On November 2nd, 2011, I walked into a salon on the Lower East Side and paid a man $20 to give me a Mohawk. Two days later I walked back in and asked him to shave it all off.
I told some people I did it because I wanted to look like Natalie Portman. I told other people I did it because my hair was in terrible condition after a bad dye job and I wanted to start fresh. The truth is, I got paid $2,000 to shave my head by some guy on Craigslist.
I was looking for modeling gigs one day and kept seeing the same post: Looking for girls willing to get buzz-cuts. Pay: $$$. I responded out of curiosity. The person behind the ad said he was a grad student at NYU studying sociology, and this was research for his thesis. What motivates people to drastically change their appearance? Most likely money?
It seemed to make enough sense at the time for me to agree. Helping someone get a master’s degree is noble, and if this wasn’t the truth, I didn’t really need to know. It didn’t matter if I was sacrificing my hair for some guy’s weird fetish. I had tried to bleach it white-blonde a month earlier and it looked terrible. I could easily talk myself into trading yellow straw for a stack of twenties.
I could talk myself into anything at this point.
My life had quickly unraveled in the year since I dropped out of college to seek treatment for an eating disorder. Time off from school -- American University in Washington, DC -- was intended to help me heal, but instead it pushed me further into depression. When I moved home, it became clear that school was the only thing keeping me from becoming completely unhinged.
The reality was bleak: I lost my scholarship to the school I loved. I was forced to part ways with my closest friends. Every part of my smart, sophisticated DC identity was disintegrating. I was 19.
By the time I turned 20, I had been prescribed everything from Lithium to Ritalin. I wasn’t even sure what I was being treated for anymore. I couldn’t remember what had made me so sad in the first place. I couldn’t remember feeling anything but numb. I was constantly in a fog.
In this fog, I couldn’t care less about my appearance. In this fog, I walked to the corner of Avenue A and East 9th street to meet “B” from Craigslist.
I was mildly surprised that “B” was around my age and seemed normal. He gave me an envelope with half the money and a camera and said I would get the rest after the cut. We had already agreed I would get a Mohawk -- it was the most hair he was willing to let me keep. All I had to do was film it.
I asked where he would be while this was happening. He said, “The bar.”
The salon was small and pink. I sat down and waited for a man with a grey ponytail to finish shaving some girl’s undercut. I looked around -- I was the only other person in the shop. I assumed someone had to be here to make sure I didn’t leave, or walk out with just a trim. I was picturing a large, beefy bouncer-type. What was stopping me from just keeping the $500? Karma?
On the website for the salon it said All cuts are done by "Michael." Why his name was in quotations is one of the many unanswerable questions I have regarding this night. "Michael" was strange. He seemed uncomfortable with my presence, as if he was not prepared for anyone to actually walk in and ask for a haircut, as if he did not know he was standing in a salon, as if his storefront window did not look out on a crowded New York City street with a sign saying "walk-ins welcome."
I pretended to want a Mohawk out of my own volition. He seemed confused because I was like "do whatever." I guess most people walked in there with a specific look in mind. He asked how short I wanted the sides. I didn’t care. I asked him if he minded if I filmed it. I didn’t give him a reason.
He hesitated, but said yes. It turned out the camera was out of battery, so I took a blurry picture with my phone.
As "Michael" shaved chunks of my shoulder-length hair to the ground, I stared into the ornate, oval mirror. The person looking back at me looked fierce, independent; not the same girl who dropped out of college and took pills for a host of mental issues she probably didn’t have. A few months ago, I had thought a pixie cut was a big deal. I was surprised to find that I didn’t hate what I was seeing.
When Michael finished shaving and trimming, I looked like Keira Knightly in "Domino." That was cool. That, and another five hundred dollars.
I met “B” once again and apologized for not taking a better picture. No problem. He gave me another envelope. I trusted the money was in there. We parted ways and I walked down the street, towards the subway. I passed a homeless man and put a 20 dollar bill in his jar of change. I called the guy I was seeing and told him it went fine. He seemed surprised. He had told me it was a stupid idea, that it was dangerous and I should at least take someone with me. But he didn’t offer to go.
I told him I would meet him at his friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. That was where he was “couch surfing.” On the way, I stopped at every boutique I saw. I bought a bottle of French perfume, $80. I didn’t even smell it. I bought a long grey skirt that trailed when I walked and was see-through. I bought a winter coat with a faux-fur hood from Urban Outfitters. It was the first time in my life I was ever in possession of enough money to spend it indiscriminately. It was nice. I didn’t particularly love any of the things I bought.
The next night, “B” called me again and asked if I would be willing to shave the rest of my hair for another thousand. Sure. Now I looked like Natalie Portman. I bought a glass bong shaped like an elephant. I bought a wig for $200 that I never wore because it was itchy and creepy. But it was November, freezing cold, so I bought a bunch of hats.
Some people said I looked like a supermodel. Some people said I looked like a lesbian.
My brother reassured me that my hair would grow back a half-inch each month. This was not reassuring. I told myself that at least now, I could experience every stage of short hair. I tried to enjoy it. It was the middle of January before I could walk out of my house without a hat. By February, I started to look like Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless. I liked that.
Every month my hair grew a half-inch, and every month I felt a little more like myself. I had short, soft, newborn baby hair.
By March, I could walk down the street without feeling judged or scrutinized. It’s grossly unfair how much a woman is judged by her hair. In those first few weeks, I really felt disfigured. I felt eyes everywhere I went. When I met new people, I could read their minds. Did I have cancer? Or was I gay? Or crazy? These seemed to be the only three logical reasons a woman would have such short hair.
Of course, my opinion of myself magnified the way I thought others felt about me. Because I felt crazy.
If I had shaved my head out a desire to try something new, or merely start fresh after bleaching the life out of my naturally dark hair, it would have been different. But I did it because a stranger offered me a lot of money. I did it in a desperate attempt to feel something. Anything.
There were so many ways it could have gone wrong. It seems too good to be true -- trading a grainy photograph of a haircut for $2,000 cash, no questions asked? He didn’t even want a picture the second time around. To this day, I wonder what it was for. Was it truly a sociological experiment? If so, why didn’t he want more proof? Why wasn’t it properly documented? Is there someone out there, somewhere, running his fingers through my severed locks? It's one of the bigger mysteries in my life.
“B” still e-mails from time to time. Up for another cut?
Sometimes I fantasize about meeting him and just taking the first $500, like I had thought about doing that night. But I don’t want to tempt fate. Because in the two years since I shaved my head, I have gotten myself back, half-inch by half-inch.
It’s been over two years since I shaved my hair and it’s long again. In fact, it’s the length it was when I left DC. I take vitamins to keep it thick and healthy. I eat. I don’t use a flatiron and I have not colored it, despite being tempted by the ombre trend. I am a bit obsessed with my hair. But I think I deserve to be. For me, my hair is inextricably tied to my sanity.
I have gotten the compliment many times -- you looked so good with short hair, you have the perfect bone structure to pull it off. I smile and say thank you. They don’t need to know the truth -- that underneath my perfect bone structure was a maelstrom of guilt and self-loathing and grief that had held me down for years and I never thought it would go away. But it did. I don’t know how.
Shaving my head was a turning point, though I didn’t know it at the time. It makes a good story, too.