French Braids for the Soul

The first shot of the TV adaptation of Normal People is a french braid. It belongs to Marianne Sheridan, one of the two protagonists. I see this establishing shot as putting us in her perspective, entering her small town Irish high school as an outsider. But jeez, what an immaculate braid. Because of rewatching the show I have started wearing my hair in a french braid. When I’m not doing milkmaid braids because of 1997 Lolita that is. French braids have always eluded me. My mom has had thick hair no longer than shoulder length for her entire life and doesn’t know how to do updos, especially with my spider-web fine hair. Getting it into a bun for ballet as a child was a production. I would whine and cry and be a terror about how I didn’t want to go, and my mom would just stick bobby pins in until it stopped falling out of the snood. Getting a french braid was a treat for the hair salon or visiting other, more dexterous female relatives.

My braids now are not pristine like Marianne’s. I can do a serviceable one that starts around the lower middle of my head, but I long for the tight row that goes all the way from the top. My hair in general has always, like most of my physical appearance, been a source of exasperation for me. It’s dry and fine and wavy but not in a good way. Straightening it is a pain but it also doesn’t hold artificial curls. I swear I am the only person who comes out of Drybar looking worse than when I went in. Getting a Japanese straightening treatment was a miracle for me, but my hair salon in New York is the only one that offers this particular type and now it’s worn off!! Anyway! When I wore Lolita fashion, I would be demoralized to the point of tears by two things: not being flat-chested, and not having thick, lustrous hair that could stand up to the volume of the dresses. I favored “old school Lolita,” where flat headdresses that tie in the back of the head are usually worn with natural hair instead of a wig. Pretty much the worst choice for someone with disappointing volume and texture. I feel like it reflects badly on me as a person, this failure to carry an updo or an elaborate accessory.

This isn’t the only time I’ve erroneously interpreted a physical trait as a reflection of my soul. Or maybe I just wrote “erroneously” so you wouldn’t think I’m twisted and shallow. Since childhood, I’ve had the bad combination of sensitive skin and a nervous habit of picking at it. In middle school I destroyed my arms by digging my fingernails into them, which just had keratosis pilaris, a normal thing. In high school a dermatologist diagnosed that my pale skin was basically allergic to my thick, dark leg hair and suggested I get laser removal. Before that process, my razor burn and ingrown hair was so bad that classmates not infrequently asked me what happened, what I fell into, what attacked me over the weekend. Compared to the sleek, smooth limbs of other girls, I felt disgusting and messy – physically and spiritually, I mean. This isn’t even going into getting my period back in 10th grade and learning that I didn’t actually have small naturals. And my hair was so messy. In kindergarten, I was the only girl with short hair and I got made fun of. That day I demanded to grow it out and I’ve never looked back.

What grew was not pretty, Samantha Parkington hair. I have almost a whole life of being jealous of shiny, straight locks, managed curls, and especially the thick buns and braid of the dancers and sports girls. The containedness of their hair mirrored the personality that I wanted to project to the world. My dishevelled hair and un-repressed secondary sexual characteristics coincided with my more disatrous adolescent mental health crises. I saw these things as obviously related. The only time my true, ineffable self was embodied was in periods of obvious anorexia and for about seventeen years I have not been able to untangle that association. Marianne, for all her in-universe uncoolness, is of course the coolest. She is willowy and aloof. At school, there’s never a hair out of place in her braid. Like all of Sally Rooney’s ascetic female protagonists, she seems entirely uninterested in food as a concept. The braid is an important signifier of her closed-off public persona. Part of the coolness, ironically, is that a french braid is not a “cool girl” hairstyle. It’s girly in a very functional way, exhibiting a natural comfort and adroitness with femininity that usually comes at an early age. But it’s not the style of a girl who laughs at boys’ jokes just to laugh, or a girl who puts in effort to appear free-spirited. It’s do it and forget it. It stays in place. It would hold up to vomiting after drinking too much at a party that isn’t even that good, but a french braid girl would never be drunk in public.

