How Cutting My Hair Freed Me

After my first semester of college, I decided to cut my hair. I’d spent years fantasizing about the short haircut I have right now but it took me so long to cross that bridge. Many people may think, “Why not just cut it? It’s just hair.” For many demographics, though, hair is not just hair. My first major haircut, as a nonbinary woman of color, was a lot more than just a change in appearance.     

First, as women, hair holds importance. With today’s impossibly high beauty standards bombarding us at every moment, the pressure to meet them is high. The expectation of women is that they maintain long locks of hair. “Bright” even did a piece titled “18 Girls Who Were Brave Enough to Get a Short Haircut and It Was a Great Decision.” When was the last time you heard a man hailed as brave for his hair styling choice? The article by Bright doesn’t explain why these women are brave, but if you’re a woman, you know why. A short haircut is brave because men prefer long hair. Although I’ve never sought sexual or romantic attention from men, my hair length is still relevant. In our patriarchal society, men are more often than not in charge and whether or not they are aware of it, their sexual preferences affect decisions made in other settings (academic, professional, daily life, etc.) Wanting to be the best woman I could be and remain within societal norms, I kept my hair long.

Short hair also holds certain implications about sexuality that I did not want attached to me. Women with short hair are quickly labeled “lesbians” and this was not something I was comfortable with. I do not identify as lesbian but even if I did, my haircut has nothing to do with my sexuality. This connection between lesbians and short hair comes from the place as the issue of bravery. If we as women aren’t aiming to please men, we are either brave or lesbians. Although the assumption that I was attracted to women was correct, it wasn’t tied to my hairstyle and I didn’t want such an intimate part of my life broadcasted. There was no complicated reason I wanted my hair short but avoiding assumptions about my sexuality was a reason to keep it long. This stigma around short hair and lesbians made me feel that, by cutting my hair, I was slapping a label on myself and putting myself in a box that I didn't want to be in.

Every aspect of my identity seems to have some important tie to my hair but the strongest tie will always be my race. I am mixed race --black and white -- and hair is very important in the black community. A great documentary to watch to understand the role hair plays within the black community is “Good Hair” directed by Chris Rock. The documentary highlights the way hair can represent where you lie in a hierarchy, and the money and time it demands.

When I was in third grade two black women named Monde and Noni from Zambia came to live with us for college, and they introduced me to this culture. They were the first black people, besides my two adopted sisters, whom I’d ever had a relationship with. Although they tried to hide it, they were pretty disappointed in the way we’d been taking care of our hair. I was adopted by two white people so this was my first introduction into why my hair as a black person was so important. After that realization, the impact my hair had made on my life became clearer. My hair has always been the “blackest” thing about me. I was raised white when it came to everything else. Everything included my parents, extended family, entertainment, religion, schools, and even the state I grew up in--Utah--and anything else you can think of. All of this led me to feel white. I identify strongly with white people and being ‘light-skinned’ drew me even closer to the whiteness in me, but my hair was always a reminder of my blackness. In my eyes, I had long curly hair, yet to those around me I had an afro. My hair was ALWAYS commented on when I met someone, no matter the context, it always received a comment. It became a part of who I was for many people, but never for me. On top of having my hair extremely attached to my identity, the interactions surrounding my hair always left me feeling like an animal at a petting zoo. From a young age, people always wanted to touch my hair as it was a novelty to them. The vast majority of times people touched my hair, they didn’t asked for permission. I hated my hair; even if the attention was framed as positive, the interactions involving my hair felt negative. These interactions were extremely damaging because of how closely connected my identity and my hair had become.

When I finally decided I was actually going to cut my hair, I realized the impact my hair had made on me. It tied me to my femininity but in a way that made little sense to me. Having long hair connected me to what I had been told by mainstream narratives was feminine. Femininity isn’t so easily defined and cutting my hair allowed me to explore and find my own definition and expression of femininity. Cutting my hair also came at a time when I realized I was comfortable with my sexuality. It’s impossible to determine someone’s sexuality based off a haircut but if someone guessed I like women from my haircut, I no longer cared. I was comfortable with my sexuality and no longer felt the need to suppress parts of me that could allude to that.

Connecting to my race in such a white environment has always been a struggle for me. Finding ways to connect to other black people when I feel so disconnected from my own blackness has been a difficult thing to navigate. When I cut my hair, I was able to connect to other parts of being black that didn’t have to do with my hair. I was also much more secure in my blackness once I shortened my hair. With an easier hairstyle to maintain, the more confident I felt in regard to the quality of my haircare. Better quality hair meant a better standing in the “hair”archy built within the black community. The most important shift was that I was no longer having these “zoo-like” experiences. My hair was no longer a negative aspect of my life.

Having hair so different from everyone was a very “othering” experience growing up. The ties with my identity complicated my relationship with my hair. Cutting my hair shifted my experience and helped my relationship with myself. My hair has been short for two years now. It’s at that length now where usually I’d be rushing in for a haircut, I don’t feel pressure to do anything though. Whether I want to grow it out or keep it short, that's my decision. That’s the freedom short hair gave me. My hair is important to me and I’m now able appreciate the ways it makes me different without feeling “other.”