reflections on hair

I wrote my college application essay about my hair in the summer of 2014. I was 18 years old:

My hair is short. It is red. Half my head is shaved. I’ll readily admit that its out of the norm, but it’s how I’ve learned to feel at home in my body. 

When I was younger, I had the hair of a Disney princess.  I used to dress up with my friends in frilly skirts and clomp around in my mom’s high heels with the rest of the little girls. But when we pretended to be princesses, they were always Cinderella and I was Prince Charming. They were Wendy and I was Peter Pan. 

It wasn’t that I wanted to be a boy, but rather that I didn’t really like being a girl and all the things that came with that. I liked dressing up in my dad’s flannels more than my mom’s old dresses. But all the other girls seemed to love putting on red lipstick and purple eyeshadow. And seeing that I was outnumbered, I figured that they must know what they were talking about. But in the back of my mind, I knew I would be happier in work boots than heels.

I went through all of middle school trying to figure out what to do with my uncontrollable mane that reached halfway down my back. It was sweaty and stuck to my neck in the summer. I couldn’t get my fingers to braid the intricate patterns that everyone else could so easily. I hated how much work it was in the morning, but strangely even more than that, I hated when I somehow got it right. When all clips and bows were  in the right place and there were no loose pieces, I got a lot of compliments. But it felt like I had cheated somehow, that I didn’t quite deserve the praise. It didn’t feel like mine. I copied what the other girls did, just trying to blend in. And who knows, maybe they all felt the same way, just trying to get through without standing out too much, or maybe it was just me. I’ll never know. 

In high school, I finally did it. I cut it all off. My mom didn’t want me to; she fought me about it for the whole car ride to the hairdresser. She gave the typical motherly excuses: it will take so long to grow back, you don’t want to look like a boy, you want people to take you seriously. But I was determined to have my hair represent me, and only I could define what that was.

Walking into school the next day with no hair to hide behind was simultaneously terrifying and liberating. People whispered behind me and my friends faces all showed a panicked shock before they managed to make themselves smile. 

At first I tried to change my entire self. I threw away all the clothes that were vaguely feminine and tried to start over. But sometimes I missed my old dresses. I didn’t quite fit anywhere. I had tried to fit into the feminine box decorated with pink flowers and butterflies and ballet shoes. And then I had tried the masculine box of pickup trucks, friday night football and muscle tees. 

But I wasn’t comfortable in either, so I eventually made my own. 

My hair made me happy. It made my appearance into an art that is constantly changing: the literal painting and shaping of my cells. I may grow my hair out again, I may shave it all off, I may dye it blue or brown or green. Because I am not just one thing, I am always changing. Hair is part of you and my hair is me.

Here is a rewriting from Summer 2021. I am 24 years old:

My hair is long. It is my natural medium brown, finally just below my shoulders after 2 years of growing it out. At one point, this long hair was an overwhelming blanket of others expectations, and all I wanted was to get rid of it. But now it makes me feel free and powerful. Now, this is how I feel at home in my body. 

When I cut my hair off in high school, it was brought on by my being finally out as gay after being the secret girlfriend of the most outgoing lesbian in school, and this was my sort of visual coming out.  When I cut it, the girl I had been crushing on and flirting with told me she liked my long hair better. When that relationship ended badly, I wanted to rid my body of everything to do with her. I wanted to be anything but attractive to her, and I cut my hair shorter. I read a statistic somewhere that after about 7 years, every cell in your body would be replaced. I calculated how long until I could be sure that there was not a single cell in my body that had been touched by her. And cutting my hair was part of that, and it worked. It helped me feel free. 

But now as my beard continues to fill in, long hair just seems to make sense. In high school I drew a picture of a man with a nose ring, long hair, and a beard. I realize now that this was very much an aspirational self portrait. The idea of having long hair to play with, to style, to celebrate, finally seems possible for me because it is balanced by the grounding feel of warmth on my chin. It is the perfect balance of masculine and feminine and otherness that feels right. Its interesting how this is the same feeling as before, but manifested in new ways. 

This week, I have volunteered my hair to a cosmetology student. I have never met this person, I don’t even know their name. I found them through a friend who was looking to recruit models for their class. They will be attempting to give me long layers. And honestly, I am really excited. I am excited to give my body to someone else’s learning process. 

Overall, my attitude has not changed all that much: my final paragraph still resonates with me: “[Hair] has made my appearance into an art that is constantly changing: the literal painting and shaping of my cells.” I will continue to cut it, to dye it, to play with it. I love that I can create art with my own body. So let this be a letter of appreciation to my hair for being such a beautiful canvas.

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