“It’s just hair,” is the thing you tell yourself in the moment you believe it’s anything but just hair. You repeat it like a mantra over and over while you white knuckle the steering wheel on the way to the salon. You tap those three words against your thigh until the skin under your leggings turns a plum shade of blue. Until you almost believe it. Until you are sitting there, staring back at yourself in a mirror that somehow always makes you look like a tired hippo no matter how much make up you cake on.
But it’s not just hair.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve found some perverse, unwieldy pleasure in subverting gender norms. I was born like that, I think — defiant. Not a loud defiant, not a defiant you could unmask by looking at me, but a quiet, reserved-but-unwilling-to-conform kind of defiant.
Growing up, I liked the idea of being a girl but also being Luke Skywalker and there was never a line between those two things, never a divide, never any conscious thought that they could be — or were supposed to be — mutually exclusive. I was a tree-climber. I was scabby-kneed. One year I was a bride for Halloween and the next I was a pirate. I had a box full of Barbies, I played with action figures and GI Joes. In first grade, my friend and I wrote a play starring me as the princess and then I’d go home and shoot arrows at the basement wall or climb in the car and go to karate.
I was little when I cut my hair short the first time. I was cute and precocious and wiry enough that my prepubescent body and short hair made people do a double-take in the bathroom, made other girls tell me I wasn’t supposed to be there. But for the most part, it wasn’t a thing. I told people I was a girl and that was usually that.
Then I grew my hair out because that’s what girls do and I was entering that awkward phase where it’s safer to fit in than to make waves or to wander too far from conventional norms. And I liked long hair. I liked when it was long-long, when it reached the bottom of my back and I could tame it in one long braid down my spine. I liked curling it and going to homecoming, I liked the way it looked under a baseball hat in the summer and a beanie in the winter. I liked how I felt pretty when I wore it down, but I liked it more when it was pulled back, long but contained, a tail, a bun.
And through a good chunk of my adolescence and early young adulthood, I had various lengths of long hair and a nagging, twitchy desire to cut it all off again.
So a month after my twenty-sixth birthday last year, I finally did.
And, god, I felt sexy. I felt me. I felt like coming home. I felt myself reaching backward in time and pulling out that little girl who felt like she had to shove herself into a box she never felt comfortable inside from wherever she’d been hiding all these years, holding her fiercely in my arms and telling her, “you, my rebellious, my strong, fierce, incredible girl, can be whoever you want to be.”
My face was suddenly uncovered and I liked what was underneath. For the first time in a while, I looked in the mirror and I saw myself looking back at me, and not because this haircut looked any better on me or my last one looked any worse, but because this was me. Here I am, I thought. And that makeup I only ever wore in the comfort of my own home when I was having an impromptu dance-off session with me, myself, and I, started making public appearances at the grocery store and at work, and the next thing I knew I was a girl with short hair who also knew how to rock some killer eye shadow. It was like opening the lid on a jar I’d kept sealed tight for too long. Here I am, I thought over and over again. Here I am.
However, I am still the girl who wants to fit in fighting wars with the girl who wants to exist outside of checkboxes. And I love my short hair and I’m having so much fun with my short hair and it has given me more confidence than any dress or lipstick could ever, and I don’t plan to grow it out again on this side of thirty.
But this short hair has made me question a lot too, made me question what it means to be feminine or masculine, made me wonder why we allow ourselves to be pressed inside make-believe boxes, why we make ourselves small inside invisible walls. In inhabiting a less feminine look, I’ve actually never felt more feminine, more me, dragging my hidden rebellion out into the daylight. Here I am, I say to the sun, a little boyish and silly and dancing. Here I am.
Sometimes I feel like I’m sharing a secret wink with the universe. There you are. All that kept you from recognizing yourself was two feet of dead skin cells. Imagine that.
It’s never just hair. There’s expression in hair, rebellion, history and years of oppression for people whose hair doesn’t fit conventional norms (long, straight, blonde; not short, not curly, not kinky, not natural). It’s fun to fight convention in visibly rebellious ways, so much more fun than you can imagine, fun to build a new box out of all the fucks you don’t give and slide right into your new capacious home where the space is infinite and yours.
It’s not just hair. It’s so much better.