Conservatives are trying to gin up another national round of jeering at Hillary Clinton’s hair. For the last several days, the Drudge Report has been hyping the idea that Clinton wears a wig; one of his headlines said, “Wigged Out: Hillary Gives Up Hair Battle.” Yesterday Donald Trump picked up on it, speaking about Clinton’s alleged wig to the right-wing radio host Mark Levin. “I tell you what, it really was shocking to see it,” said Trump, who, to be fair, probably does know something about fake hair. The rumors reached the point that Clinton’s hairstylist denied them to People.
This is nothing new. People have been attacking Clinton’s hair almost as long as she’s been in public life. There was a time when she thought, naively, that she didn’t have to obsess about her hair much, since it interested her far less than law and public policy. (She once told Jane Pauley that during slumber parties, when her friends would do each others hair, she’d fall asleep.) In 1980, however, after she was blamed for her husband’s gubernatorial defeat, she submitted to a makeover. In the sneering words of the Los Angeles Times, “Clinton went from looking like a myopic springer spaniel to looking like an aging rush captain. She bleached multihued blond streaks in her long, wavy, brown hair; cropped it into a pert bob, and clamped a black velvet headband to her crown.”
For a while she stuck with the headband, which had the advantage of being easy. But during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, the nation’s punditry rose up in outrage. A USA Today piece was headlined, “Hillary’s hair bands: Zippy or just dippy?” It warned of a “disturbing” possibility: “If Clinton wins, headstrong [sic] bands will be the next first lady fashion trend.” The writer quoted a hairdresser sniffing that headbands were “lazy,” and that Clinton, then 44, was too old for them. The story concluded: “So if you don't like it? Don’t vote for her, er, him.”
None of this has ever just been about Hillary Clinton. Rather, she’s been a symbol of the public opprobrium that awaits any professional woman who doesn’t get her hair right. (This is all magnified and fraught in particular ways, of course, for black women.) Unlike their male peers, women can’t just go to the barber and get their hair shorn off—at least, they can’t do it without it being seen as a major statement about their identity, as opposed to a convenience. If hair starts to go gray, women are often well advised to color it, though doing so is expensive and time consuming, because they are penalized for appearing to age. Some women are lucky; their hair naturally falls in a nice way, or they enjoy styling it. The rest of us have to awkwardly experiment and then spend valuable time fixing it every day. It’s a sort of lady tax, and Clinton has been paying and paying it.
Because her headband was so widely reviled, Clinton ditched it. This was not received well. “She’s softened her hair, wardrobe and makeup, and even seems to have abandoned her yuppie headband—all with the none-too-subtle intent of making her appear more maternal, domestic, average, likeable,” Karen Lehrman wrote in the New York Times, adding, “It’s not going to work.” The more Clinton tried to get it right, the more hostile the press became. Her changing hair was treated as a synecdoche for her conniving inauthenticity. “Not only has Clinton’s hair changed since the campaign season, it seems to change just about every day,” said a 1994 piece in the San Jose Mercury News. “Just this week alone, her ’do went from softly feathered bangs on Tuesday to sleekly coiffed pageboy sans bangs on Wednesday. It’s most discomforting for the national sense of identity, Clinton watchers mutter. After all, you wouldn’t want the Statue of Liberty changing her hemline every other week.”
Five years later, when Clinton ran for Senate, she briefly seemed to get it right. “[I]f she manages to sustain this new, understated elegance, chances are good that she will achieve one of her goals: People might actually stop talking about her clothes, her hair—even her choice of shoes—and finally concentrate on what she has to say,” said a New York Daily News piece. Alas, Clinton’s vigilance must have flagged, because people have gone on talking about her hair right up until today.
There was a moment, in 2012, when Clinton thought she had a reprieve. “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now because, you know, if I wanna wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses. If I, you know, wanna pull my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back,” she told CNN. Good Morning America even did a segment about her decision to fuss with her appearance less, as one does when reporting on the secretary of state. “Yes, here she is, as they say, warts, well, there aren’t really any warts and all,” said Martha Raddatz in a voiceover. “But there are freckles, wrinkles, those big, black glasses and some serious competition in the bad hair day department, and this was no stolen moment for paparazzi. This was a news conference.” Because really, when have we ever seen a senior government official show up at a podium with wrinkles, glasses, and unstylish hair?
Given decades of media harassment about her appearance, it would actually be perfectly understandable if Clinton did decide to don a wig and stop wasting so much time on something so aggravating. But as the right is reminding us, women who shirk what Drudge calls the “Hair Battle” will be shown no mercy.