In its natural state, my hair is pin-straight, fine and dishwater blond. Until I was 15 or so, I wore it the same way, a bob of some sort just beneath the chin, sometimes bangs and sometimes not. I slept on it wet. If I was coerced by my mother into doing anything special to it, I would blow-dry it upside down whacking at it with my hair brush. There was no art to my styling. There was no product applied. There was my hair down and weird-looking or pulled back into a ponytail, a corona of bland strands resting on the top of my severe half-bun.
I never felt beautiful. I just didn’t. When I finally chopped off my hair about three years ago now, it was intensely liberating. I had no choice but to confront my own face AND, bonus points, I got to quietly say “fuck you” to the notion that the only kind of beautiful that exists is long-haired beauty.
I come from a family of people with beautiful hair. It’s remarkable hair, the kind that people go out of their way to describe in novels. I’m pretty sure one of my brothers has broken a comb in his thick hair. The other can easily be strawberry blonde and when he’s out in the sun too much, he gets a bleached-out white hue that is insanely gorgeous. And then there is my sister. She has mountains of naturally wavy do-nothing-and-go thick auburn hair. People don’t usually go to war over women’s beauty anymore (and I wouldn’t support it if they did) but if I learned that my sister’s hair had caused an international incident, I would almost be not surprised.
In hindsight, I can absolutely admit that chopping off my hair and rejecting contact lenses was a step I had to take in order to make it clear that I was no longer willing to work so hard to turn myself into an idea of beautiful that had nothing to do with me. But now, years later, I find that I don’t want to embody a philosophy — I just want to look like me.
“Does that make sense?” I asked my therapist. She said it did, and I believe her. She, as someone who once also had short hair and then grew it out, did offer some other sage words. “No matter what you do, for a period of time, you will have a mullet.” She’s not wrong, it’s already begun.
I told the dude I am dating that I was going to grow it out, and he crowed with Rufio-esque joy. To his credit, he had also been drinking, and promptly followed up this expression of glee with a fervent proclamation as to his appreciation of my person. I tried warning him that he would probably be disappointed with the results. “Here, look,” I said and scrolled through photo after photo of me with long hair.
These were all pictures that, when they were taken, I’d been so upset by. Now, going back to them, the only thing upsetting or alarming about the pictures is how different I look in each image. It is like I am constantly searching for a version of myself that feels comfortable. Even my pixie cut photos look that way to me. I don’t see a bold empowered woman, I see a terrified girl on the brink who knew that if she kept hiding from herself she’d run the risk of disappearing forever.
When my sister got married this summer, it was the first time, really, that I’d had to do something “formal” to my pixie cut. My sister’s friends and my two best friends were also in attendance, all of them like goddamn mermaids or horses or some shit with their luxurious manes. Don’t get me started on Lindsey, whose perfect curls make me want to slap her, except for that she is also the greatest. While everyone else was getting dreamy waves or soft romantic updos for the June wedding, I mumbled something about finger waves and the 1920s to a stylist who only half-understood what I was saying. She ripped a chunk of skin out of my head, coated my entire dome with stinky gel, and left me looking not unlike Albert Nobbs, which is fine, had "repressed Irish cross-dresser" been the look I was going for. This was not the case.
I looked in the mirror and thought as I left the salon, “Man, I would KILL for long hair right now.” Maybe it was the mild head-wound left by my bloodthirsty stylist, but it was a notable moment because for the first time since I’d chopped off all my hair, I was missing the length.
The funny thing is, lately I’ve had long hair in all my dreams. This happened right after I cut it all off, too, only then they were (hilarious) nightmares. I’d realize in the dreams that my hair had grown very long overnight and I’d spend the whole dream trying to find some place where I could get it cut. They were dreams I’d forget almost immediately after waking up, remembering them only when I felt my bangs hit my eyebrows and made an appointment for a chop. Each Halloween, I’d make it a point to be someone whose hair was a focal point: Lady Godiva, Rapunzel, and this year Medusa. Hair was to me, still, a marker of how I’d failed at being beautiful. My hair was one more way in which I’d failed the test of being acceptably desirable. So I feigned brazen self-acceptance and kept feigning it until I meant it, a little.
In the past, I’d cut and color and curl and spray and pin in the hopes that I could fool, not just the world at large, but myself into thinking that I was someone who could understand, categorized, and appropriately filed away. Cutting off all my hair was my way out of a game I felt like I’d been playing for way too long. I worry now, growing it back, does this mean I’m backsliding, losing what little confidence I’ve managed to muster? Does it just mean I’m bored and craving something new? Does it mean that I’m ready to maybe believe that part of me is beautiful? I am hoping for the last one. And if that doesn’t work out, I am pretty sure I’ll look baller with a mullet.