I’ve been getting a lot of comments about my haircut in the past week. You see, almost five months ago, I packed up and moved from the arid climate of Denver, Colorado to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. If you’ve never been to Southeast Asia, there’s just one thing you need to know: I’m living in the tropics.
That means not only is it around 90 degrees out every afternoon, it’s also incredibly humid. And while family and friends back home are complaining about the cold and snow, the seasonal changes around here are considerably warmer and wetter. That’s right: I’m about 6 weeks into monsoon season.
My hair was short to begin with, but apparently it doesn’t react well to extreme humidity. So after about a month of wrestling with it, developing cowlicks in places I didn’t even know I had them, I got fed up. I did what most of the guys I work with already did a long time ago. I buzzed my hair.
And the comments haven’t stopped since. Mostly, they’re positive (if unintentionally condescending), in the vein of: “Wow! That actually looks really good on you!”
“I know it looks good!” I want to scream. “That’s why I’ve been shaving my head on and off for five years!”
But I work with these people, and I genuinely adore most of them, so I just smile and say, “Thank you,” instead. At least in this climate, people are willing to accept my reasoning at face value, even if women with very short hair are a little rare in this conservative country.
When I first buzzed my hair five years ago, I expected to get a lot of attention. After all, cutting off your waist-length hair and shaving your head is a pretty dramatic change. I’d been talking about doing it for a few months beforehand, but apparently no one took me seriously until I actually pulled out the clippers and asked my sister to cut it all off.
At the time, I was happy to explain my reasons to people. It really was a simple matter of comfort and convenience -– the same reasons men shave their heads.
The thing is: I have really thick hair. As in, so thick I couldn’t braid it or put it in a ponytail, because within about an hour it would come undone. So thick hairdressers don’t know how to handle it at any length, resulting in a lot of awkward and traumatizing haircuts over the years. So thick, it was taking me 15-20 minutes to wash, another 15 minutes just to brush out, and about 3 hours to dry naturally (using a hairdryer just resulted in horrible tangles, static, and frizz). And as a teenager, I probably cost my parents a small fortune in shampoo and conditioner alone.
I started talking about the idea of shaving my head a few months before I worked up the guts to actually do it. I was sick of dealing with it. I didn’t just want a haircut that was easier -– I wanted a haircut that was completely maintenance-free. And besides, I’d always thought women with buzz cuts were totally gorgeous, and wanted to do my part to spread the fuzzy love.
Here’s the thing about having long, beautiful, thick hair: It becomes a part of your person. People were horrified when I talked about wanting to cut it even a little bit shorter: “But it’s your trademark!” When I mentioned maybe just shaving it all off, people acted like they were trying to talk me down from a ledge: “That’s really drastic. Are you sure? Have you thought about maybe just getting a pixie cut?”
This sense of ownership and entitlement over my hairstyle decisions brought into relief something that had bothered me for years: People treated my hair like it was public property. Friends and family would walk up behind me and start playing with it without so much as a hello -– sometimes even random people I didn’t know all that well. And I have never received such intense and sometimes frightening street harassment (from men and women) as I did in those times when my hair was at its longest.
That realization was what ultimately spurred me to bite the bullet and cut it all off, despite the persistent worries that my head would turn out to be lumpy or my ears would look huge. (And yes, I donated every inch to Locks of Love.)
It turns out I look amazing with short hair. It was a new and exciting experience, being able to look in the mirror and realize, “Holy shit, I’m actually hot.” I’d never liked the way I looked before. I’d never felt comfortable in my own skin before.
My family and friends grumbled for a little while, but most of them adjusted pretty quickly to the shift. (And the ones that didn’t stopped asking if I was going to grow it back out after a year or so.) Everyone admitted it looked good. I kept it shaved, sometimes almost to the point of actual baldness, before letting it revert to a short “boy cut.” And every time I start growing it out a few inches, I realize how much of a hassle it is to regularly go to a salon and try to get a decent haircut, so I get frustrated and shave it again.
Over the years, every new person I meet invariably asks the same set of predictable questions all over again. Why did I do it? Am I ever going to grow it back out? Am I a lesbian? (Answer: not really?) Is my husband “okay” with it? And so on.
I understand that in a lot of places, meeting a woman with a shaved head isn’t an everyday experience, and I appreciate that they might be curious. I understand that I stand out. But on the other hand, there are tons of guys out there who shave their heads, for basically the same reasons I do. And no one cares.
When a guy keeps his hair short, it’s seen as a totally normal. No one asks why, because let’s face it, the benefits are pretty obvious. No one asks about his future plans for his hair, because that’s kind of weird. And no one implies he should ask his wife or girlfriend for permission before cutting his hair, because that’s totally fucked up.
It’s been five years, and I’m still not completely sure how to address these questions when they come up. On the one hand, I do actually want to engage with and educate people. And these questions are usually friendly and well meaning.
But after so long, I really just want to be done with it. It’s not new or novel anymore. I’d desperately like my haircut to become the same kind of non-issue it is for my male co-workers. So I keep wondering: Is there a polite way to change the subject, or tell people I just don’t want to talk about it?