Cecilia Lee

The first time I changed my hairstyle was in the third grade when I decided, against my better judgement, to get bangs. The cut not only made me look like a 12-year-old version of my father, but it gave me lice, too. As I cried on the playground while other kids mocked me and called me names like “mushroom,” I vowed that I would never make such a bold hair decision again. 

In fact, the experience had come to scar me so deeply, it was not until my sophomore year of high school that I even considered cutting my hair shorter than mid-back length. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the embarrassment I was experiencing came from the fact that I had defied the gender norms that had been pushed on me: Girls are supposed to have long hair, boys are supposed to have short hair. 

From that point on, I always felt uncomfortable about my hair. My thick Jewish curls made it difficult to manage, especially if it was long, but I would rather deal with a head full of frizzy hair than risk being made fun of. All this time though, I found myself staring in the mirror, tying back my hair and positioning it in such a way that it looked like I had a pixie cut. All this time, I kept my desire for short hair under tight wraps, hoping that one day, I might finally gain the courage to chop it all off.

In navigating the intricate landscape of hair identity, individuals often find solace and empowerment in exploring alternative styles that resonate with their true selves. For those harboring secret aspirations for unconventional hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, the journey towards self-acceptance may involve overcoming deeply ingrained fears and societal expectations. Learning how to do dreads represents more than just a physical transformation; it symbolizes a profound embrace of individuality and a rejection of limiting stereotypes. By embracing the courage to pursue hairstyles that defy convention, individuals can embark on a liberating journey towards self-discovery, reclaiming ownership of their identity and celebrating the beauty of diversity in all its forms.

That day finally came last Wednesday, when, after years of waiting and internalized shame, I fought back by shaving the bottom half of my head.

The process of deciding to cut my hair may have taken a long time, but choosing a new style was infinitely more difficult. I wanted to find something that wouldn’t make me look like Toad, but that could also express my masculine and feminine sides that I felt were equally important to my individuality. I went through a mental list of all the powerful, yet stubborn, female characters I looked up to for inspiration. Captain Marvel in Endgame? That wouldn’t go with my curly hair. The Korra bi-bob? My hair would be too frizzy. Morgan the Tik Tok barista? That wouldn’t work with my facial structure. 

In the end, I settled for a more subtle Sokka-style undercut that could be covered when I put my hair down. It would be the best of both worlds. If I was feeling more masculine, I could put my hair up and let the undercut shine, but if I was feeling more feminine, I could let my curls fall. So, I went on line, found a COVID-safe salon in Los Angeles, and booked the appointment.

For the next two weeks, I couldn’t sleep. I found myself constantly anxious about the appointment. Not only was it the first time in years I would be drastically changing my style, but it would be my first time going out since moving back home from school in November. I lay awake at night with the same internal monologue running through my head. 

Q: Why are you so afraid of shaving your head? 

A: Well, obviously I don’t want to look like my dad. 

Q: Okay, yes, but why else? 

A: Um, I guess I’m just afraid that if I cut my hair short people will think I look weird. 

Q: Okay, but who are you shaving your head for? 

A: Me? 

Q: And who gets to decide what you consider beautiful? 

A: Me?

Q: Yup! So why exactly are you afraid to cut your hair, again? 

A: Good point, I guess I’m shaving my head!

On a hot Wednesday afternoon, I stepped into Folklore, a queer salon in the LA suburbs. I attribute the success of my haircut to the decision to go to a queer barbershop. My hairstylist, David, perfectly understood the unique gendered aspects of hair and presentation, and he neither judged me, nor questioned my decision to choose a haircut that would allow me to explore my masculine and feminine sides.

Before he shaved my head, he double checked that I wanted to go through with this. 

“Are you sure you want to cut off your hair?” My tentative “yes” was all he needed for the go ahead.

As he glided the razor along my scalp, I felt a wave of fear mixed with hesitant joy wash over me. Unable to free my hands from the barber cape, I watched as tears fell onto my lap. In those tears was the relief I could now express after years of self-doubt and fear. Some people might think I am being dramatic about a haircut. But in such a heavily gendered society, it can take years, even lifetimes for individuals to unlearn the social cues that define gender and gender norms. For me, I feared that if I lost my hair, I would sacrifice my femininity, but in reality, it allowed me to find it outside of what others thought I should look like.

Gender does not have to be tied to hair. Personhood and self-expression are much more important, and for myself, I saw the evolution of my hair as part of my journey of self-acceptance. So, if you’re thinking about changing your look … GO DO IT!

Marissa Blum | marissa.blum@yale.edu