When your hair is speaking for you

There was a time, I suppose, when I didn’t think about my hair. I was little and I had short hair because it was easier and all my friends had short hair. Sure, I only hung out with boys because all of the girls I knew played with Barbies and spent too much energy trying not to get dirty. When I was three or four, I asked my parents if I could have short hair and they let me get it cut and it stayed that way until I grew it out in seventh grade.

For years I was one of the guys. We did everything together. We played soccer and baseball, we whittled sticks and made forts in the woods, we shot BB guns and rode our bikes and spent most of each day covered in grass stains. When someone dared question why they would be friends with a girl they would say, “She’s not a girl, she’s Lucy.” My short hair wasn’t something I thought about except that I knew I liked it, it fit well under a ball cap, and it only caused a problem when someone told me I was in the wrong bathroom.

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While there was always an undercurrent that having short hair made me weird or wrong, it was nothing compared to the horror that is middle school. I was entirely unprepared for the idea that my short hair went from just a choice I made about what was the best way to keep my unruly curls in check to a marker that signaled something important about my identity. It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when it happened, but at some point the way my hair was cut started to tell people something about who I was, something I didn’t really understand at the time.

For some people, my short hair told them I was a boy and that I was in the wrong bathroom. For others it indicated that I wanted to be a boy. This included a cousin who asked me if I was going to have a sex change operation. I didn’t have any idea what that meant but I very clearly understood her disapproving tone. For many it was a declaration that I was gay (insert more disapproving tone here) even though I was more than half a decade from making that declaration to myself.

By the end of middle school I decided to grow my hair out. What started, in part, as a way for me to fit in with my male friends had become a burden. I no longer wanted to separate myself from the other “normal” girls in my class. I wanted to blend in. I wanted people to stop asking me if I was a “Mounds or an Almond Joy” (remember the jingle “Almond Joy has nuts, Mounds don’t” middle schoolers are charming, aren’t they?). That was the worst thing about having short hair then, it made it impossible for me to blend in and be anything other than the girl who looks like a boy and is so good at sports that she must be a dyke.

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It made me stand out when the only thing I really wanted was an invisibility cloak so that I could stand in front of the Mirror of Erised long enough to figure out who I was. Instead there was so much noise, so much input from others about who I was and the value (or lack of value) they assigned to the person they saw, that I couldn’t see myself clearly at all.

I tried to lower the external volume by growing my hair out so that when I arrived at boarding school no one would know I was the short-haired weirdo. They’d just see me and my long hair and I’d be one of them. I’d be accepted and no one would ask me if I were a girl or a boy and no one would see I was gay.

Instead, I discovered that the message wasn’t just coming from my hair. The summer after my freshman or sophomore year at boarding school we visited my mother’s family in Minnesota. These were annual or semi-annual pilgrimages that started when I was small. We would spend a week or two playing games, swimming, exploring my grandparents house, and bouncing on the trampoline.

This time, I was 15 or 16 and by now my hair was long enough for a ponytail. For reasons I couldn’t understand I kept getting asked the same questions. Everyone wanted to know what classes I was taking in the fall, what classes I liked best, and most of all they all wanted to know if I had a boyfriend. The last question felt like an accusation, as if there was something defective about me because I didn’t have on. I could mostly laugh that off, it was a normal enough question, one my friends at school complained about also. But I am sure they never got asked the follow up question. “You do want a boyfriend, don’t you?”

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I know I blushed because I can still remember how hot my cheeks felt under the gaze of the handful of people who stared at me and waited for me to answer. I have no idea what I said but I remembering getting out of that room as fast as I could without drawing more attention to myself. I was an accusation, it was a test, it was an adult fulfilling her curiosity that maybe her niece was a lesbian. It felt horrid and my stomach still ties itself in knots at the memory.

When I got to college it wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to let my hair be a marker of my difference again. This time I was in control of it, I knew that I wanted to to speak for me, I wanted people to think I was a lesbian because I had a short haircut. For a while I loved it, my girlfriend loved it. It was fun and spunky and made me feel great. Well, it made me feel great until it made me feel shitty.

As a society there is a lot of emphasis on women’s hair as an beauty accessory. Shampoo commercials, hair styles on the red carpet, articles in magazines. There is an idea that you can’t be pretty or attractive with short hair and for a while, and at various points in my life, I have fallen for that trap. It’s stupid for a thousand reasons, one of which is that some people look fabulous with short hair. Some people think women with short hair are hot and some women feel hot when they have short hair. That doesn’t stop the pervasive cultural norms from wheedling their way in and making us feel like weirdos, and maybe like we’re less of a woman for having short hair.

Some of it falls in line with the devaluing of women who identify as butch, or even just a bit more masculine than dominant culture feels is right. It dismisses butch women by thinking that they are just gay because they couldn’t get a man. Excuse me while I hit my head against a wall. But look, as much as I know that way of thinking is crap some of it still gets through the filter. So I grew out my hair, again. I was tired of being so obviously gay and taking some flak for it. I didn’t like that people assumed things about my relationship with my long-haired girlfriend because I had short hair. I was tired of people assuming a multitude of things about me from my haircut. It felt like middle school all over again. So I grew it, for a while, and then I cut it again when I was living in Mexico and grew tired of being whistled at, hit on, and generally skeeved out 20 times a day. I didn’t want to be objectified by the male gaze because I had long blond hair and stuck out like a pale, blond, sore thumb.

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I grew my hair again and by the time I got to law school it was long and stayed long for years. Until this past October when I decided to chop it off again. It was only then that I really started thinking about all of this baggage. I realized how fraught the length of my hair had been since I was in pre-school. I decided that I like having short hair and that should be the end of it. Maybe people will see me as butch now. That’s okay. I don’t see myself that way, but if other people do, I can handle the misunderstanding now. If people think they know something about me and my relationship with my wife because she still has long hair and I have short hair I think I can live with that too.

Because, after 33 years on this planet, I think I have reached the point where I can say that my hair may be a marker for some people for who I am, who I love, and what I believe. In some ways they are right. My hair might tell you a lot of things about me, but it won’t tell you everything. You can make your assumptions based on the length of it, the style of it, the way it looks, but that’s your shit, it’s not mine.

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It took me a long time to get here, to the place where my short hair just suits me, back to a place where I care less about it as an indicator of identity and more about the fact that I like the way it looks. I like the way it makes me feel. It makes me feel badass and strong. It makes me feel sexy. Sometimes, when it’s doing what it’s supposed to and the light is right or whatever, it even makes me feel pretty.

In the end, that’s where I started on this silly journey. Once I was a kid who just liked having short hair because it was comfortable and fit under my baseball cap. I’m not as carefree as that kid was but I think the measure of peace I have about my hair is greater considering the sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes hilarious journey it’s taken to get me here.

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