Marianne, being a normal person

The braid is a vital part of the show’s visual storytelling because we understand the contrast between high school Marianne and the messy topknot she wears around her kindred spirit, Connell, and the artsier shoulder-length style she adopts as Hot College Marianne. I can find so many exampes of this characterization in fiction. Paul and I just watched the new Mike Flanagan joint Midnight Mass. The closest thing to the show’s villain is Bev Keane, a sanctimonious and uptight Catholic woman. Throughout the whole show, she wears the same immaculate french braid. This is a stark constrast to Erin Greene, a younger, still religious woman who questions dogmatic beliefs and has lustrous, loose waves. L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, charts physical appearance to personality as a mainstay of her narrative style. Anne (who is nonetheless coded as very beautiful) resents her wild red hair and also struggles to suppress her creative and anti-authoritarian impulses. The more aloof, intimidating, and sadder Emily Starr has sleek black hair. On book covers she is usually shown to have braids as a child and tasteful, pulled back styles as a young adult. A character like Bev Keane represents the failure state of the french braid girl. Marianne, and to some degree Emily, are aspirational.

And of course this is all related to thinness. The conspicuously frail bodies of Sally Rooney’s characters have been much remarked upon. I felt like she was doubling down on it in Beautiful World, Where Are You, perhaps in response. I think it points to a dark way of thinking, but not any darker than I am. This kind of fatphobic association has been well-established in our culture. Fat women, especially in professional contexts, are pressured to be extra feminine and well-groomed where their thin coworkers can be perceived as such with less effort. The charm of the messy bun and loungewear aesthetic is usually only afforded to thinner women. Thinness is seen as an element of composure, and for a writer like Rooney, who stays offline and is reserved in interviews, composure is a precious antidote to the messy, confessional writing culture associated with my generation. Another young Irish writer, Megan Nolan, articulated this from the other side in her novel Acts of Desperation (to which I give the highest recommendation):

How jealously I regarded her beauty, her cleanliness and smell of fresh clothes and the way that boys loved her and the way she was appropriately removed from them. I was always down in the dirt.

I envy women who are removed. I never really had that luxury.

The narrator is remembering a childhood friend who was not only thinner, more symmetrical, and more self-contained than she, but avoided the social and romantic entanglements and missteps that characterize her young adult life. Nolan’s narrator, not a thin adult, speaks of a past eating disorder, haunted by the spectre of her one-time starved body but quietly resentful that she had to starve in the first place. In the United States, this quality of relaxed poise and effortless health is the foundation of preppy style, an area where french braids and tight ponytails still thrive. Preppy isn’t glamorous or try-hard. Being the most (consciously or not) eugenic fashion subculture, the whole point is that the simple, structured, minimal-to-no makeup look emphasizes natural beauty and good genes. Of course, waifish society girls get eating disorders in droves too, but they have the good sense and money to not bleed their crisis all over everyone.

Or it’s exemplified in ballet. The fundamentals of a ballerina are both feminine and rigid as a matter of necessity: simple leotard, tights, shoes, a bun that must stay in place. The most glittering and complex stage costumes are also made to withstand vigorous movement. The perfect, transcendent figure of restraint and grace is hair-gelled, bobby pinned, wrapped, and sucked in from head to toe. I’ve often thought that the ballet girls managed to protect themselves against the sordid pitfalls of adolescence a bit longer than the rest of us. All sports do this to an extent, but ballet gives you a reason to manage and respect your own body. For two or so years as a teenager, I was completely at sea with my own relationship to my body, until I took up running again in earnest as a college freshman. And those were the two years where I went the most astray and crossed the terrible threshold from corruptible to corrupted. Now, I don’t do ballet, but I do Ballet Beautiful, the exercise program by former New York City ballerina Mary Helen Bowers. Bowers became well-known outside the dance world for being the person who trained Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan. She leads all her own videos, never letting out more than a girlish squeal of pain. She encourages us to keep our movements small and – she actually says this – ladylike. She’s tall and thin and sometimes looks like Elisabeth of Austria. Her cartoonishly beautiful hair is not always in a bun. She switches it up: ponytail, a twist with a flower decoration, a thick side braid, etc. She manages to make even the most “fun” styles look dignified and inflexible. What a wonderful, unsullied path she must have walked in life.

An old pastor of mine, who was mostly cruel but broken clocks and all, once said, “if you keep your mouth closed you keep all your options open.” That is, I’ve found, completely true. I’ve mostly failed at it and I hate myself for this. When I manage to physically carry off imposing detachment, I feel stalked by the memory of times I couldn’t – a fraud. On the branching path I didn’t take, where I stayed desired by undesiring, illegible, and above it all, I look different. This girl knows how to deal with her hair, never quits ballet, only gains enough weight to stay out of the hospital. Sometimes when I visit my parents and sit at the counter with my hair up, my mom will say, “you look like a little girl.” Maybe that’s what this is all about: longing for the moment before all mistakes. As if the pandora’s box of bad relationships, sex, nervous breakdowns, and failed opportuntities was only ever as secure as a french braid.

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