Mom spent two weeks trying to talk me out of it. My Baba was completely horrified when I confided in her what I was planning to do. Other people in my life were shocked and skeptical as well.
“It won’t work out for you,” they warned, shaking their heads. “Think it through some more.” No, I wasn’t plotting a murder or a jewellery store robbery. I wasn’t going to kidnap a rich person’s kid and hold them for ransom. I wasn’t going to start a revolution. I was going to get my hair cut short.
Why such panic over something as inconsequential as hair? We all have hair. There’s no shortage of hair in the world. It grows back when we cut it and when we leave it alone we can use it as a makeshift ladder ala Rapunzel. We can dye it and braid it, shape it and sell it. Hair is abundant and hair is malleable, so why all this uproar over mine? It was my hair and I wanted to cut it. It was on my head so it was mine to dispose of. What crime was I committing?
I soon learned that everyone’s a lawyer when it comes to a woman’s body and any changes she wants to make to it.
“Oh, but Emily...”
Wait for it.
“You won’t look like a girl anymore!”
Did you just sigh, like I did on the inside when I first heard those words? It’s a laughable notion, that your gender identity is somehow connected to the length of your hair. But for some, it’s sacred, the tradition that boys have neat, trim, militaristic short hair and girls have long, flowing, romantic locks, end of discussion.
It’s a uniform, basically. One that can get you persecuted if you rebel against it, like that one time in boarding school when I got kicked out of the cafeteria for wearing the wrong kind of stockings under my kilt. I had to race back to my dormitory to change if I wanted to eat that day. A small journey into individualism cost more than half of my lunch time, and it seemed that if I dared repeat the offense there would be an even bigger price to pay.
According to the older generation and the media, any girl with short hair was automatically a butch lesbian. Or a workplace dragon lady. Or both. They were stern rather than sweet, demanding rather than accommodating, and they just looked too darn masculine, as if that were a bad thing, a violation of the natural order.
It all drizzles down to that unshakeable fear among conservatively-minded people of having somehow produced a generation of women who weren’t going to marry men because they resembled men too much, through their ambitions, through their accomplishments, and through their boyish haircuts. I can assure you, quite happily, that men played no part in my decision to cut my hair short. What men would think of my hair wasn’t even an afterthought. If anything, it was other girls who influenced my decision. But it was my own desperation for freedom that had the final say on the matter.
I used to have hair that was more than ten inches long. It fell down my back when it was loose. I could sweep it up into a long, bouncy ponytail or into a high or low bun. It was a rippling mane of dark chocolate brown, thick and wavy ... and I hated it.
I hated brushing it. I hated shampooing it. I hated having to spend an hour blow-drying it, just to get it from sopping wet to tolerably damp. It was always tangled. It was always getting caught in coat zippers. Straightening it with a flat iron could only tame it for a grand total of twelve minutes before it started to curl again into something that resembled Albert Einstein’s eyebrows.
I had a battalion of clips, ties, and pins that fought the daily battle of keeping it off my face just so I could function and get through the day. If they failed, I would have to run to the bathroom to tuck some hair back into place or yank some hair out of the iron grasp of a zipper or collar or earring. I don’t need to tell anyone how much that hurt, because we’ve all been there, but me? I was always there.
I lived in hair hell, the tenth circle of purgatory that Dante forgot to mention. My hair was my curse, the plague that sprung from my scalp. I was always asking myself, “How did other girls do it?” By that I meant, how did other girls keep their hair so straight, so shiny, so perfect, all day long?
I was in high school in the 2000s. The hairstyle in vogue was long, flat-ironed hair with blonde or red highlights. My classmates proudly flitted through the hallways with hair ironed and dyed in exactly this way, while mine ... was sloppily pulled back with a big, chunky plastic clip. That was me as a teenager. I was a dork who couldn’t take care of her hair properly. It was all wrong, and people noticed.
“Who do you mean you have no time to straighten your hair? Just wake up earlier to do it! I get up at six!” I could barely motivate myself to get out of bed at seven in the morning for a bowl of cereal, let alone fight a futile fight with my hair. An hour of sleep lost for my hair to explode into a cloud of frizz on the way to school? It wasn’t worth it.
