Let’s Talk About Hair

Today I got a haircut. Nothing too exciting–just a few inches off, straight across, like I do a couple times every year. Sometimes, I think that one of these days I’ll go for something more stylized, interesting, or funky. It hasn’t happened yet.

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Between the ages of 9 and 15, I grew my hair out. Or more accurately (since “growing out” sounds too much like an active process), I just didn’t cut it, besides the occasional trim. I started out with the intention of making a better ballet bun and kept going until my bun required two packs of bobby pins to stay in place. Eventually, when my hair was pushing waist-length, I decided that I was going to cut off 10 inches to donate to an organization making wigs for cancer patients. It was still reasonably long after the cut, but the change was enough to make me cry as soon as I got in the car.

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When I was 12, I read that hair was dead cells. I liked to bring this fact up whenever someone or something referenced keeping my hair “healthy,” whether it was my mom encouraging me to trim my split ends or shampoo labels promising “healthy locks.” Describing something that was literally dead as “healthy” seemed like a particularly distorted example of misusing the language of health to describe aesthetics (If you want to make hair shinier or prettier, why can’t you just say that?). But I still use that same brand of shampoo and get trims.

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It’s funny how hair is so attached to our idea of femininity. At one point in my toddler existence, I believed that the distinguishing factor between boys and girls was hair length. Which isn’t really that strange of a misconception, considering that we still base so much of our perceptions of masculine/feminine, butch/femme, etc. on haircuts, probably more so than any other factor like dress or behavior.

The automatic equation of long hair to femininity always seemed a little strange when I thought of my own hair. It’s not that I particularly wanted my hair to be seen as not feminine, but my long hair was mostly a product of avoiding haircuts and beauty salons, something which hardly matched up with typical (or at least commercialized) associations of femininity with a concern for beauty and appearance.

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Granted, my vague discomfort with the commercial beauty industry was not my main reason for avoiding haircuts. Sometimes I didn’t want to get haircuts because I was busy or lazy, or because the water was too hot when they shampooed. But more than that, haircuts were a change, specifically a change that involved cutting off part of my body–part of me.

I guess when I was a teenager who had recently moved across the country, even superficial constants in my identity were feeling particularly important.

Of course, your hair still changes when you don’t cut it. It gets longer. But that kind of change is subtle enough to forget about most days–until you wake up one morning and realize that your hair reaches your butt instead of your shoulders.

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When I cut off those 10 inches, I was most shocked by the sense of permanence. Technically speaking, this obviously wasn’t accurate: hair grows back. But compared to the few seconds it takes to chop it off, the amount of time it takes to grow back is enough to seem like forever. And that’s a scary idea to face: that something which took years to gain can be lost in a moment.

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Some people use haircuts to symbolize big changes in their lives: “new ‘do, new you.” But I think that there is also something to be said for hair growth as a symbol for another type of change: slow, inconspicuous, unintentional, yet constant and inevitable, leaving you never quite the same as the previous day; the “new you” quietly emerging from the base of the old, until one day, you realize that you have something there which wasn’t before.

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