Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I Cut My Hair

If you have ever seen me or met me, or if you’ve ever seen a picture of me, you know that my hair has always been long.  That might not be the first adjective that comes to your mind, but it’s probably one of them.  In recent years, more colorful adjectives have been used to describe my hair, such as “stringy” and “coarse”.  I complained of this texture to my doctor—what a difficult job this woman has, keeping me healthy—and she patted my knee.  “The hormones are leaving your body,” she said sympathetically.

I have no memory of hair care before the age of ten; up to that time, my mother was in charge, and she kept my hair short.  After that, however, one of us decided that my hair should be long, so my fourth grade picture shows me in barrettes, and my fifth grade picture features my first ponytail.  In sixth grade—1980 to be exact—all the girls were getting “layers”.  I had no understanding of “layers” as they pertained to hair; I knew we sometimes wore layers of clothing, I knew about chocolate layer cake, but beyond that, everything in my world was apparently solid and indivisible.  As for hair, it was either long or short, straight or curly, and sometimes someone would have “bangs”, but bangs just came down over your forehead, and then the rest of your hair was either short or long.  There was also talk of “feathered hair”, which I understood that Scott Baio and Farrah Fawcett had, and that made sense because I could definitely see the “feathers”.  But how hair ended up looking like that was beyond me—I had never used a curling iron or hair spray, my older sisters were grown and gone, and my mother got perms.  Nevertheless, I  clearly remember the day I walked across town from our house to the hair salon with my mother’s money in my pocket for an appointment to get my hair cut like everybody else’s.  I didn’t know what kind of magic the haircut lady was going to do, and I was both excited and nervous.

I did not know what to ask for when I got to the salon that day.  My dark brown hair was long and straight, all the wave weighed down.  When the lady asked me how I wanted it, I’m sure I said something like, “Long in back, shorter in front.”  I probably said something about bangs, but probably not “layered” because again, since I could not see any layers on anybody’s head—wasn’t hair just hair?  A bunch of hair growing all at once out of your head?—I probably didn’t ask for them, or feathers either.  In truth, I don’t remember what I said or what I asked for.  I only remember trying to fix it the next day and ending up with what looked like two different hairstyles: short, parted down the middle and curled back in the front and on the sides, with two feet of long straight hair hanging down my back. 

This absolutely did not look like my friends’ hair at all.  Everybody else’s hair matched: the front blended into the back.  Nobody had sausage rolls of hair on their forehead, certainly not clumps over their ears like Bozo.  Even Bozo’s hair was at least uniform; mine was short and wavy in the front and on the sides, but long and straight in the back.  I was using a curling iron for the first time in my life; this was obvious to anyone who saw me.  No matter what I did, time and again I went to school with big floppy wings of hair coming off the front sides of my head, and a sheet of glossy dark hair hanging down my back.  I remember going downhill skiing with my sixth-grade class that year, and wearing a beanie hat pulled down over my forehead and ears.  When I took that hat off after coming inside the chalet the first time, my hair exploded—except for the two feet of long, shiny hair I’d kept in a ponytail.

I could write forever about trying to fix that particular haircut, how my hair finally grew or was cut so that the front blended into the back, how I finally got it right in time for my own perms and big hair and high school.  I could talk about being given a free zig-zag perm in college by a local chain salon in exchange for posing like a mannequin in the window, motionless, for four hours one Saturday afternoon at the mall.  That perm fried my hair so badly down to the roots that I took to snipping the crusty parts off the back, essentially reversing the first bad 6th grade haircut so that my hair grew long and glossy in front, but cropped and jagged in back.  I was about 21 when I finally developed a smooth cap of dark, shiny hair again—my mother’s long-lost Mexican boy-child returned from third grade—but this recovery was short-lived.  Soon I would move to Arizona where in 1991, the top layer of my hair started to burn off naturally.

And there was that word again: “layer”.  I knew by looking and could not deny that the top layer of my hair—the one that everybody could see—was light brown and crunchy, while the rest of my hair, the hair underneath, was soft and dark.  I felt that the sun must be doing this to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.  I kept my hair long and trimmed the ends constantly, in hopes that the icky outer stuff would grow out.  I conditioned the outside of my hair with expensive products, then with beer and eggs.  I slimed my hair with leave-in products, leaving it falsely shiny.  At home, I would gather together all the damaged hair on top and in the back and hold it to the side, just for a minute, to gaze upon the healthier, glossier hair underneath, always wondering why I couldn’t get all of my hair to grow like that, most especially on the outside.

And yes, there were times when people tried to help me.  My best friend from high school has tried to reason with me for thirty years to get a haircut—do something—but I always refused, saying I would when I could grow a full head of healthy hair.  Hair stylists have made suggestions and asked me what I wanted, but I’ve always said I like it long, so just a trim.  In this way, with some days better than others, years turned to decades and I continued to sport a dry, fuzzy, light-brown coating of outer hair on my head, hiding the fresh, wavy, dark-brown hair underneath.