I tried to make up for it in other ways, because God help you if you were a girl and didn’t make the slightest effort to be feminine in high school. I bought expensive MAC lip glosses. I wore my nicest, most sparkly earrings to draw attention away from my atrocious bun. I dusted my eyes with blue and purple eyeshadows. I learned to make straight lines with a stick of eyeliner even when my unconfident hand was shaking.
But at the end of the day, after wiping off the makeup, taking off the earrings, and letting my hair loose from the prison designed for its own good, I knew that I had failed. I was not a girl who had style. I was a girl who had ugly hair, and I was certain that it was always going to be this way for me. I was always going to be the least beautiful, the least successful, and the least admired girl in the room, because of my stupid, stupid hair.
For a young, vulnerable, insecure teenager, this is the kind of realization that cuts deep.
Deciding, at least, to get my hair cut short was a breakthrough. A liberation. A choice that dramatically changed my life for the better. I was in my first year of university, and it was a year for changes and new freedoms. I was living away from home for the first time. I was eating what I liked, reading what I liked, going where I liked, and, most importantly, dressing how I liked.
Free at last from my stiff high school uniform, with its too-tight trousers, and starchy see-through white shirts, I embraced delicious comfort in my wardrobe. I had cozy sweaters and dark jeans for the autumn and winter, cotton dresses and leggings for the spring and summer. Cute ballet flats on dry days and warm, sturdy boots for wet ones.
Being comfortable was the defining feature of my look, and eventually that philosophy crawled upwards to my head, where my hair, still pinned up and undealt with, resided, and waited. Other girls at university had short hair and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop staring at them.
I want that, I thought, watching them tuck their neat, sweeping bangs behind their ears and slip on the knitted beanie hats that made them look so cool and hip and bohemian and modern without a curl out of place. Where had all these girls been in high school when I needed to see them, when I needed to know there were other options besides the tyranny of the flat iron? What had made them brave enough to just be done with it and chop it all off? Were they, like me, victims, and recent escapees, of the legislation for female beauty and conformity?
At this point I’d had enough and was sick to death with waking up in my dorm room with a mouth full of drool-soaked hair. I’d spent my whole life ruled by its length and its refusal to cooperate with me. I was done. I was tired. I was ready.
Mom cried at the hair salon. I had to force myself not to look sideways at her as the hairdresser braided my locks into two tight ropes that would be promptly sliced off afterwards. I couldn’t blame her for crying. Her attachment to my hair was pure nostalgic sentimentality, an attachment to the days of my childhood, when she would wrestle with and yank at my stubborn tangles, trying to make something of them, with the best of intentions and a maternal infatuation with the dark, glossy shade of brown inherited from her Italian and Greek ancestors.
As a mother, she’d enjoyed that sort of challenge, while I remember my scalp aching, my tears leaking. I didn’t want to cry over my hair anymore, and I didn’t want her to cry either.
“Mom, Mom, it’s fine,” I kept reassuring her, unable to reach out and squeeze her hand from my salon chair. I wanted it to be over so badly. It was like waiting for a stubborn baby tooth to come out. Make room, won’t you? You’re done here, kid. The adult tooth needs to grow in now. When the moment finally came, down came the scissors to do their dirty work, and my braids hung limp in the hairdresser’s hand, I was speechless and beaming, transfixed by the sight of myself in the mirror.
My face. It had a shape. My hair … had a style.
My braids were sealed in an envelope and shipped off to make a wig for a cancer patient whom I hoped would have a happier relationship with my hair than I did. The reviews for my new haircut were raving. Mom’s tears dried up when she saw how much short hair suited me. My Baba gushed about how pretty and grownup I looked. Friends at university raced up to me to praise my new do.
Where had all the skepticism and prejudice gone? Had it been packaged up and mailed away along with my braids? Did the courage to go through with the cutting wave off any agency anyone else had over my hair? I had proven myself, it seemed. I had claimed complete license to my own hair. It was a beautiful feeling, to shed my fur, to be lighter and freer, in more ways than one. I wish that every woman gets to experience this feeling at least once in her lifetime.
Of course, a few critics lingered. I went on two dates with a boy at university. By the third date he had the nerve to tell me that I would look sexier with long hair. I didn’t text him back again. I don’t need that kind of extra weight.
Emily Zarevich lives in Burlington, Ontario. She attended Wilfrid Laurier University, where she studied English literature, and went on to Humber College where she studied TESL/TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language). She used to write creative pieces for her school’s arts magazine Blueprint and now writes for fun.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.