“How much do you want to take off?” She held up a strand of my waist-length curls. “A few inches…?”
“I want it really short,” I said, giving the mirror a shaky smile.
“About here?” She indicated my shoulder, which would have been really short, compared to what I had.
I took a deep breath and said, “I-I, um, I want it all off.”
“Really?” Her eyes went wide. “Like…” She gestured close to her own head. “Really short?”
I gestured close to my head, too, as if brushing my hands over the faux-hawk of my dreams. “Yeah, really short.”
She grinned. “That’s exciting! Nobody with hair that long ever wants it all off. They always tell me to take as little as possible.” She turned to one of her co-workers. “She wants it all off!”
“Oh, we should get the camera for a before and after!” said the co-worker.
I had expected to be told, “but your hair is so beautiful!” I had braced myself for, “don’t you want it to look more feminine?” Instead, they treated me like a celebrity, and I finally managed to relax.
With her scissors poised at the top of the thick braid, she said, “Last chance! Are you sure?”
“I’m sure!” I said, fingers twisting together in my lap.
Several snips later, my hair looked like it belonged on the head of a little boy in the 1940s, and my stylist was setting aside my braids to be mailed to Wigs 4 Kids.
“So… this isn’t a good look,” she said, and we both laughed. “What would you like to do with it?”
When I walked into my cousin’s eighth grade graduation half an hour later, my own grandmother didn’t recognize me. I could not stop grinning.
There were some questions I refused to answer; I refused to say whether or not I had ever dated a girl, and I refused to say whether or not I believed in God, but when she asked, “Do you shave or wax your armpits?” I felt no qualms about saying, “No.”
Abruptly the interrogation halted. Three pairs of teenage eyes fell upon me. It occurred to me that this was not supposed to be a yes-or-no question.
“Wait—you don’t shave your armpits?”
“No,” I said, and before I could even begin to explain—
“Ewwww so it’s, like, a bush?” She lifted her arm and mimed flowing, cascading hair.
“It’s not that long,” I laughed. Sometimes I forget that there are still people in the world who think body hair is gross.
“So do you shave your legs?”
I had gone too far now to turn back. “Nope.”
And a second girl: “Ewwwww!”
But the third said, “Hey! Leave her alone! She’s a free woman!”
I smiled, because that was close enough.
From June to January, my haircut grew out. Sometimes it made me look like Jasper from Twilight, Earl from My Name is Earl, Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock, Meg Ryan in City of Angels, or any one of the Jonas Brothers.
“I’m thinking about dyeing it red,” I said. “It seems like the thing to do. Pretty much everyone I know has had some red in their hair at some point.”
“Aw, but then it wouldn’t match the rest of your hair,” said my partner.
“I like how all of your hair is the same shade. Even your eyelashes!”
“Well, I would probably just have it reddish brown, not bright red, so it wouldn’t look too strange.”
“That would look good.”
“If it was long again I’d have it bright red and then I’d look like Merida from Brave.”
“Do it,” she said with a grin. “Grow it out and dye it bright red. We’ll get you a medieval dress. Is it weird that I can’t imagine you in a modern dress, but I can easily imagine you in a medieval one?”
“I would totally wear one of those.”
I inherited my curls from my dad, who calls me Curly; my sisters have straight hair like our mom. I never knew how to take care of curls. Many mornings, I woke to find a tightly tangled knot the size of my fist hiding at the back of my neck. I brushed until my scalp stung every day. I considered dreadlocks. One day I went to church without realizing my brush was still stuck in my hair. My parents must have gotten sick of hearing me say, “Maybe I’ll cut it all off!” because I never seriously considered cutting it.
My aunt taught me how to use conditioner and how to use a wide-toothed comb instead of a brush. I learned how to coax soft ropes of curls out of my dull, frizzy mane. Sometimes I was too lazy to bother. Sometimes I thought, “Maybe I’ll cut it all off!” but wouldn’t my head look tiny without it, like that of a shorn lion? I stole glances at men with long hair. What kept their long hair from making them look like women? Could I emulate them?
Finally I was fed up with the conditioning and the brushing, the blanket on the back of my neck in the summer, the weight of it, the flatness on the top after wearing a hat, the static electricity, constantly flinging it out of the way and shaking it behind my shoulders and being careful in the wind lest someone get a faceful, the way I still looked feminine even if I was wearing a men’s suit, the way I still looked exactly the same as I had since middle school. Finally I decided that no matter what it was like to have short hair, it had to be an improvement.
“I want it short enough to spike it,” I explained while the stylist played with the disaster that my last haircut had grown out to be.
“You want to punk it out?” she said, and I was mildly surprised that this middle-aged woman understood me better than any of the other stylists I had tried in San Diego.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “It’s got to be really short, because it’s curly and the spikes just fall over if it’s too long.”
“How about an inch and a half?” She showed me, holding the curls straight up from my scalp.
“Yeah, that’s good.” It would be the shortest I’d ever had it, but I repeated my mantra in my head: It grows back.
My boss blinked at me. “Oh, you cut your hair.”
I beamed. “Yeah.”
She smiled, bemused, and almost said something. Then she didn’t. My mantra ran through my mind: It grows back.
Yet I didn’t need the mantra. I was curious about why she might not like my hair, but it was an idle, almost intellectual curiosity. I didn’t care what people thought of it. It was mine, a part of me, both physically and metaphysically, so the only judgment that mattered was my own. And I loved it.