But something changed this year.  Turning 47—the sketchy prime number between the evenness of 46 and 48—has made me bolder.  I had promised myself before the summer started that if my hair situation did not improve by summer’s end, all the unhealthy stuff was getting cut off before fall.  But 47 has also made me more impatient—there is no time to waste because the hormones are leaving my body—so out came the scissors again, the snip-snip of dead hair.  This time I wasn’t trying to remove 45 degree lightning bolts permed into two feet of long hair, a geometric afro; I was removing what amounted to a large worn-down Brillo pad.  I didn’t grab it and cut it off like one of my sisters kindly suggested I do a couple months ago back in Minnesota, right after she asked me if my feet could get any bigger; rather, I cut small pieces off the outside wherever I noticed crusty parts sticking out, much like if a child tried to cut a thousand splendid wads of gum from her hair.

Interestingly, I remained calm through this process, even optimistic, because I could see that underneath my pale, frizzy outer coating of hair there was quite a bit of smooth, dark, healthy hair.  This had always been the case, all the way through my life, but I had never figured out how to make it look like that on the outside.  I was determined not to give up or retreat this time, and I obviously wasn’t going to be able to wait until fall. 

Over the course of two days, I cut my own hair.  I would cut some in the morning, go about my day, then perch on the sink in the bathroom before bed, and cut some more.  At first, the hair that fell from my head was brittle and dry—the icky stuff—but soon, the hair I was cutting off was dark and rich.  I knew that was the good stuff, and I wanted to retain as much of that as possible.  It was time to see a professional.

The first hairdresser I saw was aghast.  “There are so many short layers!” she said.  I had no idea what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant.  “Look,” she said, lifting a piece of hair off the top of my head with her thumb and index finger, like it was poop.  “This is so short, and this,” she picked up another piece of hair, “is twice as long.  It’s all different lengths.”  I still didn’t know if this was decidedly bad, or if I might still be commended for taking such a naughty risk.

“I just want my hair to look healthy,” I said.  “Do what you can to even it up.”

That first day at the salon, I learned what it means to have layered hair: you just get the top layer trimmed short and blended into the rest.  I learned that you shouldn’t try to cut the bumps out yourself because those bumps are where your curls curl and your waves wave.  I finally understood that for my first 46 years, what I wanted was long, layered hair, which nobody could ever give me because I always insisted that I didn’t want layers.  My personality is such that I’m sure I put the fear into hair cutters across America, sitting confident and smug in their chairs, laying down the law: cut my hair, but don’t cut it.  I had given stylists permission to trim the ends of my hair, but demanded they not touch the careful nest of tortured fibers on top and in back, for which I was forever waiting to grow out.  I owe apologies at Great Clips across the western states, and thanks to those stylists who I assume took the plunge and gave me layers anyway when I had insisted they not, leaving me with the two or three good hair months I’ve had in my lifetime.

I made four trips to the salon last week, interspersed between the little trims I continued to give myself at home, still oblivious to the physics of hair.  When all was said and done, I had a pixie, and I loved it. 

While there is a certain security in having long hair, like a baby with her blanket, unless you are a pilgrim baby who prefers coarse rugs made from buffalo hide, you would not have kept my long hair for as long as I did.  Why did I keep it that way?  Ignorance, stubbornness, and fear.  If someone ever suggested I cut my hair to frame my face, I paid no attention because obviously they didn’t realize how much my low-maintenance natural hairdo meant to me, even though it routinely took fifteen minutes every morning to simply get it under control.  A “frame” of hair would most certainly get in my eyes, too, so it was always out of the question.  I was loath to blow-dry, curl, or straighten my hair; I had to be steeled for a week with no electricity at a moment’s notice.  I could not risk having a hair style that looked funny when I removed my astronaut’s helmet.  I had to be Ms. Natural Hair U.S.A. even if it meant having the suckiest natural hair in the world.

So why did I finally cut it? 

I wanted hair that I could run my fingers through, like a man does when he’s frustrated.  I wanted to rake my hand through tousled locks and look rakish, not homeless.  I wanted to go to the gym and lift weights without having to look left or right every time I put my head against the bench because my hair clip was back there.  I wanted to do everything a regular guy does.

But the main reason I cut my hair is that I wanted my outsides to match my insides.  It was time.  I have long walked this planet looking disheveled, not quite sober, not quite insane.  I have tried to look presentable—to simply pass as someone who takes care of herself, who basically knows what she’s doing—knowing full well that if anyone could see my guts, they would be about as inspired as my surgeon was when my fatty liver photo-bombed my gall bladder during emergency surgery a few years back.

The hair I had—in all its scraggly length, hiding the shiny happy hair underneath—was a perfect match for feeling very messy on the inside. The bad hair was more tolerable when I was feeling dispirited, but now with my spirit up—floating midair, untethered, like a little girl at a magic show—only good hair will do.

And it’s not an illusion; it’s real.