There was more than a little contempt in the name we gave her. “Hair & Nails” was a code signalling what we thought of where she placed value, what we thought of her priorities. She hadn’t read great books, she hadn’t had great thoughts, but she had a fiercely claw-like manicure and went to a shop to see to a tinted/braided/straightened/shellacked coiffure at least once a week. We – my intellectual sisters and I – were better than that.
In my quiet heart of hearts, I also looked askance at my gnawed down nails and fuzzy caterpillar brows, and knew that I wasn’t polished, wasn’t well put-together, and didn’t have it within me to care – as maybe I should have? – about externals. I looked at my frumpy outfits, my run-down flats, and my pudgy figure, compared them with her pricey Louboutins, her big Chanel bag, her firmly Spanxed thighs. I resented her, a little, and she, me. I excused myself my inability to compete, and told myself she looked like a pricey streetwalker. She seemed to look at me pityingly, as if my frizzy frumptitude was inexplicably disappointing, as if I were letting down the race.
Gah. The silent conversations we have, where our looks and our clothes shout. The silent competitions, and the signalling we do, with our clothes, our hair, our selves. I mentioned earlier this month that my writing group was exploring this topic. We argued the point (boy, do I disagree), and talked about whether or not a lack of emphasis on clothing meant that different people – of varying classes – were now the speakers for the culture, and the writers. (This is what we miss, when we deny diversity in literature, by the way — the deeper shadings of a life that most people of color live, but don’t talk about. This, too, is cultural diversity, this exploration of class and clothes…) We came to few conclusions, until a more recent news cycle.
Like others, I was wearied by the tale (and its subsequent iterations) of the nineteen year old Barney’s shopper who went after a $350 belt, bought it, and was subsequently led away in handcuffs, because surely it was a scam, and he couldn’t afford it. The clerk who made the value judgment of the boy’s prospects took his race into account – and nothing more. Black people cannot afford to spend large sums of money on mere belts, ergo…scam. I am sure his bosses are even now quietly patting him on the back. “Okay, you screwed up this time, but…” The bottom line is, stores don’t want to lose money on assuming that everyone can afford their wares. Everyone, meaning, people of color, who may not speak Standard American English, whom they may not really want to be buying their wares. There’s a lot of subtext there.
And, then, there’s the matter of the belt. Did you, like I did, wonder, “Dude?! $350 for a belt?! What else did it do, organize your closet???” I thought that briefly, yes, but I also thought, “Well, it’s your money, to spend for whatever ridiculousness you’d like – good for you for having the discipline to save up.” It’s too bad that bigotry and institutionalized corporate nastiness also played a part in this growing-up, learning experience.
U Penn’s Wharton School of Business reported on a paper a couple of its students did called “Conspicuous Consumption and Race.” It talked about the fact that ethnic minorities often spend more on high profile, high ticket purchases – the SUV in the run down neighborhood with the gold grille, the big-ticket basketball shoes, pristine in their boxes, the iPhone/iPad/Xbox, the showy Chanel bag – but it talked about reasons. It’s not just about “keeping up with the Joneses” – unless the Jones’ are of the Price-Jones’ and of the dominant culture. It’s cultural signalling – “We’re okay. We’re not poor ghetto people you have to fear. We have money; we aren’t trying to hustle yours.” Status signalling, not necessarily fashion. Mutual funds vs. Manolo’s. One’s a lot harder to show off than the other.
That begins to shine a different spotlight on Hair & Nails.
A much-linked piece by Emory PhD sociology candidate and Graduate Fellow at the Center for Poverty Research at UC-Davis, Tressie McMillan Cottom, takes this even further. She speaks candidly about her own experiences in The Logic of Stupid Poor People, talks about a family who gets ahead by lump sums of insurance when someone dies, and disability payments. We could be cousins; much of what she says makes me flinch in recognition. She talks about a family which encouraged especially its female members to do well in school, to go further, making the females the keepers of the educational flame, the ones who could “talk like White people” and help the community out. My family exactly, a generation removed. I hope you read her entire essay — it has much to say on signalling and privilege, and what we trade on, unknowingly, to make our way through the world.
Thinking back to Hair & Nails, the differences between us were starkest in what we thought we had to trade on. She, her aggressive beauty, her polish and her purchases, I, my academic standing, and effortless Standard American English, a quiet manner in school, the acceptability of being a “good” girl, from a “deserving” family. This carried me far further than any actual true intellect – I’m not as smart as I could have been, because I wasn’t pushed, and didn’t receive extra help. I wasn’t a squeaky wheel. Quiet and compliant was “good enough;” sounding like I belonged was sufficient to pretend.
Something else I read in Hair & Nails’ condolence glances was pity for my perceived inability to rise to the challenge of beauty. Sociologists assure us that we all signal, that, to a certain extent, we all perform cultural respectability in return for whatever intangible rewards. But, what about us slobs? What am I signaling, with my refusal to spend salon time, by turning up my nose at the claw-tipped manicure and the bling and the Hilfiger? Certainly, that I am possibly a snob who thinks I can trade higher on my perceived intellect, on my ability to ape the dominant culture well enough to not just fit, but to thrive – I’ve certainly been told that one often enough. But, now I wonder if it’s not something more.
Candidly, I have this… figure. When I was younger, I buried it in baggy sweaters and shapeless trou, and about a hundred pounds of concealing pudge. I wrapped it in duffel coats and knee-length cardigans, and didn’t acknowledge it, past middle school, really, for various reasons. I was wildly signaling to the judging, cultural gatekeepers that I was a sexless, marginally unattractive, smart, safe individual. I wasn’t slutty. I wasn’t man-bait. I was neat and scrupulous and conservative — and really, middle-aged, in my dress, even in college. Regardless of my signaling, my parents scrutinized and micromanaged my every male friendship, and I got used to my father glowering and scouring my journals if I so much as spoke to a member of the opposite sex. My mother graduated from high school pregnant, and her failure was imputed to be my own – despite my just being “one of the boys” for most of high school. And, in spite of the baggy clothing and the frumpiness, I still captured negative attention. I signed myself jokingly “Vivanna, Temptress of the Night,” because when they found out we were even casually friends, my future in-laws offered their son a vasectomy, told him when he was done “dipping his wick” with me, or whatever truly classy phrase his father used, that they would help him disentangle himself from my succubus tentacles. “Those people” entrap you with children, he was told. Regardless of signals, in spite of the performance of acceptability, I was repeatedly judged as oversexed and dangerously distracting – the more drab I became, the more of the life of the mind I tried to cultivate, the worse it seemed to get.
Try harder. Work harder. Be more. Do more. These are the messages young people of color receive from the older generation, with a continued pressure to perform. Dress for the job you want tomorrow, not for the paycheck you have today. Dress up. Look up. Aim higher. Dress for success. Send the right message. Perhaps these are some of the ideas behind student loan debt – behind a willingness to pay for the next thirty years for the dream of the upwardly mobile…
Maybe Hair & Nails’s pitying looks weren’t mere contempt for differences. Maybe she, with her rhinestone nail tips and extensions, knew something that I did not – that it’s useless to think that our appearance doesn’t tell a tale of us. And, that maybe it’s not a $350 belt or $2500 purse we’re after, but we’re all trying to find out some way to belong…
As I sit at my desk in my ponytail and plain cardigan, it’s something to think about.