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I nearly choked on my margarita when Katrina* said it.
“I haaaaated your short hair,” she said with a laugh, drawing her words out for dramatic emphasis. “It looked so bad. You looked like a boy.”
I did? I felt my face turning hot and red. Why had no one else told me this?
“Don’t ever cut it like that again,” she demanded, in the way you might after a friend does something dangerous and you’re genuinely concerned for their safety. “Guys aren’t going to be attracted to you, Tory. They’re going to think you’re a lesbian.”
As I sat in her kitchen that summer, running my fingers through what was now a chin-length, brunette bob, I started to doubt myself even more than in previous weeks.
In March of that year, my longtime boyfriend callously dumped me for another girl, six days before our four-year anniversary – something I only discovered after he accidentally sent me a passionate text message meant for her.
Distraught, heartbroken, and totally insecure, I couldn’t help but wonder if my hair – at any length above my shoulders – had contributed to our breakup. Surely, it had been my fault. I hadn’t been pretty enough. Traditional enough. Feminine enough. I felt I was not enough the way I was, and now my friend was confirming it.
Maybe she’s right, I thought, licking the salt from my glass. My mind reeled with Katrina’s criticisms. We’d known each other a long time, and she was the sort of girl I thought had it all – a successful marriage, a big house, and a mane of glossy, henna red hair extending halfway down her back.
I’d always been sort of different, and she was looking out for me – wasn’t that what friends are supposed to do?
Despite all the compliments I’d gotten when I took the pixie plunge, I trusted this girl’s opinion. Now I felt ashamed that I’d looked so stupid—or somehow misrepresented myself—and had been too naïve to see it.
I heard Katrina again and again in my head. So I grew my hair out. Way out. It grew as long as it’d been since my childhood, when, too stubborn or scared to have my hair trimmed, it nearly touched the floor. (My mother and grandmother jokingly referred to me as “Cousin It.”)
I cut fringe bangs that extended just above my eyebrows. As a final change to my former self, I dyed my hair fire engine red.
See where this is going? I didn’t until later. All I knew is that I still didn’t feel like myself. I finally had the sort of hair that girls dream about, but I felt like I was hiding.
I was hiding.
In spite of the long, lustrous hair I worked so hard to get, I loathed the time I had to spend styling it; how it all stuck to my sweaty neck in the unrelenting heat of a Tucson summer. It just wasn’t me. I didn’t realize it then, but if I’d misrepresented myself at any time, it was once I got rid of my pixie cut.
My feelings about that conversation—and my hair—would completely change, but not before a lot of other things did, first.
It wasn’t long after that day that it seemed Katrina felt her marriage wasn’t enough for her. She left her husband for someone else and rid herself of the house, completely underwater on her mortgage.
Despite meeting her expectations for femininity, I soon didn’t meet her expectations for friendship, and she got rid of me, too.
It crushed me. I lost my boyfriend, and then my best friend, all in rapid succession. However, it later occurred to me it was the best decision she could have made.
Loyal to a fault, I never could have ended our friendship the way she chose to, and I likely would have continued to tolerate her behavior because I hadn’t yet learned to love myself. Her choice to “ghost” our friendship made me see things more clearly.
Katrina didn’t have a problem with me, I realized: she had a problem with herself. She had a particular idea about what it was to be feminine, to be powerful, to be a woman — the cultural importance of attracting the “right” mate and the “right” friends.
These were ideas reinforced by popular opinion about what it is to be attractive or worthy of love. When I didn’t fit inside that neat little box, it made her anxious. She was afraid of what she didn’t understand. If I was going to cut my hair, she was going to cut me down.
My self-esteem had been depleted enough that I could fit myself into that tiny, ridiculous container. I looked in the mirror one day and saw it: I’d accidentally tried to make myself look just like her.
It was then I knew it was time to get my confidence—and myself—back. A good haircut can be transformative in that way. I called up my stylist, made an appointment, and went for it.
I chopped my hair off that day because I was ready to appreciate myself again, even if other people didn’t. I wanted the outside me to reflect how I was learning to feel about myself on the inside: I loved me, and I was worth loving — be it love from my family, my true friends, and eventually, the right guy.
I am tiny, mighty Tory: a bright, funny, different sort of girl who loves a good buzz – from a pair of clippers, that is. When in doubt, I get the scissors out.
A close crop just suits me better. It makes me feel strong, confident, polished and elegant.
Today, my hair isn’t the first thing I see when I look in the mirror. I see my big, green eyes. My cheekbones, nose, and neck aren’t disguised. Best of all, I don’t spend hour after hour washing, blow-drying, straightening and styling my hair to meet a totally unreasonable societal expectation of what constitutes “pretty.”
Those are hours I get to spend with people I care about, and who also care about me.
Moreover, short hair says nothing—and shouldn’t say anything—about someone’s love life. There’s nothing wrong with anyone’s sexual orientation. There’s nothing wrong with long hair or short hair whether you’re male or female. To conclude a haircut is indicative of sexual orientation is disturbingly ignorant.
A lot of my lesbian friends have hair long enough to braid, which, given the chance, I would! Just because I have short hair doesn’t mean that long hair can’t be fun, too. (I do a mean Dutch braid, by the way.)
If people misread my haircut as a statement about my dating preferences, I choose to take it as a compliment. We’re highly visual creatures. We have to admit our appearance is a first impression, and might initially draw someone to us.
But a lot of those chance encounters with people – male, female, gay or straight – have turned into enduring friendships that I cherish. If my hair somehow makes me more approachable, to anyone, I’m thankful above all. The proverbial door is always open to those who want to get to know me for who I am.
I still had that long hair when I started dating Dave last year. It’d been quite short when we first met years ago, which, unbeknownst to me, he loved. I remember his reaction the day I surprised him with a cut reminiscent of a modern day Edie Sedgwick.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, grinning. “I can see your face now. You’re not hiding anymore. But I love it most of all because it makes you so happy.”
Our relationship policy has always been, “Dave be Dave, and Tory be Tory.” I feel like I hit the jackpot: I found a partner who thinks self-respect is as valuable as I do. He knows, just as I do, that my self-confidence and well-being are worth more than what anybody thinks about my hair. Unlike the people in my past, he genuinely cares about my happiness.
In one fleeting moment of insecurity last week (let’s not kid ourselves, we all have them) I tried to ask Dave, gun-to-his-head-scenario, what color he preferred my hair. He looked at me, cocked his head, and smiled.
“The one that makes you the happiest, of course.”