Sharon Tohline, CenLamar’s newest contributor, moved to Alexandria (for the first time) only two months ago.
I was going to talk about something serious in this post. I promise I was. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with people lately about what it means to be new in a small city, and about what outsider status means in general. And I wanted to respond to all of that. But I can’t right now because I’m distracted by how much I hate my haircut.
When I called one of my Baton Rouge friends last Thursday night and mentioned I was on my way to a salon, she said “Are you sure? Why don’t you just drive home one weekend and have it done?”
This comment reveals much of the skepticism I heard from friends when I told them I was moving to Cenla. I’m sure you’re all more aware of this than I am, but the people of South Louisiana – particularly those in Baton Rouge and New Orleans – are not picking up and transplanting themselves to Alexandria and Pineville anytime soon. A close friend of mine, who made countless visits here to visit her grandparents during her childhood, still hasn’t stopped sending me Facebook messages mocking my relocation plans. When I try to invite people to make the 2-hour drive to visit, they generally say, “Why not come down here? We could go out!” Meaning, I suppose, that there are no “out” options here that don’t involve enormous bikers or toothless men who invoke images of dueling banjoes.
In general, I am trying to combat this skepticism. I’m enjoying my new home. I enjoy newness in general, and so far Alexandria and its environs haven’t lost their shine. But now I recognize that I should have listened when even my mother said “If you’re going to get your hair cut up there, be sure you have some recommendations first. Recommendations from people who are like you.” She was infuriatingly right, and I am cursing my unquestioning loyalty to my new home. Because now, after not listening to friends and family, I have Southern Hair.
I’ve seen Southern Hair in Baton Rouge, but not in nearly the concentration that it exists here. It’s difficult to describe exactly what I mean by “Southern Hair,” because the precise style changes from year to year. But those of you who have seen it and been subjected to it on your own heads know what I’m describing. The majority of women in Louisiana are willing to spend countless dollars and hours on their hair. I am not. Unlike many girls I knew, I grew up with a mother who wore no makeup, never thought about her weight, and is perfectly willing to leave her salt-and-pepper locks untouched. While I’m more appearance-conscious than my upbringing might suggest, I’ve just never been able to pull off true Southern Hair – a style with enormous volume requiring two bottles of hairspray and at least 5 implements to maintain. In California I discovered that there is a whole subculture of people with un-styled hair, and my lack of conviction suddenly became socially acceptable.
Now I’m back in Dixie again, but this time even further inside the big-hair belt than I was in Baton Rouge. Here, there seems to be no middle ground between heavily styled hair and Pentecostalism. Or if there is, my stylist was having none of it. When I showed her a picture of what I wanted, she said, “Oh, that’s too short.” Then, rather than giving me the modified version of the cut I requested, she gave me her own hairstyle. Exactly her hairstyle. We could have been twins, except for the fact that the style suits her, while it makes me look like I’m wearing a tri-corner hat.
Granted, all of this might seem a bit obsessive. But it occurred to me today that my experience searching for a hairstylist is representative of the overall experience of being new anywhere, no matter the culture. When we are safely entrenched in our homes, we also tend to be safely entrenched in our subculture – our neighborhoods, our school, our primary friends. We grow up learning the lesson of the social ladder, learning how to seek and maintain friendships with those who share our basic values and beliefs. (If you disagree, just ask someone from Baton Rouge what the difference is between a kid from Baton Rouge High and a kid from Catholic. I’m sure your city has the same types of divisions.) And we build most of the remainder of our experience from the perspective of our subcultural division. Things like finding hairdressers or local bars or restaurants become easier once we know people who share our viewpoint. But when you’re new to a place, all of that changes. Your perspective is unconstrained, at least temporarily, as you reach for the most immediate available experience.
So I may have unflattering hair, but at least I can take comfort in knowing that my style is a reflection of my willingness to reach beyond my comfort zone. Rather than driving down to Baton Rouge, I took a chance on a recommendation from a girl who is nothing like me, and ended up with a haircut that makes me look nothing like me. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just a different version of myself, one who’s a little more open to new experiences.