“It makes you look like a boy.”
Thus said my best friend at the Fourth of July parade the day after I cut my hair short. She proceeded to tell me that, from a distance, she’d thought I was a boy until she recognized me.
I hadn’t thought it would make me look like a boy, and the information stung me. I actually cried about it. There was no desire anywhere in me to be boyish. I cared so much — too much. I hated how I looked. I hated that my best friend would tell me that with even a flavor of disapproval in her voice. If even she admitted that to me, what did others think? What did strangers think, who only knew me by my appearance?
“It makes you look like a lesbian.” Within a month of wearing my hair short and spiky, my friends began receiving inquiries regarding my sexuality. As if my friends were the ones to ask, because of course I couldn’t speak for myself. As if my hair defined my attraction to the same gender. As if it were any of their damn business in the first place.
I began to notice a change in the way people looked at me. I separated groups of people in my mind. There were the kids my age who looked at me with approval — mostly girls — because I had set myself apart from the average individual. There were also the kids my age who looked at me as though I were a freak and I had somehow crossed their boundaries without ever speaking to them once in my entire life. There were the adults who liked my nerve and the adults who thought I was going through some sort of rebellious phase. There were those who liked me better, those who liked me the same, and those who liked me less. There were those who talked to me more often, those who talked to me just as they always had, those who talked to me with a patronizing tone as though they had to keep me under control, and those who talked to me with an edge of something like caution in their voices.
I didn’t realize the impact it would have when I told the barber to hack my long brown locks off. At first, I was hit hard by the change — in desperation, I wore blasphemously girly clothes and wished profusely for my hair to grow back.
What I didn’t realize was that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they think. I don’t need to model my beauty after anyone but myself. I don’t need to be Rapunzel to be a princess. I made the mistake of listening to anyone who told me I looked like a lesbian. They said it with spite, as though loving another girl was some sort of crime. They didn’t even stop to think about whether or not I was a lesbian. Or whether or not it mattered.
The purpose of hair is to keep our heads warm, but the rejection of my friend Anna’s parents is colder than any weather. They won’t let her cut off her hair for fear of what others will think. For fear that they’ll think she has sex with girls.
Hair is a symbol of dignity. It is also a canvas of individuality. It grows back, yes, but a sense of permanence clings between locks. Today, in American society, it can be worn however one may please — but such freedom isn’t always the case. In many places, women are punished by having their hair cut short, as though their feminine identity is being taken from them and leaving only shame in its wake. Queen Clotild of Paris in 554 chose to have her grandsons executed rather than have their hair cut. In a manga series, the only one I enjoy, Fruits Basket, Akito cuts off Rin’s hair to humiliate and degrade her.
But why does hair bear such a great impact on our appearance and identity? It’s one of the first things we notice about people. It frames the face, compliments the eyes, which come first and foremost. If hair doesn’t fit nicely to a countenance, it’s noticeable immediately. Loose, long hair can hide us from the rest of the world, can seal us off from contact.
Our head protects our mind, from which stems everything we are: our identity, our emotions, our interests, and anything in between. From my own experience, hair acts like a covering. When it is changed drastically (i.e. long hair cut short), it’s like our reason rushes to catch up with that change. In some ways, the change felt good for me, but I also felt a bit exposed. Like my soul was naked and any stranger could take a look.
Maybe that’s why insults to my hair take deeper root than anything else. I like my hair. I’ll keep it how it is. But when someone doesn’t approve, it’s like they’ve insulted my personality and everything I am.
When I look in the mirror, I do not see segregated pieces of my personality. I do not see my sexuality looking back at me. I do not see my love of Doctor Who looking back at me. I do not see my friendships or my family looking back at me. I do not see my hairstyle looking back at me. Every piece is interconnected to generate someone even I can’t comprehend.
It hurts the most when people insult my hair — not because they don’t like the style itself, but because they don’t like the lifestyle they associate it with. They assume I’m loud, crazy, gay, and they also think that’s a bad thing. I cut off my hair because I thought it would look good. I didn’t foresee a future where my own father would insult me for it. He, too, thought it made me look lesbian, and in his frustration he pointed it out. “Your hair keeps getting shorter and shorter.” Spoken like evidence with which to back up his claim. I am a mystery to myself, but my father fancies that he knows what’s in my soul because of dead skin on my scalp.
With each haircut, the disapproval in the eyes of my family deepens. The caution in the faces of strangers increases. So I cut it shorter. So I give them something to look at, because I know I belong to myself. But still it hurts.
I want to be different. I want to stand out. Every time it hurts, I know I ought to stand out further. I am disillusioned, so I throw their misunderstanding back in their faces. Maybe that means I fit their stereotype. But my hair does not make me a rebel. My hair does not mean I want to throw society off balance and trigger universal chaos. I sense something wrong with the world, and every time they call me a rebel or a boy or a lesbian, that idea is confirmed.