“I want to cut it off,” I said. “Almost all of it. Like this.”
I showed the hairdresser a picture of Emma Watson’s new cut. It was 2010 and Emma was rocking a pixie. She glanced over at my father, who was sitting in the waiting room aimlessly flipping through a magazine. He smiled at us when he saw us looking.
“How does he feel about this?” She said. “Does he know?”
I shrugged, “Yeah. Does it matter, though?”
She raised her thick black eyebrows at me and laughed, “No, honey. It doesn’t.”
“I’m supposed to play a boy in my school musical, that’s why,” I said jumping into the salon chair. “I want to fit the part.”
I was in 7th grade. My middle school was doing a production of the Music Man and even though I didn’t get the part I originally wanted. I was excited to be in the show, but more excited that it gave me an excuse to do something I’d always wanted.
If I were honest with her at that moment, I would have said, “I just want to be myself.”
It took her about 15 minutes to razor slice through my thin strawberry blonde hair. It was slightly curly, always tangled. I had a terrible habit of chewing on it and an even worse habit of flipping it every which way — an odd compulsion I’d picked up somehow. As I watched it fall to the floor, it felt incredibly right. From that point on, I have never considered growing it back out again. To me, it was a symbol of my personality; a representation of my difference.
By the time I cut my hair, I already knew I was queer, although I didn’t know how to verbalize it and didn’t cut my hair because of it. I just felt different than the other girls around me, although I didn’t know why. I had ADHD, which made me feel separate and misunderstood. I was incredibly restless and, naturally, bored out of my mind by my small suburban life. I couldn’t understand how everyone around me was so content sitting in their little white town in northeast Ohio, and I felt guilty and wrong for not being happy there. Once, in middle school, I drew a clown face over some girls picture on a locker in the hallway. It wasn’t out of malice, although I don’t understand why I did it at all. I was just bored. I had nothing to do but cause trouble. I had all of these thoughts and feelings about everything, and I didn’t know where to put them. I wanted to talk about politics and literature and art. I had no interest in makeup and wasn’t good at it if I tired. I did not want to go to football games on Friday nights or listen to people whisper about each other in the hallways. I didn’t feel connected to anyone around me until high school, and even then, still felt like I didn’t belong.
Most of all, I did not feel that I fit the image of what a girl was supposed to be in a small town in northeast Ohio. I was loud and opinionated. I wasn’t pretty in the traditional sense and wasn’t willing to try to be. I didn’t let other people push me around — not even adults. I wasn’t interested in anything men had to say to me and didn’t particularly care what they thought of it — all men, under all circumstances. All of my friends in high school were male except for a couple of acquaintances and my best friend, who is still my best friend to this day. Even then, I tried to fit in where I could with boys but always found myself in uncomfortable positions. I had radical ideas and opinions about things. I had ambition. The people around me, except for a select few, did not.
Having an all-male group of friends highlighted the stark differences in how I was treated because of my gender. I was repeatedly pulled out of classes in school and ridiculed for doing the same thing as my male peers, but never changed the behavior. In every aspect of my life, from church to teen groups and clubs, this was always the case. I spoke to the men in my life like I was automatically their equal, regardless of my age. More than once, I was labeled aggressive by teachers, men and women, for saying the same thing to a teacher, word for word, as my male friends in the same class in the same situation — something that my male peers openly recognized but never defended. I repeatedly told that my behavior was “unladylike.” In every situation, I was “problematic.” I was “aggressive.” I was “unreasonable” or “inappropriate.” Looking back, I realize that I often wasn’t. I was just a girl with short hair who acted unapologetically like a boy and did not accept anything less.
Ironically, a lot of the traits that I was ridiculed for in high school have made me a successful woman. I can deal with a lot of complicated tasks at once and often enjoy handling ambitious projects. I’m straightforward and independent. I do not accept negativity from others and do not tolerate being spoken down to under any circumstances. I do not take other people’s disrespect. Confrontation doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I am unapologetically comfortable in my body and with my sexuality. The ability to push through projects and people despite circumstances and opinions has brought me a lot of success. The same “stubborn behavior” that caused problems when I was younger has landed me scholarships and saved my life during hospitalizations. The restlessness that made me act out has produced high grades and fantastic opportunities. All of my problematic behavior and tendencies, my differences, have made me competitive and confident in adulthood.
Looking back, cutting my hair was the first real choice I made in the way that I wanted to look and who I wanted to be — one that would stick with me for the next eight years. I cut my hair at a time when I felt small and uncertain about myself; back when I felt like my qualities made me too different. At the time, people didn’t understand my choice, but as I got older, it became a part of me. People saw my difference right away. They also grew to respect it. I grew into my differences and decided that they were important to me.
It will only be in the next couple of weeks, the day I shave my head before my chemotherapy treatment begins for my bone marrow transplant, that my haircut will change again. It feels extremely poetic. In my mind, I became a teenager when I cut my hair the first time, which carried me to where I am now at twenty. When I change my hair again, it’s about more than hair. It’s a profoundly symbolic action. I’m getting rid of the parts of myself that carried me into adulthood — from my hair to my blood to my disease. I’m ending a period in my life when my short hair represented my differences. Now I no longer need it. The last eight years have been the gradual carving of a person. Perhaps this is the real start of that person’s life.
Who knows? Maybe that person has long hair.