public transport:

Sitting on an early morning train from Essex into the City of London I am distracted by the number of young women, I guess heading for jobs as office, retail or personal service workers, who use the time of the journey to apply a full make up which includes a complicated array of brushes, blushers, mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick, lip gloss, etc. I cannot help myself from looking at the final effect which is usually indeed an impressive TV-style appearance as though the young woman was about to step on stage for Strictly Come Dancing. The feminist in me wonders at this enforcement of gender difference in the space of public transport and the workplace environment which expects or requires such displays of excessive femininity or ‘post-feminist masquerade’. (McRobbie, 2015:18)

In my example, I was taking the train to Birmingham (a rare ‘treat’ to be able to get the ‘fast’ train that always seems to faintly whiff of faeces because I had booked months in advance for once). A young woman sitting opposite me plugs in her hair straighteners, takes out a mirror, and proceeds to straighten her hair. What was perhaps most interesting for me about this act was the reactions of those around her. The other commuters, white middle-aged men, seemed affronted that this seemingly ‘private’ (or what they presumed should be private) activity was taking place on their watch. A few glares emanated in the first 5 minutes or so, with their disgust culminating in one man tutting, rolling his eyes at another man, and flamboyantly turning his newspaper page, as if the hair straightening was causing a distinct nuisance to his concentration (N.B. he was sat over the aisle from the woman). The woman ignored them and continued straightening (as an aside, as a feminist and queer writer I have wider issues with the idea of ‘straightening’ something out to make it ‘better’ – but we’ll save that for another post).

This got me thinking, while on the one hand this woman is perhaps ‘perfecting’ her hair, being the ‘perfect’ neoliberal, postfeminist subject who conforms to normative assumptions of how a young woman’s hair should look for the workplace, on the other hand, it is so very obviously a masquerade – it is a performance of gender. Not only this, but it is an overtly and obviously public construction of gender. In this sense, perhaps her hair straightening can rather be read as perhaps a ‘perfect’ political act?? Hair straightening on the train somewhat exposes how much work goes in to ‘doing’ femininity – something that is sometimes supposed to just come as a natural ‘gift’ to middle class women. Further, in that moment, watching the men’s distaste at her act and their horror of her ‘excess’ of performing femininity spilling over into the commuting space, it certainly felt that there was something resistant about her command of public space and commuting time for this activity. Feminists have long noted men’s privilege in the taking up of public space (for recent examples, see this post about men on trains – 17th APR 2015, Nottingham, UK, is a corker). It is also a command of time, or a perhaps innovative use of time in an increasingly competitive, time-consuming and physically exhausting neoliberal working era in which commuting time very often becomes not a worker’s ‘own’ time but rather an extension of work time (don’t forget to reply to those emails on the train). It made me think that there was something potentially resistant in that this woman had perhaps obtained an extra half an hour’s sleep by doing this beauty work (even though she is still doing the ‘beauty’ work) required for her to look the part for her work role in that time.

Thus while as women we are commanded to self-police and self-regulate our bodies to fit in with societal norms regarding being ‘correctly’ feminine, and this act was potentially an example of this, in that moment of troubling the men on the train’s conception of what that space should be taken up for, hair straightening for me at least, became a small moment that was perfectly political.

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