(*and color my hair, and allow someone else to choose my hairstyle)
I was born with a full head of hair. At one month old I sported a lush black mop top; by the time I was two years old my chestnut-brown hair was halfway down my back. During my childhood and adolescence I vacillated between exceptionally long hair and more manageable chin-length styles. I rarely worried when I visited our family stylist – if she gave me a “bad” haircut, I knew it would grow out in a few months, and I could try something new at that time.
As a kid, it didn’t even occur to me that other people might have a different relationship with their hair. But as I transitioned from naïve childhood to less-innocent adulthood, I realized the power that hair can wield. I’ll spare everyone a diatribe on the influence of beauty in American culture; suffice to say, “pretty” people are often treated better than “less pretty” individuals – and wearing long hair is one way an American woman can help herself appear “beautiful”.
Over the past few years I have let my hair grow. Not for any particular reason – apart from frugality, laziness, and apathy. Due to these three forces, I simply didn’t bother to schedule frequent visits to the salon. So I’d see my stylist once every six months to clean up my hair’s jagged ends and give my straight locks some more body and movement – but otherwise, I just let my hair go. As the length moved past my neck, then shoulders, then upper back, I began to notice my personality change ever-so-slightly. As my hair rested past my chin, I began to feel more comfortable in the presence of other people. When my strands moved closer to my shoulders, I began to feel more confident. As my mane grew longer and swayed across my back, I found myself occasionally feeling cocky. With long hair I felt pretty and powerful; apparently I gave more importance to hair (beauty) than I wanted to admit.
I don’t want to live a life where my self-worth is measured by external factors – so when I realized the nearly-unconscious influence my hair was having on my heart, I decided change was necessary. I needed to cut my hair.
For many years I had considered donating my hair to a well-known national organization that provides wigs to cancer patients. But my hair was never long enough to meet their usage criteria. As I became more serious about making a drastic change, I conducted research about various nonprofit organizations that provide free wigs to individuals who need them – and learned that many groups do not accept layered, gray, or color-treated hair. As I’m approaching my forties, my dark hair is beginning to show signs of my age (i.e., I’m starting to gray) – and a few months ago I realized that if I was serious about ever donating my hair, now was likely my last window of opportunity to do it.
So I let my hair grow unfettered for another two months; and the second it got to a sufficient length, I made an appointment with my stylist. During our consult, I told her that I wanted to donate my hair. She smiled. When she asked me what style I wanted to receive after she chopped off my braids, I replied, “G, I want you to do whatever you want. I’ve been coming to you for over ten years; if there’s a style you’ve always wanted to give me that I haven’t been willing to try before, now’s your chance.” My stylist’s smile grew much more broad. I continued, “Oh – and I’m willing to have my hair colored, too. So you can do something with that if you’d like as well.” With that, G’s eyes grew wide and bright. She clarified, “So, I can do anything I want to your hair?” I nodded, and answered, “Yup. Whatever you want. I trust you. Just don’t make me look like a boy.” G laughed, told me there was no way she could make me look like a boy even if she tried, but then promised that she would give me a very feminine style. With that, she practically skipped to the far end of the salon to mix up a demi-permanent color for my head – and I sat back in her chair, anxious, but also excited.
When G returned, she segmented my hair into four sections, then loosely braided each one. She applied a small band just below the spot where she would make the big cut – and when I saw how close her scissors would be to my head, I inhaled sharply. G paused. She said, “Are you sure about all of this?” I drew in a breath, and answered honestly, “No, not at all. But I need to do it. So go.” With that, I shut my eyes – and heard a big snip.
Ten seconds later, four long braids laid on G’s workstation. Wow. It was done.
But actually, it was only just getting started.
Now that my hair was nine inches shorter, G applied the color treatment to my strands that remained. I kept my eyes closed for the remainder of the salon appointment – I wanted to experience a big surprise at the end of it all. So I had no idea what color G chose (not that I would probably have been able to tell from looking at the mixture, anyway…); I only know that the dye mixture felt cool, gloopy, and heavy as she applied thick layers to sections of my head.
Once every strand of hair was sufficiently coated, G wrapped my head in a towel, then had me go off to “process”. The wait time was rather short (just 10 minutes), but during that time I enjoyed a lovely seated massage. When the requisite 10 minutes had elapsed (and my shoulders had loosened ever-so-slightly), G’s assistant took me back to the sinks and gave my hair a through rinse, then a proper shampoo and condition.
