[prose#19] The Trouble with Haircuts

I have a friend who has perfect hair. I’ve observed this perfect hair during one of our many sleepovers. She wakes up in the morning, jumps in the shower (or not), and then lets her long chestnut hair air-dry. In an hour or so, instant perfect waves, no gel or hairbrush needed. It’s thick and luscious, but never frizzy. Our friendship is preserved by her quietness on the issue. She never talks about her perfect hair, because she knows every single woman in hearing would instantly send a dirty glare in her direction.

I was not blessed with perfect hair – few women are. For most of us, our hair is both our most defining characteristic and our biggest frustration. We are always in search of the perfect cut, the perfect color, the perfect stylist, the chase ever ongoing. Cuts change with the tide of fashion, always fleeting. For instance, bangs. Who would have thought those pesky little guys would come back? Even our own hair color eventually betrays us, turning white and gray and leaving us with the decision: to color or not to color? That, my friends, is always the question. And the stylist, oh that perfect man or woman who understands the texture of your hair as well as the intricate details of your personal life – there are no guarantees that the therapist-slash-miracle worker doesn’t move on to bigger and better salons, cities, or even countries. The nerve.

Every woman has her hair story, at least some piece of her identity wrapped up in her hair. Whether her hairstyle is always changing, letting everyone know the woman is in constant need of change, or if it has been the same for years and years, instantly recognizable, it tells a story about the woman. By no means is it exhaustive – I know no woman who wants to be judged by her hair, especially on those awful days – but it always has something to say.

For me, my hair story starts out at the beginning. Born with dark newborn hair, in the first few months it lightened and I became a baby blonde. At age nine months, following a terrifying diagnosis, those soft baby hairs fell out and were swept away, due to chemotherapy. Luckily, I didn’t have much to lose, and I just looked like a smooth-headed, big-eyed serious little tyke for a while. One year and one cancerous kidney later, I was pronounced as being in remission. But the hair started growing back, still blonde.

My mother kept my hair long. She would touch it on occasion, her hand lingering as it twisted around strands of hair, and I always knew, with the seriousness of my lost baby-hood, that she was remembering a shiny bald head, so old-looking on a brand-new head. Mom loved to curl my hair, crimp it, put it back in scrunchies. She liked it long, because it reminded her of those days when hair was the last thing she hoped for, but it was a outward example of life, health, and hope.

As I grew into a cautious and studious teenager, I stayed pretty safe, kept my locks blonde and long. There was a brief flirtation with chunky blonde highlights (thank you, early 00s) and some flippage on the ends (thank you, retro mod becoming popular again), but I’ve always been one to like what I know. And I knew long and I knew hairbrushes, and I knew I had absolutely no patience for blow-drying, curling, or straightening.

The thing was, every time I went to the hairstylist, it was exciting and scary. I always wanted to do something different, I always wanted to change, to cut it all off, to start fresh. For me, it was the most obvious thing I could do to change my appearance, my normally dowdy, chubby, awkwardly shy appearance. All I needed was that perfect haircut, and I would have everything. It would change everything because I would be seen by others in a different way. Not just others, but I also would see a new woman in the mirror, and maybe I would respect her more. But alas, I rarely did anything too dramatic. Snips here and there, trimming, layers, the like. Nothing too crazy.

There have been two times in my life when I have cut my hair short , i.e. just to or slightly above the shoulders, both for incredibly emotional reasons, nothing logical at all. The first came right before my senior year of high school. It was Friday night and my best friend was leaving for college on Sunday. In a giddy frenzy, I let her chop my hair off, a good four or five inches, so that it hung just above the shoulders. As far as I remember, it was done with regular old Fiscar scissors, and it turned out pretty straight for the experience level of the one cutting my hair. I also remember it looking somewhat like a triangle, due to the thickness of my hair. The Tuesday after she left for college, my mom took me to get it fixed. I liked the cut well-enough, but it required maintenance, and I decided to let it grow out, back to a length that I was more familiar with. See, the cut didn’t fill the hole that my best friend left, she in college having wild college times with college boys, me still at home in high school, finishing up for my diploma, working, doing everything I usually did. Nothing changed.

