Meaning does not exist until someone starts to look for it. ~ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
My next hair appointment is in a week. I’ve been growing out my hair for about 6 months now, and the frustration has built to a point of such urgency that I think about my hair length all day: every time I look in the mirror, every time I talk to someone and imagine what they’re thinking about my hair, every time I go to bed and lie awake mentally listing pros and cons of cutting it.
The Question: Should I cut it all off or stay the course?
The Answer: There is no right or wrong answer.
Why I’m Writing This 9-Page Essay: Because there is most definitely a right answer, and by God I will discover it.
Opening Argument: Almost everyone I know loves my hair short. I like it short.
Opening Rebuttal: During a recess in 3rd grade, I looked at the glass doors of the school building and saw my reflection. The timing was perfect, my head tilted back and turned to the side, and a long, wavy, richly blonde-brown mane of hair falling down my back. That image of myself and that glorious hair has enamored me since, despite the changes to my face, despite the changes to my hair, despite the many less flattering images of myself in pictures and reflections since.
Questions of Context
(I’m a white American 44-year old straight ciswoman with fairly thick, wavy hair that tends toward frizzy curl in the back and flatness in the front. Untreated, my hair color is a dead-mouse-brownish-gray. Treated, it’s blonde with pinkish tones.
I had shoulder-length or longer hair, mostly, until my 40s. Then, at 41, I cut it all off, saying goodbye to an old life and beginning a new one that included a relationship with a man who loved short hair and whom I’d marry a year later. I’d gone short once before in my 20s but have cut up or hidden all of the pictures from that time. It was a Walmart salon special, and I could have done better if I’d cut my hair myself, with my eyes closed. But I didn’t know that at the time. I trusted the evidence: short hair would never work for me.
I moved through my 30s with a fairly stable look. Long, minimally styled hair that looked great immediately after the salon appointment but unkempt and lumpy for the next two months. Not one to waste money on styling products or time on blow-drying, I kept my routine cheap and simple: wash and condition, air dry, brush, then either wear it down or pull it back in a barrette or ponytail. I didn’t particularly like my hair but didn’t know what else to do with it.
My first move toward change came when I bought a pink wig. I bought it on a whim, thinking it would be fun to wear around the house, and I loved it. Cut in a short bob with bangs, it transformed my face. It made me look chic and sassy and bold. I never wore it out of the house, but I wished I could. A few months later, high on new love and feeling reckless, I took the wig to my stylist and asked for the same cut. She gave me exactly what I asked for, but alas, it looked ghastly. It served its purpose, though, because it left me nowhere to go but shorter. A week later, I returned to the salon with this picture of Charlize Theron and emerged a short-hair convert.
Questions of Maintenance
“In order to have long hair you have to have your needs in life taken care of.” ~ TIME magazine
It was so easy. SO easy. It seemed that my hair was made to be short. It’s thick wavy texture meant that, with a great cut, it held whatever style I fingered it into, with just a little help from a styling product I splurged on. My hair looked good every day with no more than a minute of effort. My fiance loved it, and my friends raved. I felt edgy and fierce. I no longer felt like a naïve country girl when I went to a wedding, a restaurant, the grocery store. [Side story: I went on a date once with a smooth, urbane graduate student from Trinidad who asked me if I was Amish. I could tell he meant to insult, and even though I knew his critique was more about my demeanor than my style, it made me self-conscious about my plain long hair, pulled back in a barrette that night.]
I loved the cutting process itself: the weight falling off, the sound of the scissors, the feel of the razor on my neck. It turned out that I liked the shape of my head.
After a year, I started trying different styles that required some growing out. I tried a very mild faux-hawk style, which I liked. I tried letting the top grow even longer and bleaching it all white, then dying it a light pink. I loved it all.
Why wouldn’t I keep this amazing hairstsyle forever? Several reasons: 1) dreams about long hair, 2) restlessness, and 3) repeated glimpses of my profile in the mirror.
Questions of Facial Fitness
“Hair grows back, everyone always says, and it’s true, but it takes a long time, and there are certain things one should not attempt just because the fallout is temporary […]. I’d include on this list hacking off all your hair when you lack both the cheekbones and the chutzpah to waltz out into the world unadorned.” New York Times
Fashion pundits would say I don’t have the face for short hair. My nose is too big, my eyes too close-set, my chin and mouth too soft. I have neither cheekbones nor chutzpah.
I loved my short hair when I looked at myself head-on or with my head turned back over my shoulder. I avoided using a second mirror to examine my profile because I’ve never liked my profile, and I didn’t want to face (haha) what would surely be a heart-sinking truth. But my hairstylist always insisted on showing me a 360-degree view, and over time, that view began to gnaw at me.
