Cecilia Lee

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve gone through more hairstyles than I can count on one hand. Starting off 2020 with manic-pixie-dream-girlish bangs (think Ramona Flowers or Zooey Deschanel), I quickly cycled through stages of growing my hair out, cutting large chunks of it off, and dying it, then rinsing and repeating (pun very much intended).

It is a perhaps unfortunate but rather inevitable fact that appearance shapes the way we are perceived by those around us, especially as first impressions are being formed. To me, hair has long been a sort of cultural signifier, as I attempt to wrangle my appearance to match the categories and labels I assign to myself over time. First came the “bisexual bob,” then a bolder, shorter chop intended to match that of Robin from “Stranger Things” or Casey from “Atypical.” As I grappled with my sexuality towards the end of high school, I looked towards characters I identified with in media for inspiration and solace, and hoped that by emulating their appearance, I would be seen — really seen — by friends and family. Naively, assuming both mind-reading capabilities and extensive knowledge of queer pop culture on their part, I almost thought I wouldn’t actually ever have to come out to the people closest to me, or that when I did, it wouldn’t be received as much of a surprise.

Although I was unfortunately mistaken, I continue to view my hair as a vessel for communication. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about my hair and its effect on my gender presentation. Over the many long hours I’ve spent alone during this pandemic, I’ve found myself increasingly consumed by questions about gender identity. As is the case for many millennials and Gen Zers these days, I turn to TikTok for stylistic guidance, as it bombards me with trend after trend. The more I’ve come to terms with the fact that I no longer identify as cisgender, the more the TikTok algorithm brings gender-nonconforming people to the top of my feed. Naturally, after seeing the umpteenth home haircut video, I finally made the decision that it was time for me to bid my locks farewell on my foray into experimentation with gender presentation. Since having more or less come out as nonbinary — both to myself and to others — over the last few months, after having attempted to acquire a new wardrobe that made me feel more like myself, I saw my hair as the last frontier. To me, the act of cutting hair off and having short hair for the first time in my life symbolized some sort of dramatic shedding of femininity and eschewing of the roles expected of me by society. Of course, this isn’t exactly the case — as many of my friends have pointed out, plenty of women have short hair and are perfectly feminine. What I found with my longer hair, though, was that my gender presentation was never ambiguous enough to make strangers think twice about what pronouns I might use or how I might identify.

At the same time, I’m left questioning my real motivations for cutting my hair. While I’m frequently reminded on liberal safe havens like Twitter that nonbinary people don’t owe anyone androgyny, it feels almost impossible for my identity to be taken seriously in the real world if I don’t “look the part,” especially by old friends and family members back at home. While experimenting with presentation is fun and absolutely ought to be normalized, I worry that I am boxing myself in out of fear of the criticism and invalidation of others, when really, the only opinion that should matter in defining my identity is my own. I fear that I may have lost sight of that somewhere along the way. Since making this realization, I have worked on trying to figure out how I actually want to look for myself, rather than for some imaginary, highly critical audience. This is admittedly hard: It isn’t easy to disentangle the way society expects me to look from how I actually want to look. On many days, I am torn between whether I’m attempting to make myself look less feminine just because androgyny is now expected from me in order to be a “good” or “real” nonbinary person, or whether I feel the urge to look feminine and miss my longer hair because, at the end of the day, I want to conform and be socially accepted. That validation happens most of all when I look conventionally female. But after all of this thinking has worn me out, I have come to the conclusion that I actually don’t have to think about all of this, all the time, ad nauseam. It is not on my shoulders alone, or those of any other queer individual, to be a “perfect” representative for our community, and the way that our incredibly hetero- and cis-normative society perceives us isn’t our burden to carry. In fact, by attempting to think less about what everyone else thinks, and simply existing as I am instead, I am perhaps performing the greatest act of queer resistance that I can.

A friend gave me a particularly sage piece of advice before my latest drastic hair transformation: There isn’t any point stressing yourself out over what happens when you cut your hair. Hair undeniably has significant meaning for various cultural reasons, affects the way we inhabit our bodies, and in turn, the way others view us. But a bad haircut isn’t the end of the world, and a look that I grow out of — or one that I grow into — doesn’t have to be permanent. At the end of the day, hair grows. And the fact that hair is perpetually in flux comforts me, serving as a reminder that identity can be multifaceted and ever-shifting. So get that haircut, or don’t — you won’t regret it either way.

Mel Adams | melissa.adams@yale.edu