Meera Tamaya: Hillary Clinton, through the lens of hairstyles
** FILE ** Democratic Presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., addresses members of the National Association of Black Journalists, at the 32nd NABJ Convention in Las Vegas in this Aug. 9, 2007 file photo. Democratic leaders quietly fret that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the top of their 2008 ticket could hurt candidates at the bottom. They say the former first lady may be too polarizing for much of the country. She would jeopardize the party's standing with independent voters and give Republicans who otherwise might stay home on Election Day a reason to vote. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Purchase photo reprints »
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, visits the GrandParent Family Apartments, Monday, March 12, 2007, in the Bronx section of New York, to announce she has introduced legislation to provide assistance to the growing numbers of grandparents and other relatives raising children. (AP Photo/Diane Bondareff) Purchase photo reprints »
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., claps as she campaigns at a union hall in Portage, Ind., Wednesday, April 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Purchase photo reprints »
Ben Green plants a lilac tree at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Elm Street in Amherst and insures it is secure and straight. The town's goal is to plant 2,000 trees over the next three years. The trees can be planted in home owners' yards with the owner's permission.
AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton visited 112 countries and traveled 1 million miles. By all accounts, she has been one of the best secretaries of state in recent years. Barbara Walters bestowed her own accolade on Clinton, naming her one of the 10 most fascinating people.
The question Walters asked, with her usual blend of the saccharine and the arsenic, “What is with your hair,” was heard around the world. The question was an intriguing mix of the trivial and the profound.
Of course, it is a given that no male secretary of state would have been asked that question. But to be fair, neither Madeline Albright with her tightly permed curls nor Condoleeza Rice with her rigid flip were faced with such a query. But as Walters pointed out, Hillary’s hair is on everyone’s mind. It looked so awful — brassy blond, it falls below her shoulders in stiff little clumps — that it draws attention. The hair is so over-treated, it doesn’t look like hair anymore, it looks like softened plastic squeezed through a pasta maker. Only Callista Gingrich’s gold plated helmet looks worse — as if even Hurricane Sandy could not knock it off.
All this may sound frivolous and trivial, but hair matters. It has always mattered. Even in myths and fairy tales hair has a unique place.
Remember the biblical strong man Samson? His girlfriend Delilah chose to castrate him not in the usual messy way but by cutting off his hair. Lo and behold, Samson woke up shorn of all his strength. In Greek myth, you have Medusa, the sight of whose snake-hair turned suitors into stone.
Seen from this perspective, hair has been a repository of multiple meanings. It frames the face and the way hair is styled says volumes about a person’s values and inspirations. Here, we need to reflect a bit on what we casually term as “style.” The word derives from the Greek stylus, a sharp instrument for making marks on stone, metal and paper — precursor of writing. The marks we make, besides communicating agreed upon meanings, also leaves traces expressive of ourselves. Indeed, the style in which we wear our hair, our clothing and decorate our houses can be “read” as clues to our personalities, to our values and aspirations.
Let’s have some fun by using Sherlock Holmes’ deductive methods and read Hillary’s ever-changing hair styles for clues to her personality. Let us start with photographs of Hillary in her freshman year at Yale: they show her wearing her dark hair long, held back with a head band. She also wears granny glasses and her face is free of makeup. Her meeting with Bill Clinton is earth-shaking, for the pair form a kind of Bonnie and Clyde, a Billary of political ambition.
His march toward global leadership begins with the governorship of Arkansas and she follows him. Hillary proved a big disappointment to Bill’s mother, who had hoped for a beauty queen for a daughter-in-law. Bill’s mother sported big hair, lots of make up, bright red lipstick and blue eye shadow, and liked to hang out at the race track in Hot Springs in Arkansas. She did not know what to make of his intellectual hippie that Bill had chosen for a wife. When Billary campaigned for president, there were those bimbo erruptions — younger versions of Bill’s mother, complete with bigger hair and deeper cleavages.
Hillary’s own style began to change. Off with the glasses and on with the bright blonde hair, red lipstick and blue eyeshadow and regulation tailored pant suits and chunky jewelry. Hillary began to resemble her mother-in-law’s fantasy of a suitable wife for Bill. Alas, as first lady Hillary led an embattled life. Her health care bill failed to pass muster, and then came her nemesis, Monica Lewinsky. Who can forget that sad picture of the first family walking to Air Force Once after the impeachment hearings, with the first daughter in the middle holding her parents’ hands. The only happy member of the family was the Labrador Buddy who was his usual frisky self. Only a dog could truly love Bill at his worst.
Then post-Bill, running for president against Barack Obama, a new and improved Hillary emerged. Her makeover worked: her hair and clothes somehow looked OK even if she could never compete with Jackie Kennedy’s elegant simplicity. But then who could? At least she looked better than Rosalynn Carter, the farm wife in her Sunday best or frumpy Laura Bush with her demure smile, pasted on for all occasions.
She lost the presidential primary to Obama who, in a triumph of diplomatic generosity, gave her the top cabinet post — secretary of state. There is a consensus that she was an admirable secretary. She did not commit a diplomatic gaffe and patiently hobnobbed with thuggish leaders of countries where they prefer to keep women hidden in swirls of black and stone them if there is even a whiff of adultery. Her loyalty to her former rival and later boss was as unshakable as her hair. And she has never looked worse. All the political correctness has taken its toll — she looked exhausted as she finished her service as secretary of state. Then she announces that she will retire. A health crisis follows. She is hospitalized after a fall and is treated for a concussion and a blood clot. When she emerges for Obama’s second inauguration, she looks trim, relaxed and her hair is cut shorter, colored a soft golden brown, with a touch of grey at her temples and very discreet makeup.
And, surprise, surprise, she is wearing horn-rimmed glasses! She has never looked better.
Is it possible that Hillary, having finally freed herself from playing second fiddle to powerful men, her husband and her boss, is coming into her own?
As Flaubert famously said, “style is all.” Perhaps her seemingly unscripted, defiant performance at the congressional hearings on the Benghazi tragedy, different from her customary, controlled, politically correct presentations, is a sign that a new Hillary is emerging from the chrysalis of old family and social expectations.
Meera Tamaya of Northampton is a retired professor of English who taught at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.