I grew it out for about two years. My motivation which I would have never admitted to myself: a guy friend I was crazy about only liked girls with long hair. He was pretty open about this, and while I rolled my eyes and berated him for his shallowness, I let my hair grow out, long down past my shoulder blades, in the hopes that he would finally see me. A few months into sophomore year of college, after a painfully long flirtation, he asked out my roommate, a confidant and vivacious woman with dark, straight, long hair. A broken heart is always cause for drastic change, and that Christmas break, I went in to my mom’s hairstylist, and told her to take it off. This time, the cut by a professional accentuated my natural waves, and it bounced up to just rest on the tops of my shoulders. I hoped it would make me feel strong, like I didn’t need him. The shock on his face was worth it, but I wasn’t any stronger. Love was all around me, and I had short hair that didn’t change the fact that I was alone and confused.

That time, I told myself I would never chop it off again, because the growing back was tedious and painfully long, especially once I realized I missed my long hair, my comfort, the shield to hide behind. Slowly it inched back to where it was and beyond, as I straightened it for graduation, curled it for weddings, and pulled it back for job interviews.

Finally settled post-grad, in an office job that ignored my degree yet gave me a chance to figure out who I am professionally, I realized I hadn’t cut my hair in over ten months. It had grown to its longest length, down to the middle of my back. I had seen a lot of change happen around me – friends moving away and getting married, and I was still in the apartment I lived in during college, in the town where I went to college, around college students. I felt suspended in space and time, in the frustrating in-between. I wasn’t sure who I was: no longer a student, but not quite ready to be a professional adult. I was caught. So I decided to chop all of my hair off.

I ignored that memory in my head, the one that said a change on the outside does little for the inside. The one that said this changes nothing. Instead, I scoured websites for the perfect haircut, asked advice from literally everyone around me, and psyched myself up. I was afraid I would bail and revert back to keeping it long, keeping it long, keeping it long because I was too scared to take a risk. I decided that this haircut would usher in a whole new phase of life, one where I was not afraid of change and the new things to come.

My haircut was at 4:45 on Friday. I went to work that morning, sure of my plan. Above the shoulder, layered for the natural wave, like that picture of Anne Hathaway at the SAG Awards in 2009. But then I started looking at my hair, how it fell, how the length complimented my face. I thought about how easy it was to maintain, how wash and wear it was. How I could pull it back into a ponytail or bun while it was wet and be out the door in ten minutes. The more I thought, the more nervous I became, until I sat at my desk paralyzed and nearly in tears.

Not prone to emotional breakdowns, I was caught off-guard until the reason occurred to me. I had created an idol of my hair. It sounds funny to say, but I had put all of my hope for the future in the perfect haircut. I decided that shorter hair would give me a new lease on life, a new perspective, outlook, confidence. I would be a new woman after 4:45 that afternoon. A better one.

Here’s the thing, though: change isn’t instantaneous. Change is a process. And sure, a great haircut can do absolute wonders for self-esteem. But there are always going to be those days when every hair is going the wrong way, and who you are cannot depend on the thread-like strands coming out of your head. If I want to change me, I need to start with a prayer and a look into the depths of my being, the habits and quirks that make up my existence. A few snip-snips with a scissors cannot do that for me. My hair is not the full representation of me – it simply keeps my head warm and is a decent accessory.

I sat in that chair at 4:45, asked my hair stylist’s advice, and she knew. She said, “I usually can tell when someone is ready to chop off all of their hair, and you don’t seem ready.” So I walked out of there, hair trimmed, layered, thinned, sidesept bands, but long as all-get-out and growing by the second. And I was happy, not because I was a new woman, but because I was the same woman with a lighter head and a lighter spirit who felt ready for change, change that happens in the abdomen and bleeds out through every pore. My hope is that people come up to me and ask if I’ve had a haircut recently, and I’ll say no, but I am beautiful because God is good. Then I’ll walk away, hairs probably out of place but ready for the world to begin.

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