If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s whole life.
- Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World
Until last winter, I never really knew what my natural hair color was. I was a swimmer throughout school, so I was always working the chlorine-blonde look. Then, in college I started dying it. The first color I tried was purple, then the fried, blonde tips experienced green, blue, pink, cherry red and pretty much everything else in Manic Panic’s selection. I got hooked on dying my hair- it was something my mom did quite a lot but would never let me do, so naturally I went hog-wild as soon as I had the chance.
When I moved to LA after college, I took the scissors to myself for the first time and likewise became hooked on cutting my own hair. Since then, the idea of paying someone else to cut my hair seemed laughable.
Growing up, hairstylists never really gave me haircuts I liked, so learning how to take care of business myself was liberating. If I screwed up my hair, it was my own fault and no one else’s. Conversely, when my hair looked cute, I loved the shocked and excited reactions to people when people asked where I got it done.
I really hated my life in LA from the outset. For the first time, I felt strange in my body. I lived off of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, which in retrospect was a dive straight into the lion’s den of self-loathing and absurd beauty standards. Coming from Oberlin, where there was a fair range of liberal sensibilities around body expectations (shaved armpits were the exception, for instance, not the norm) I had no idea what I was getting myself into moving to LA. I had felt quite comfortable in my queer identity at college (though I used the term bisexual back then), and I always felt beautiful, even though I didn’t spend much time or effort examining my looks or aesthetic and rarely ventured into the world of “femme.”
In LA, however, most attention I got from men was thoroughly gross and most often offensive. I looked “LA enough” that the pressure to conform was heavy. I had a natural bust that women payed thousands of dollars for and was still a natural blond. Thus, everyone assumed I was an aspiring actress, such that I often got unsolicited advice about losing roughly 10 – 15 pounds to make me “perfect” or dressing sexier to court the interest of more powerful Hollywood types. Of course, such attention generally succeeded making me feel less beautiful rather than more so. Added to that was that I was invisible as a queer woman and had no idea how to even find other lesbians.
Realizing that I could control my hair in the same way I controlled how I dressed or spoke opened my eyes to possibilities for interfacing with my somewhat hostile environment in a new way. After months of discomfort with my surroundings, I stood in my bathroom, tied my hair into a low braid, and chopped the damn thing off. A few days later, I walked to the local sex shop and bought myself a softy. With my new short hair and my fake dong, I dressed in drag and walked the streets of the Sunset Strip, feeling for the first time since setting foot in the city, that my body matched my mind. I felt comfortable and safe. I loved the feeling of the softy between my legs, the low loose pants on my hips, my bound breasts, and my short, short hair. I got no sleazy looks, no catcalls, no catty comments or elevator eyes. I doubt I looked much like a man, but I didn’t look remotely like someone who walked those sidewalks on the regular, and that was enough to make me invisible. I could walk through the streets of my neighborhood without the usual assault on my privacy and sovereignty.
Chopping off my hair was a gateway for me to take ownership over all the other ways gender roles and expectations dictated my life.
Hair has always been a potent symbol of sexuality and power. It gave Samson his power, let Mary Magdalene prove her loyalty, and signified the bucking of status quo for thousands of young Americans in the 60s.
For women, this signifier of sexuality is ever-present. Long, luscious locks are the mark of a feminine, sexually available woman, such that weaves and falls are big business, and strippers or porn stars with short hair are rare.
For queer women, the first haircut is a milestone. Ridding oneself of hair is a symbolic gesture of bucking the patriarchy and its beauty standards and choosing into a standard that embraces a larger range of female identity.
With my short hair, I felt as though I was sending a clear message to society, that my beauty didn’t belong to it, rather it was mine to use and interpret on my own terms.
From the first time I took the scissors to my locks, I became entranced with the ways I could alter my hair to suit my mood. Since then, my hair has experienced innumerable colors, cuts and styles.
The Michael Cunningham quote at the top of this post has always struck me. It’s the reason I have my tattoos, why I cut my hair whenever I feel like it, and why I dress the way I do. When we cut our hair, we are making a statement to our communities. We are declaring our identities and the choices we make with our bodies as our own. We are not letting nebulous “future employers” or the varying tastes of potential lovers tell us how we should look. We are not banking on beauty standards that we never wanted in the first place, to tell us how we must look in order to be beautiful.
When I started cutting and dying my own hair, I began to meet people that I wanted in my life. Queer women started noticing me, and I finally started to date some amazing women in LA. I got my dream job and I felt fully seen by my friends. Is this all because of a haircut? Probably not. But my outsides finally matched my insides for the first time in my life. Feeling fully beautiful in my own skin, and based on my own sense of aesthetic trumped whatever bullshit expectations mainstream society set for me. I know that this is what my new friends and lovers saw and were attracted to.
I took some time off to give my hair a rest over the winter. I was genuinely curious as to what my hair looked like if I just let it grow. My mother loved this choice. I, however, was ambivalent. Now, I’m back to my usual orange and blonde, which makes me quite happy. I’ve learned how to use clippers and do my own fade lines. I don’t expect to stop anytime soon. Every time I cut my hair I’m declaring my body as my own. I get to decide when I feel beautiful and why. I get to opt out of the race for femme-bot beauty and opt in to my own standards.
While I am certainly not my hair, my hair is an extension of me. It is a tool and a weapon that I get to wield on my own terms.