From there, I was led back to G’s salon chair, where she began the “real” haircut. For fifteen minutes I heard scissors snipping all around my head, and felt more and more of my neck being exposed. After getting the general shape of the cut where she liked it, G blew my hair dry. I thought that was the end of the scissors part of the day, but in reality G had a lot more cutting planned. Once my hair was dry she could see how the style would actually look when I wore it each day, and she performed detailed shaping work accordingly. For another fifteen minutes G circled around the chair, cutting hair on one side of my face, then the other, then taking the back up a bit, then balancing the front… I genuinely feared that by the time G was finished, I would only have a few inches of hair remaining. It was at this point that I had a silent chat with myself – and it went something like this: “Stef, you surrendered control of this appointment. And you did so for a reason: to be free. Your hair does not define you. No matter how long or short, how dark or light, how curly or straight, your hair – this hair – is just that. Hair. Little colored strands of proteins protruding from your skull. Whether you have a ton of it or none at all, the core being of who YOU are remains unchanged. So move past this. Focus on your heart, not your head. And most certainly not your hair. Do that, and you’ll always be beautiful.”
At that moment, G set her scissors down. She gave my new style a few swipes from a hot iron, and a liberal dose of spray. I heard her set the product down; then she asked me, “Okay Stef, are you ready to see?”
I took in a breath, and set a tight smile on my face. “G, I am. Let’s do this.” And I opened my eyes.
Upon seeing my reflection in the mirror, I beamed. G had given me a super-cute bob that maximized the slight curl of my hair while also keeping the strands manageable. As she slowly spun me around to look at the cut from all angles, I told her, “Oh G, it’s terrific. I love it!”
“And what about the color, Stef? Do you like it?” G asked.
Truthfully, I was so focused on the cut, I didn’t even notice the color. I leaned towards the mirror for a closer look. The hue G chose was a few shades darker than my own, but it looked completely natural on me. And in addition to covering the few gray strands growing around my temples, the treatment gave my hair a depth and luminosity that had been lacking for quite a while.
“It looks really good, G. My hair looks so much shinier than before!” I answered.
“And warm,” G added. “I think this color adds a lot of warmth to your hair.”
I nodded in agreement. “That’s a perfect way to describe it. Warm. I like it. I really do.”
Now it was G’s turn to smile. “I’m so glad! I had so much fun doing this cut and color; I don’t often get to do whatever I want to a client. I really enjoyed myself, and I’m glad you’re happy with the way things turned out. And,” she closed, “you don’t look like a boy.”
I laughed out loud. “You’re right G, I don’t look like a boy,” I affirmed, smiling.
G led me to the salon’s hostess stand. I thanked G one last time, gave her a hug, and then turned my attention to the salon receptionist to process my payment. The gal looked at me and asked, “How can I help you?” Slightly confused, I replied, “Um, yes, I’d like to pay for my services, please.” The receptionist appeared genuinely surprised, and asked, “Er, okay…. what services did you have done, exactly?” Now I was really confused; this woman had checked me in for my appointment less than two hours ago. I gently stated, “I just received a cut and color… from G…” – and immediately the woman’s jaw dropped. She stated/asked, “Wait – when you checked in, did you have hair down your back?” I nodded yes, and the gal squealed, smiled, and cried out, “Oh-my-gosh, your hair looks SUPER cute!! And the color looks terrific! Wow, I didn’t even recognize you – you look so different! You look great!” The other assistants behind the stand nodded in agreement.
I have to admit, I liked that reaction. :)
After processing my payment, I walked to my car. As I opened the door to get in, I caught my reflection in the driver’s side window – and felt a small jolt of surprise. I did look rather different… Wow. This change is going to take some getting used to. But it’s good. Change is good.
The next day, I got to enjoy various colleague’s reactions to my significantly different appearance. A few individuals actually didn’t recognize me immediately; it took them a few seconds before they were able to process my new look. Some colleagues played it cool (“Hey, nice haircut,” they said in a very mellow tone), others tried to be funny (“Say, where did you hair go?” they chuckled good-naturedly), and others were effusive in their praise. My favorite reaction was from a lovely lady who, when she saw me for the first time post-cut, cried out, “Oh wow, Stef! Your haircut is lovely! You look so darling!” She paused, then stated again, “Absolutely darling!”
It’s been a week since my big haircut took place, and over the past seven days I’ve mostly gotten used to the new length and style. (Though I am still surprised each morning when I shampoo my head in the shower, and realize that my hands don’t have much hair to wash!) I’ve learned how to dry and style my hair in a way that I like, and have adjusted to seeing my short locks in a mirror or window reflection.
In the grand scheme of life, a haircut is a rather unimportant event. But change – particularly an adjustment in an individual’s personal appearance – is not always so trivial. Through this experience, I received the opportunity to dig deeper into my own constructs of self, value, worth, “beauty”, surrender, and acceptance – as well as to see how others around me respond to these notions. Most importantly, though, I got to help a child cultivating these notions for herself; and while I like to think that my gift of long hair will help a young girl develop a sense of self-acceptance, my larger hope is that one day she won’t need a wig to see her true value and worth.