Plus, not everyone loved my hair short. My 9-yr-old niece didn’t say anything, but I could see in her eyes that she didn’t think I was pretty anymore. My mom and sister were polite but reserved.
I began to miss the feeling of a brush pulling at my hair, of my hair blowing freely in the wind (even though I also loved not having hair in my face on windy days or getting hair into my eyes and mouth at night).
I’d argue that if I had chutzpah, neither cheekbones nor profiles nor other people’s opinions would matter. But my chutzpah, much like the pink wig, shows up only in moments when I’m alone, when no one can see it. I began to feel like my bold hair cut was a lie, that I shouldn’t have a hair cut I couldn’t back up with attitude.
Questions of Punishment
“But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” I Corinthians 11:15, NKJV
There’s nothing worse than having a haircut that requires a sense of personal power to pull off and not having that power. Then the hair looks less like an expression of boldness and more like someone took a razor to your head to punish you.
Punishment haircuts have been a thing for men, women, and children now and through ages past. Kids who disobey their parents, wayward girls who run away from convents, men who desert the battlefield, Circe in Game of Thrones—we seem to know that the best way to humiliate a person is to cut their hair, especially when it goes against the cultural norms for their sex, age group, and time.
A woman from my yoga class got her long hair cut super-short, and I almost recoiled when I saw her; she looked plucked. Do people think I look plucked? I wondered.
Sometimes I’d wake up and look in the mirror and wish for covering—long hair would soften the punishing effect of dark circles under my eyes, of splotchy or pallid skin, the way I looked on the bad days.
Long hair would also provide covering during the following activities:
Questions of Type
“’Inferences and judgments about a person’s morality, sexual orientation, political persuasion, religious sentiments and, in some cultures, socio-economic status,’ [scholar Deborah Pergement] notes, ‘can sometimes be surmised by seeing a particular hairstyle.’” TIME magazine
After that first short cut, I wished the people I had known before (particularly the ex-boyfriends) could see the new me. “This is the true me,” would have been the message. “Bold, unconventional, daring—see what you missed out on?” Later, I wished that the people who had known me only with short hair could see it long. I wanted to show people pictures of myself with long hair, as if to say, “This me, the one with long hair, is who I truly am.”
Who is a long-haired woman? She is passionate, wild, laissez-faire, au naturel, spontaneous, free-wheeling, artistic, self-expressive. She is a mother goddess, environmentalist, animal and nature lover; she isn’t afraid of a mess.
Who is a short-haired woman? She is bold, confident, powerful, stylish, smart, organized, efficient, witty, cerebral. She speaks her mind clearly and articulately, keeps her head, is androgynously sexy.
Who do I want to be? All of the above
My actual self: Values financial prudence (cringes at the cost of hair care, for example). Believes that real beauty is natural beauty but feels ugly next to women who wear makeup and have product-perfect hair. My real self paints her toenails, admires them for a few days, and then removes the polish in a sudden conviction that her nails can’t breath under the chemical veneer. She believes in local, organic, environmentally sustainable products but rarely shops at the farmers’ market because it forces her to talk to people and doesn’t fit easily into her weekly meal plan. She loves yoga but not enough to chant or learn Sansrkit. Health-conscious and not a little OCD, she’s 90% vegan and 10% pasture-raised, grass-fed, free-range meat, even though she has to try hard not to think about the word “flesh” when she’s eating it. She doesn’t put a lot of time into her appearance, in both a boastful way and an insecure, depressed way. She tends toward depression. She doesn’t want to stand out even though she desperately wants to stand out. She shaves her legs but not her pubic hair. She likes to cut, prune, shorten, clean out—hair, essays, plants, clothes, books. She avoids plucking or trimming her eyebrows for fear she’ll remove them completely in an OCD frenzy. And yet she sometimes envies other people’s overgrown yards, cluttered houses, messy lives—they seem so much more real than hers. She feels like she’s spent most of her life waiting—for things, for events, for people, for hair to grow—and yet she is quiveringly impatient. She wants to be a long, lean, sexy, outdoorsey, ponytail and cut-off jeans type of woman. Or she wants to be a short-haired, sassy, punk-androgynous, subversive type of woman. An astrologer told her, after reading her natal chart, “You’re two people.” “Thank you,” she replied.
Things I could be with short hair:
But wait, you’re thinking. Why can’t you be any or all of those things regardless of your hairstyle? Also, do you even know anything about computers or lions?
Questions of Science
Age slows down hair growth. It’s easy to worry that if I cut my hair now, it will never be long again, that this upcoming decision will be a decision for the rest of my life. Who do I want to be when I'm old?
