3 Times My Hair Helped Me Open Up About My Mental Health

We’ve all seen those scenes. The ones where a distraught character takes a pair of scissors to their hair. It happens with both men and women on screen, but I feel like it’s become more of a trope attached to women. It’s come to the point where as TV critic Patricia Grisafi pointed out, DIY haircuts have become an easy go-to visual to convey “a character’s deteriorating mental state.”

So, even though I’m aware that it borders on being a trope, I still use my hair to cope and talk about mental health all the time. It’s become sort of a bit with friends and family. I bring up that I want to cut it all off or bleach it until it all falls off, and they rush to stop me. And we all laugh about it. Laugh at how I’ve done it before, and probably will do it again no matter what they say. But also, they just check-in; ask why I want to snip or dye it so badly. And it forces me to think about it and check-in with myself.

I’ve gone through a lot of hair colors and cuts. And a lot of them have served as a means for conversations and reflections about mental health that I don’t think would’ve happened otherwise. Here’s just three of those times.

1. The first time I dyed it

The first time I dyed my hair bright purple spiraled into the time I challenged my high school’s dress code, which spiraled into one of the toughest mental health periods of my life. The whole dispute with my high school’s dress code spanned three years. It was rough. I didn’t anticipate how ugly things could get over hair color and skirt length. And I didn’t anticipate how much emotional labor would be involved and how it would change the dynamics in my life, both at school and back at home.

It got the point where I just didn’t want to talk about it, with anyone. But between all the meetings with administration and uniform infractions, friends and I would dye my hair together. We’d have different sections of my hair in our hands, smearing on whatever new shade of purple I wanted to try. Sometimes we’d also dye small sections of their hair, choose dyes together and watch their hair soak in the color.

It became like a conversation about how I was feeling. I would say I have to re-dye, and they’d jump to help. I still think about how it feels to have friends dye my hair, the community of people literally holding me in their hands, when I remind myself it’s okay to lean on people.

2. The time I really wanted a pixie cut

The urge came from a number of places. I had just re-watched Roman Holiday. I was nearing the end of the whole dress code dispute. There was a girl on a subway platform with the cutest pixie cut. I convinced everyone who was skeptical to just let me be, everyone that is, except my mom.

Mental health is never easy to talk about, but there’s a specific stigma around it with Asian parents. This is also when I started going to therapy to talk about my relationship to my mom. It was very uncomfortable. She’d drive me there, pretending like she was just driving me to some kind of school club, offering to stop at Tim Hortons for maple dip doughnuts. I’d go into a quiet room, vent about her and re-examine our relationship. An hour or so later, she would pick me up with a maple dip doughnut because even though I said I was okay, she thought I’d be hungry. We’d go home listening to the radio and talking about everything but mental health.

So, when I debated the pixie cut with my mom, it was always a loaded conversation. I’d say it’s just what I needed and wanted. She’d hold my face in her hands and say she just can’t picture her daughter with that short of hair. I’d insist. She’d hold on tighter. But in the end, like with therapy, she never stopped me. She knew, in some way, she couldn’t anymore. When I came home with my hair freshly cut, stopping just above my ears, she sighed. But she also started asking regularly how I was feeling about our relationship.

3. The time I gave myself bangs at 5 AM

I don’t know why I wanted them so bad. I’d look at my face and just think, yeah, I really need bangs. My hair was actually finally at a nice place after months of dealing with damage and bad color. Everything in my life was totally fine. But in the back of my mind was this urge to just give myself bangs. It was all I could talk about with my friends.

Literally no one in my life wanted me to have bangs, especially not if they were bangs I’d cut myself. Specifically, I went around in circles about it with a friend I’ve known for over a decade now. Long-distance with her back in Taiwan, we’d sit around at what was early afternoon for one of us and late at night for the other, and just debate the bangs. She’d express concern, I’d appreciate her concern for my hair, but I also knew I was going to give myself bangs regardless.

One night, unable to sleep and feeling unsettled with everything but not knowing why, I just gave myself bangs. I regretted it immediately after I made the last snip. I had to go to an 8 am class soon after. I hid it from that friend for a week. When I finally showed them to her, she unexpectedly liked them. I kept the bangs for a couple months. I still don’t know why this haircut or moment with my friend has stuck in my mind. But I think a lot about the back and forth, the way she always checked in about the bangs and more, and I really appreciate her for it. Even though ultimately I defied her and just did whatever I wanted.