Thursday, May 3, 2012


Probably the shortest my hair's ever been, circa 2005
I may well have just changed my gender.  I have taken the scissors to my hair—eight dollar Goody scissors meant specifically for the purpose, not the orange-handled office kind—and now the trash can is full of dirty blonde curls.  And the sink.  And the floor.  I’ll be feeling the scratchy shards of it on my shoulders for days.
It started with just the bangs, but people with curly hair haven’t pulled off bangs since the ’80s.  Then a few chunks came out of the sides: once you start cutting your hair, you can’t just stop.  You have to keep snipping and snipping, trying to find that hairstyle that you imagined when you first began.  You have to find the sculpture within the marble, the bob within the mass of curls.  You cut one bit just a little too short and then have to trim the rest to match, eroding your mountain of hair until there’s practically nothing left.  You start out methodical—measuring the strands against each other, trying to work in sections—and then you get artistic.  You chop and hack.  You feel instead of thinking.  You’re not just cutting off your hair; you’re setting yourself free.

Grown out for my wedding, circa 2007
My face morphs as the hair falls away, a new landscape at each length, my cheekbones and jaw starting to look solid, losing some of their bread-dough quality.  I am becoming someone else.  After I make the final snips, I violently tousle my head, sending dirty blonde needles everywhere.  I’ve cut my hair dry—apparently that’s better for curls.  I’ve used tips from former hairstylists to fly in their faces and usurp their job.  I shower quickly, to get the curls to tighten up again, washing away as much of the dead hair as I can.  I stand before the mirror in my towel, short curls dripping, and wonder if I’ve made a mistake.
I’m going to have to wear earrings now.  Long, dangly earrings and eyeliner—as much as I can to declare my gender.  I’m going to need sparkly hair clips and headbands to identify myself as a girl.  A woman.  I look at my round cheeks in the mirror—maybe softer than a boy’s—and my large eyes with their long blonde lashes.  I survey my curveless frame, my collarbone the only real intimation of femininity.  It’s probably worse in the towel, which doesn’t have the kind of seaming I tend toward in clothing, the kind that nips as close to the waist as it can, that highlights the breasts, even if they’re barely there.
I’ve had short hair before and I’ve had to cut it myself.  It happened the first time in a fit of rage, a self-hatred that I hear is common among teens and young adults.  It happened with the scissors I found in my father’s desk, in my bedroom, where the hair ground into the carpet.  After that, I spent a good deal of time with old ladies addressing me as “sir” in the grocery store, when my back was turned, and then blushing when they saw the small bulges under my shirt.  The old ladies invariably asked for help fetching items from high shelves, taking advantage of my long arms and six-foot frame.  Finally, I learned to wear skirts and girlish shoes, dangly earrings that wobbled as I walked, brushing rhythmically against my neck.  I learned to use “product” in my short curls, dyed them black to keep them from blending with my skin.  Eventually, the old ladies started asking who set my hair, looking for a recommendation.  They were always impressed that my hair was naturally curly, that I and Mother Nature were responsible.  They smiled instead of blushing.  They stopped calling me “sir.”
I change into a dress and put curl cream in my hair, feeling each strand wrap around my fingers.  There’s a short spot on the right side, but I won’t be cutting any more; I just fluff it up and press the rest of the hair down, hoping for camouflage.  I smudge on eyeliner—too thick a line—and follow with shadow.  I try to remember the techniques I’ve read in magazines and seen on TV.  Highlights around the tear ducts and the eyebrows, shadow in the crease.  I brush on mascara.  I blot my skin with a makeup sponge, aiming for a more ideal complexion.  I’m still afraid I look like I’m in drag.
I’ve always wanted to have long hair, really.  Long, wavy hair that a man could draw his fingers through.  Marilyn Monroe pulled off shorter hair, but she had assets I just don’t have.  I could never find a movie star to relate to, but I found legions of them to look up to.  Ideally, I would be Rita Hayworth, with long red curls that had to be coaxed into existence instead of springing from my head of their own accord.  I would have her curves, her sex appeal.  I would flip my hair and say, “Hello boys,” and knees would melt in my presence.  No one would have to look twice to know I was a woman.
It’s not that I haven’t had long hair; my hair has been long for most of my life.  But rather than growing long, down my back, it grows out like the branches of an apple tree, like a shrub, like a tumbleweed.  It grows slowly and it breaks where it’s tied or clipped away from my neck.  A tangled mass, like quicksand for fingers, growing rougher and wilder with every inch.
When I first cut my hair short, I worked in a hotel.  I came to work in a swingy skirt, clingy top, and earrings that were probably more appropriate for a night club than a front desk.  I hated my boss, but that day as I walked into the office, he said, “Suzy Q!” and smiled so broadly at my new haircut that I could ignore his money-grubbing, phone-bill scrutinizing, long-lunch taking self and take it as a compliment.  I imagined myself a curly-headed cutie, circa 1954, as close to movie star status as I’d ever been.  My hair was classic.  That was good enough for me.
But it’s been a long time. Now, I wait for my husband to come home, hoping we’ll go out for dinner, a celebration of sorts.  Part of me worries that he might not notice; he has so much on his mind, and I did have short hair when we met.  I grew it out for our wedding, because a bride could not have a boy cut.  I treated it with more care than I had ever imagined giving hair, trying to keep it out of ponytails and barrettes that might compromise my hair’s integrity, suffering the heat on my neck as the spring grew warm.  I had my best friend style it on the big day, since the professional stylists I’d auditioned could not deal with my curls and felt the best solution was to straighten them.  But my hair does not go straight—it merely turns into hay.  I imagined, during the reception, that I looked like Cinderella or some Disney version of a princess.  But then it was back to ponytails and breakage, fighting with myself every morning.  Now I am back to where I was when I met my husband, back to the beginning.
My husband comes home late, having been detained by a chatty coworker and then the downtown traffic that, while ultimately tame, he daily bemoans.  He doesn’t exclaim when he sees me; he goes through the mail, goes to the bathroom, comments on all the hair in the sink, which I promise I’ll clean up, though he doesn’t demand it.  He tells me my hair looks good and gives me a good, long kiss.  We go out to dinner.

Note: This essay was originally written over two years ago for a nonfiction form and theory class (in imitation of “On Shaving a Beard” by Philip Lopate), and yet yesterday, after taking the scissors to my head once again, I felt exactly the same way. My husband and I even went out to dinner.

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