According to a UK hair clinic, hair grows in three phases: anagen, catagen, and telogen. In the anagen phase, the hair grows about ½ an inch every four weeks; this lasts about 2-7 years (the time is determined largely by genetics). In the catagen phase (1-2 weeks), growth slows as the hair prepares itself for the next phase. During the telogen phase (3-4 months), the hair rests, and older hairs will shed to allow for new growth. Obviously, each hair follicle goes through the stages at its own pace so that we always (hopefully) maintain a full head of hair. Given the above, the maximum length hair can grow in an anagen phase is 18-30 inches.
My hair seems to grow about a half inch every 6 weeks. If my anagen phase lasts the maximum of 7 years, my hair will have grown about 30 inches by the time I’m 51, putting it about 2-3 inches above the small of my back. To get to my target length—let’s say 20-25 inches, to account for wave—will take about 4½ to 6 years. That’s assuming I remain healthy, that my hair maintains its current growth rate, and that my hair isn’t damaged enough to break before it reaches full length.
I might be able to increase the growth rate to ½ inch a month or more by taking supplements like collagen or Hawaiian spirulina, in which case I could reach my target length in 3-4 years, hopefully before age catches up with me.
The part of me that loves a challenge is clamoring to take it on. My OCD loves numbers and calculations, loves planning for optimal health. It tries to tell me that not taking on this challenge will make me a quitter, will prove that I’m weak-willed and morally shallow. This isn’t just about beauty—it’s about courage and fortitude! it will say.
That voice has always been hard for me to resist. It sounds like God, and I want to prove to it that I am worthy, even though I always fail to live up to its standards.
But I also know that following that voice exhausts me. It gnaws and needles, gnaws and needles, to the point that I usually avoid long-term challenges. It’s why I write essays and poems instead of novels. It’s why I don’t cook gourmet meals; it’s why I will never run a marathon, even though that voice wants me to do all of those things, tells me that I am a failure for my inability to commit.
Questions of Philosophy
Questions of Sexuality
“Short hair has become a symbol of being a lesbian, and many lesbians with long hair have felt pressured to cut theirs when they come out.” NCBI
“Men should not look feminine and women should not look masculine! The unisex look is an abomination to the Lord.” True Discipleship
A word on defining myself as “straight”: I am straight in that I’ve never had or sought a lesbian encounter and have always been attracted to men. I was uncomfortable knowing that my short hair would lead some strangers to question my sexuality. Sometimes people at the market where I worked for awhile called me “boy” or “young man.” To have the cornerstone of my identity misread felt both embarrassing and a tiny bit liberating. Part of me enjoyed the sheepish surprise on their face when they saw me up close, but still…I began to wear mascara every day and wondered whether it was finally time to pierce my ears.
At home, though, I sometimes liked the sexy androgyny of having short hair and wearing a t-shirt and jeans, maybe because I knew my husband liked it, too. Short hair spurred my imagination. Looking like a boy, it was easier to imagine what it would be like to be attracted to a woman. I could imagine that it might be a nice feeling to kiss a woman or touch her skin. I could imagine the fun of playing the man in a sexual encounter. I could imagine being turned on if my husband wore lacy panties, for example, and I had a strap-on. Would my imagination have taken such turns if I hadn’t cut my hair so short? Do I care?
Questions of Identity
I cut my hair short at a time when I was embarking on several major life changes all at once. Within the span of two years, I fell in love, moved in with my boyfriend and his two kids (who were with us 3 nights a week), quit my teaching job, bought a house with my boyfriend, moved to that new town, quit my market job, got a new full-time job running a tutoring center, got married (at 3 separate celebrations), quit that job, started eating animal products after being vegan for 20 years, got a new dog, started part-time editing/writing work from home, wondered almost every month if I was pregnant, and cut off all of my hair.
So maybe my drive to grow out my hair is partly a drive to return to the self I feel like I lost along the way. And I did lose her, understandably. She changed in some ways she needed to change, but she also repressed much of herself for the sake of her marriage and her new role as stepmother. Part of me wants to have long hair again because it feels like symbolic way to bring the old Cindy into the new Cindy’s life, to not lose her again. And the thing is: it feels like it’s working, like my selves are aligning as my hair gets longer. Surely this is a case of correlation being confused with causation. Surely the cause is more likely all of the therapy, journaling, meditating, and reading, along with the natural growth that occurs as my husband and stepkids and I all get used to our new lives as a family. Right?
Questions of Divination
My interpretation: In the past, you thought more about your work than about your hair. Now, you’re all caught up in this indecision, but don’t forget that no matter what you decide, you’ll change your mind. You’re easily bored. Case in point: You can’t stay interested in a job more than a year or two, you rearrange furniture frequently, and you love the the excitement of going into a salon and coming out with a different look.
