When I was a baby, my hair was very blonde. It grew into golden ringlets when I was a toddler.
I have very early memories of having to duck my head under a sink every morning, to wet my head and take the frizz out of my curls.
It started to go darker as I got older, and it did it in streaks, which it continued to do until it was a full brown. For my early childhood years, I had chameleon hair – it was blonde ringlets and brown waves all at once. The darker it got, the straighter it got, and it did it in bits and pieces.
My mother was fond of putting my hair into two very tight braids, right behind my ears. I hated the braids because they were always uncomfortably tight, but also because whenever she was angry, she used them like they were handles – something she could grab and drag me around with.
My grandma (my father’s mother) wanted to try to help keep my hair curly, so she would take me to a hairdresser and get it cut shorter, to see if having less weight on it would help it stay curly. At least, that’s what she told me; in retrospect, I wonder if she was trying to keep my mother from grabbing me by the hair. The problem was that whenever I came back home with short hair, it would make my mother incredibly angry, and that never ended well for me.
But my mother also missed my baby curls; her solution was cheap home perms, which invariably went about as well as those things ever do. Which is to say, I spent a few months/years with a mess of horribly frizzy hair. Combine that with braces and big 80’s glasses, and that makes for some hysterically awful pictures of me as a child.
My hair was always something that other people fought over. I daydreamed about cutting it all off; I wondered if that would help it grow back in with curls.
By the time I was in high school, my hair was past my shoulders. It was brown with the occasional natural highlights, and while mostly straight, it had a tendency to get wavy/stringy. It’s always been very thin and fine, like baby hair.
My first paying job was as the shampoo girl in a fancy hair salon downtown. I got really good at washing hair and giving head massages. But I also got really good free haircuts. That was the first time I chose to cut my hair above-the-ears short. It was short on the sides and back, but longer on top, which let my hair get back some of a springy wave.
When I met my first girlfriend, we both had a fair amount of hair; while we were dating, she buzzed it all off, which I thought was awesome. But it was one night not long after that, that we were threatened on the street by some homophobes who called us names. We ran, and weren’t hurt, but that incident left a deep imprint on me.
When I was in college, I cut it chin-length and started dyeing it, and my hair — still thin and baby fine — didn’t really like that.
And then, one fateful day in 1998 when I was living in Atlanta, I started to dye my hair while I was watching a movie. I got distracted and left the dye on too long. My hair was fried. It was done. For a few weeks I tried everything – hot oil conditioners, protein treatments, everything. No matter what I did, it was breaking off and falling out and would crackle when it moved.
That’s when I first decided to buzz my off. I bought a wig then, too, with the intent of wearing it until it all grew out. (Side note: it was a terrible wig, looked horrible on me, and I had no idea how to take care of them.) But the man I was dating at the time, bless him, said I was so damn hot without hair, and that gave my insecure self courage to keep it that way. Women in grocery stores would tell me how great it looked, and how they envied me: it kept me cooler in the heat of Atlanta and was the ultimate no-maintenance ‘do. Just wash’n’go.
But the response wasn’t all positive.
One day, two teenage girls behind me in a store were snickering at me; I whirled on them and said, “Have you never heard of the effects of chemotherapy?” They stopped, gaped, and I think one of them looked like she was about to cry. I turned around and left without another word. No, I didn’t have cancer, but I wanted them to think twice the next time they tried to judge a woman without hair. I’d already had plenty of women with head scarves tell me they envied my courage, and couldn’t wait until their lost hair had grown back.
One night, when a friend of mine was drunk, he started calling me a skinhead and a nazi, and wouldn’t drop the accusations. We never spoke again. I would get some nasty stares from strangers, but I was never sure if it was because of my hair or the birthmark on my neck (the one that people sometimes think is a hickey).
I’m still not sure what some people on the street are thinking when they look at me with abject horror or disgust, but it’s always been clear that people have strong opinions about the appearances of strangers, especially when hair is involved.
There were times when I would try to grow my hair out, and in the early 2000s it got down past my chin again. It varied in lengths, but I noticed that whenever I got upset or scared about something, I would have the urge to cut it all off again; I felt safer with no hair because it meant that no one could grab me by the hair again. Not that I was in a position where anyone I knew would grab my hair, but this is just one of the remnants of my abusive childhood. The scared little girl in my psyche feels safest with no hair.
But for the last few months, I feel like some of those looks I’ve been getting from strangers have been ramping up. As the homophobia in this country ramps up, I feel the stares getting worse. I wonder how much of that is actually not people making assumptions of my orientation, but assuming that I’m part of some fucking white power bullshit nonsense. The old skinhead thing.
Being afraid of how other people feel about my hair is nothing new to me. It’s something I have literally experienced since I was a toddler, in varying forms.
But here’s the thing: hair grows, and can be cut. It can be covered with scarves and wigs, and it can be left to blow in the breeze. It’s just hair. While I know other people — friends and strangers alike — make a big deal about it, it’s my hair, and I know that it grows. I know that when I feel safe doing so again, that shit’s coming all the way off again.
In other words: it’s all temporary. This, too, shall pass. I just want to stay safe until it does.