There are some strangers that I still strive to impress. It’s embarrassing to admit, given that I am an adult who should know by now that adults don’t measure themselves constantly against other adults, but nowhere is this thought spiral worse than at the salon, while I’m getting a haircut.
My request is too boring, I’m too quiet, I’m not sure if it’s weird to make eye contact in the mirror...
Somehow, through it all, I feel like I’m trying to fit in with the popular kids all over again—I’m here, and I’m just trying to convince you to like me.
I used to have a stylist I loved—mostly because she could carry on a conversation without much input from me, the occasionally shy and awkward one. But then she moved to a different salon on a fancier street and started charging too-fancy-for-me prices, and I decided I needed to overcome my fears about being held captive in a chair and forced into small talk for an hour or so.
And that’s how I met a nice woman who left me with four inches less hair than I expected.
It’s happened to everyone once; you go for a trim and end up as Skrillex. I asked for two or three inches off, to leave my length between my shoulders and chin, and left with a cut that barely passed my ears.
There was a moment, or several moments, when I could’ve stopped it. But I wanted my new, cooler-than-average stylist to think I was cool, so I kept smiling and she kept trimming, shorter and shorter and shorter.
Not wanting to ruffle feathers, even if I’m not getting what I want, has become my M.O. From growing up the child of one perpetual over-reactor and one cool cucumber, I steered hard toward the latter, always feeling like temporary discomfort or disappointment was a better alternative to being the person losing their shit over every little thing.
I am reasonable, I am easygoing. Write your diatribe at night and throw it away in the morning, right?
But somewhere in between taking the hot coffee when I asked for iced and accusing the barista of ruining not just my order but also my life, there’s me, and my actual voice, and it matters.
I should not fall on my own sword for the sake of being likeable but I have, and I do. From shrugging off a partner calling me his “sort-of girlfriend” to brushing a co-worker’s rude email response under the rug, I have, time and again, essentially decided that how I felt was less important than my desire to not make a fuss.
Because the bob I didn’t ask for turned out very blunt, my stylist suggested we lighten the density of my bangs. It seemed she knew she fucked up, but I still felt like I was the one doing this wrong. I'd told her I didn’t want them much above my eyebrows—I have a cowlick, they start to go crazy—but she seemed to know what she was talking about, so I agreed.
The haircut I left with isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to my hair (see: in eighth grade, I cut away what I thought were “weird baby hairs” at the crown of my head and ended up with a bald spot that grew back into an Alfalfa-style sticky-up thing), but it was pretty horrible. Short, wispy bangs and a severe-looking helmet of hair.
It grows, I thought, as I quickly paid and left the salon so no one would see me start crying. It grows, I thought, reading the packages of countless texturizing pastes, sea salt sprays, and dry shampoos I’d hope would style my hair into something tolerable. Start growing, I pleaded, browsing through “short hair ideas” on Pinterest and watching videos of former reality TV stars deftly French braiding their short hair, which was still longer than mine.
Even though friends and co-workers told me it looked nice, I couldn’t stop fretting over it. Sure, I like new outfits and dabble in bright lipsticks and occasionally get my eyebrows professionally managed; I just never realized how much feeling pretty meant to me, in my grownup life, until I felt like I wasn’t, all of the time.
All of my insecurities were tied up in a neat bow, all thanks to my accidental too-short haircut. It felt like a terrible sweater I was doomed to wear for an eternity.
The lowest point came when I was disappointedly checking out my reflection in a restaurant’s window, waiting to meet my friends at dinner. My cooler-than-average-stylist—the one who’d given me the haircut I hated—suddenly appeared and saw me hating it.
If I’d somehow managed to conceal my true feelings before, well, she knew about them now. She recognized me and made a face, one I read as something in between embarrassed and disappointed, and kept going down the sidewalk without saying a word.
It felt awful. I wasn’t easygoing, I wasn’t super chill—I was upset, and I hadn’t fooled anyone by playing it cool. Maybe my cooler-than-average stylist could’ve fixed it if I’d just said something in the salon, and maybe she couldn’t have. But at the very least, I wouldn’t have had to wait to be outed on the street as an unhappy recipient of a very short haircut.
I realized that being obsequious hadn’t really gotten me anywhere—and worse, that my unassertiveness made me feel like I deserved my bad haircut.
I’ve been looking to my cooler-than-average hairstylist (and a handful of other strangers, for that matter) for validation—that I’m good, that I was doing stuff right—instead of always believing it myself. It was a little late for a revelation (I still had a terrible haircut, after all) but I decided I would stop trying to apologize for myself all of the time.
A few weeks after my terrible haircut, I went to a friend’s wedding, and my hair was still too short to do much of anything with. I plaited a couple Pinterest braids in the mirror and pinned them to my head.
“Does it look weird in the back?” I asked my boyfriend, straining to see it in the mirror. He touched where it turned into a knot at the back of my head, where the ends of my hair tangled to a nest.
I pulled it all out and instead I made one small braid, which slowly undid itself over the course of the night. It was not perfect, but I didn’t need to be. It’s hard not to listen to the part of me that wants to be everything—the smart one, the fun one, the cool girl and the prettiest peach—but I’m realizing that I’m the only person continually asking that of me.
I deserved to be happy even if I wasn’t always amazing, and really, all the times when I sat on my hands and waited for something to blow over, that’s what I’d really wanted.
Later, sweaty from too much dancing and being too dressed up for the summer sun, we took off our ballroom clothes and jumped into our hotel’s pool. What was left of my makeup ran off, smudging across my face.
I was a mess, but it didn’t matter. “I’m beautiful,” I laughed, wiping eyeliner off my cheeks with both hands.
My hair is a little bit longer now. I still don’t like it. But I am learning what it means to really be liked, and to like me.