A deeper interpretation: Hair is not the problem here. The problem is that you feel lost in your life. You are trying to manage your own time, to write, to study, to start a Reiki and Tarot practice, and it’s going slowly, in fits and starts or not at all. A haircut offers stimulation—something new and exciting—but that excitement will soon fade, and you may find yourself wanting long hair again. Your ego is using your hair as a way to distract you from your real work: creative self-expression for the purpose of healing and connection.
Questions of Other People's Opinions
I ask people, “Do you like my hair better long or short?” It turns out that most people are not, for some reason, as invested in my hair length as I am. Aside from one friend who expresses her adamant preference for short hair whenever I see her, “I like it both ways,” is the usual answer.
My father preferred long hair. But he preferred it the way my husband prefers short hair: indiscriminately. I wanted to say to my father—and now to say to my husband—“Look at me, at my face, at its contours, its profile—do you think short hair flatters THIS face, THIS figure?”
My husband came home from work yesterday and kissed me. “You look nice today,” he said.
“Don’t confuse me,” I said.
My husband’s advice: If you have any doubts, don’t cut it yet. But I know he prefers it short. In the end, how much will I be able to discount his opinion?
The day before yesterday, my neighbor saw me and said, “Your hair’s getting long!”
“Yes,” I said, “but I might decide to cut it all off again soon.”
“Well it’s super-cute right now,” she said.
“Thanks!” I said. ARGGH!!! I thought.
When other people fail, I turn to pictures, poring over the pictures of myself with long hair and short hair, separating into piles the good pictures from the bad and then counting how many of each are with short v. long hair. But that’s not a fair method; I have fewer short-hair pictures to choose from. And the long-hair pictures I like now are pictures that I didn’t like before, when I had long hair.
Questions of Fantasy
It all goes back to 3rd grade and the fantasy that with long hair I have a chance at beauty that I don’t have with short hair. If gloriously long hair falls around my face, hiding the flaws in just the right way, my face will appear, in flashes, exquisite.
What would it mean to give up the hope of being beautiful? What if I finally accept what mirrors and pictures have told me all along—that my adult face and hair do not and never will meet traditional standards of beauty? My face is soft in the wrong places, bold in the wrong places. It’s not symmetrical. My hair is not glossy and smooth, falling in ringlets down my back.
The women in my life who read this will rush to reassure me, “Oh, but you’re beautiful!” To which I will say, I know. Thank you. But I’m not asking for compliments and reassurance. I’m ready, finally, for honesty. I want to accept who I am and this face I have. When I’m gone, my loved ones aren’t going to say, “We miss her, but we wish her nose had been smaller.” They’re going to miss me for who I was, for the body I chose to inhabit in this lifetime. Not because it was pretty or not pretty, but because it was me.
Questions Answered (i.e., the part in which I make a decision!)
We’re getting down to the wire here. Hair appointment in 2 days. Yesterday, I was still experiencing drastic swings, almost hourly, in what I thought I’d “decided.” But then the exhaustion finally hit: an exhaustion I earned by writing this essay, by staying for so long with these conflicting thoughts.
And in the silence brought on by exhaustion, the still, small voice emerged. This is what it said: maybe you don’t want long or short hair. Maybe you want to stay where you are, at this stage that can both stress and charm you. You like how your hair curls softly around your face in a way that neither hides nor overly exposes it. And the awkward days? It’s not pretty, but the wildness and unpredictability of it, the way it wings out from the sides of your head at different trajectories, sort of appeals to you.
Why did I have to write an essay before this option occurred to me? Because a) my thoughts were too overpowering to allow a different voice to be heard; b) I tend to dwell more on the past and on the future than on the present, and c) it didn't seem appropriate--permissible--to like a hair style that didn't look good every day, that might take people aback, put them in a position of not knowing what to say. I shouldn't make anyone uncomfortable, and isn't it my responsibility to "work with what I have," to make myself as beautiful as I can be?
How liberating it is to forget responsibility and pay attention to how I feel, to honor that feeling even it doesn't result in a rational or beautiful solution. Still, I feel some sadness. It's hard to disappoint the people who wanted something different for me. But for now, I'm willing to live with that. And good grief, people: it's just hair.
P.S. A Gallery
I decided to add these pictures after writing the essay, and something interesting happened as I collected them. I saw that my hair is okay long, it's okay with bangs, it's okay short, pink, and blonde. I like all of these pictures of myself, even the terrible one, 3rd in the top row (the pink wig cut). And here's the thing: I didn't used to like them. I do now. Pretty neat, right?