Facile jokes aside, there are times when describing something accurately also means describing it grotesquely, and what we’re left with is this: On Sunday morning, the White House senior policy adviser appeared on “Face the Nation” with a thing affixed to his normally balding head that resembled a cross between the demoralized shavings of a Magna Doodle and a rapidly disintegrating anthill.
Toupee? Not exactly, a mob of viewers decided. What we were dealing with seemed to be something more spray-on in nature, the kind of hair-in-a-canister marketed to men in the wee hours of cable, sandwiched between catheter commercials and herbal testosterone.
It was pathetic and uncomfortable because of the naked irony it revealed. Here was a man who apparently craved more hair. And in his pursuit of it, he went on national television and did the one thing that would draw blatant attention to his baldness.
Publications from Men’s Health to Vanity Fair ran pictorials analyzing the architecture of the scalp situation. “The Daily Show” rang in as well. By Monday, the saga had closure: New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers announced on Twitter, “Stephen Miller came to work with regular hair today.”
This was a cultural moment, and I’m not sure whether it should have been, or shouldn’t have been, or how much the chatter had to do with the hair itself and how much had to do with the human underneath it.
Miller is a far-right conservative who shaped the Trump administration’s draconian policies on separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. If you care about our nation’s commitment to its bedrock principles, well, then, his hair is the least of your concerns. In fact, let’s just stipulate: His hair doesn’t really matter. There are bigger, more important issues to discuss. But here we are.
Those who mocked him Sunday were likely those who loathed him already; we’re always more forgiving of the physical appearances of people we love. Bill Murray has sported some truly unique hair choices in his lifetime, but if he’d shown up wearing Miller’s head garb, I’m fairly certain it would have been excused as kicky and playful.
But the other thing this saga highlights is that we don’t know how to talk about men’s appearances and cosmetic procedures.
We barely know how to talk about women’s. The answer we’re slowly landing on is that we shouldn’t. Celebrity magazines, after decades of using zoom lenses to highlight A-listers’ cellulite, are finally coming around to the idea that the only way to discuss a change in a woman’s physical appearance is from a supportive, body-positive perspective: Hillary Clinton chooses not to wear makeup for a major speech and it’s fabulous, enthuses Glamour. Rihanna chooses to put on some curves and it’s fabulous, says the Inquisitr.
When President Trump blasted out a nasty tweet alleging that Mika Brzezinski had a facelift, outraged individuals from both sides of the aisle came to her defense, calling the observation sexist. People’s personal choices are nobody’s business but their own, and all that.
This is all progress, long overdue. I don’t know if I’d be writing this column if, say, Kellyanne Conway had appeared on the Sunday showed with a drastic and bizarre hairstyle (though, it should be said, plenty of people noticed this week that Melania Trump’s hair went blond and then brown again). But I’m writing this one, and I still don’t know how to talk about Stephen Miller’s hair.
Stephen Miller chooses to wear a Chia Pet on his head and it’s — Stephen, you have never looked more lonely or despairing. And he does work for President Trump, the original proponent of weird hair, a man famously preoccupied by his own uncommon standards for personal appearance. Trump has been known to judge his staff by their TV-readiness, allegedly souring on former press secretary Sean Spicer after Spicer wore an ill-fitting suit to a televised press briefing.
Men, when it comes to appearances, are often trapped in a double bind. Society still does value handsomeness. Society also expects men who don’t fit into male beauty standards to accept ribbing with humor, perhaps even more than it expects women to. (See: Chris Christie, Pete Davidson.) Often, though, society also ribs men who want to fit into those standards but are trying way too hard to do so. Or, at least, harder than we’ve deemed appropriate.
Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote a great essay last week on Sen Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) new beard. Great, in that it was caustic and smart and made me laugh, with lines like: “Back then, the beard was just a shadowy, patchy mess that . . . reeked of desperation, too feeble and thin to do anything but serve as a physical manifestation of Cruz’s personality.” She went on to say the beard now looked fantastic.
The essay was also great in that it made me think about how casually some among us (writers, comedians, late-night hosts) have mocked Ted Cruz’s face — describing it as “punchable” or “melting” — and how the standards for men are blurrier than those for women. I do know that if that essay had been written about, say, Cruz’s wife, Heidi, I wouldn’t have laughed. I do know that Donald Trump retweeting an unflattering Heidi Cruz meme during the campaign was widely seen as a moral low point.
I was thinking of all of that as I watched the saga of Stephen Miller’s hair unfold.
It was awful, awful hair.
It was awful both because it was ugly and because it reeked of desperation and unseemly vanity. And because the desperation was so loud that it eventually became the only thing visible on screen. It emanated from Miller’s head like a physical manifestation of his personality — a follicle’d inferiority complex that was suddenly in charge of creating the nation’s policies.
That’s what was terrifying about the hair. Not what it looked like, but the fact that hair like that can only come from a dark place.
Once it’s on our screens, we recoil from it for reasons we think are funny but are probably also sad.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.