As a middle child, I was a conflict-averse sulker of the first order.
My older sister raged against the machine, but I, by contrast, opted to weep pitifully FOREVER, crimson-faced and cross-armed, hoping to get my way through what I considered a stealthier, guilt-inducing form of rebellion.
My batting average wasn’t much better than any other kid’s, of course. But there was one conflict with my parents – specifically my mom – that stands apart in my mind by virtue of its sheer intensity.
After some lice breakouts at my elementary, the school nurse – ah, remember when one was just hanging around all the time ON STAFF? – pulled on some latex gloves and went from class to class, checking our scalps. Freshly back from Girl Scout day camp, I immediately landed in the principal’s office with one or two other lepers. (Ironically, I remember making a mental note that THOSE kids were gross and unhygienic rather than internally chanting, “One of us! One of us!”)
My mom took me to see Dr. Kim, our pediatrician; got a prescription for the tar shampoo (that you have to leave on your scalp for five minutes each time); and bought a double-sided black comb with two rows of short, crazy-narrow teeth – as if it was built for massaging a groomed chihuahua instead of actually combing human hair.
Particularly MY thick hair, which we’d all inherited from my mom. The trademark mane that hairdressers cooed over and complimented before, after working in it a while, saying, “Boy, you’ve got a LOT of hair.”
And because I’d spent my short lifetime absorbing inalterable truths about feminine beauty – my glasses, prescribed in first grade, would obviously need to be replaced by contact lenses as soon as humanly possible, and my hair should, upon release, tumble down to my waist (though I’d only just gotten it to grow below my shoulders) – I grew panicky when Mom started balking at the nit-picking comb’s ineffectiveness.
“We’re going to have to get your hair cut,” my mother told me. “You just have too much hair.”
Cue my crying. I wanted long tresses! Didn’t she understand I needed to grow my hair out to be seen by my peers, and by the world, as beautiful? To have my big-reveal, room-stopping moment of glory?
Nope. Off we went to the salon.
And my mom didn’t just order up a trim for me. She requested a full-out, all-the-rage Dorothy Hamill ‘do.
I. Was. PISSED.
Red-faced and crying, but embarrassed to cry in front of strangers while in the salon’s hydraulic chair, I stockpiled my rage for home.
What I remember more than anything else that day is changing the sheets on my bed, as I was required to do, while screaming, “I HATE YOU!!” repeatedly to my mom – who wisely remained in the living room – with an occasional, “I’M SO UGLY, AND IT’S ALL BECAUSE OF YOU!!” thrown in for good measure.
Ugh. I kind of hate remembering all this. My poor, poor mother eventually came in and said, “Do you think I like hearing you say these things to me? Hearing you say you hate me?” Pretty sure the guilt kicked in and I shifted back into my usual, quiet sulking mode.
And when I’m being honest with myself, I realize that i may be collapsing a couple of incidents that happened a few years apart into one event. But if nothing else, this blur of memories establishes that my hair, from an early age, fiercely symbolized control and identity for me. When I can call all the shots for myself, I thought, I will never, EVER opt for short hair.
Well, there’s a reason the saying “Never say never” caught on, people.
For on March 30, I walked downtown, had a black cape snapped around my neck, and showed my hairdresser a photo on my phone.
It was a photo that had popped up when I Googled “funky short haircuts for middle aged women.” It was a photo I’d shared on social media, asking friends to weigh in on the idea. (Most folks were positive, with some voicing reasonable reservations about the amount of effort and upkeep it might require.) It was a photo I’d previously studied but then chickened out while en route to the salon.
Because it’s really hard to let go of long-established habits, and deep-seated notions of feminine beauty, and control issues formed in childhood. That’s why so many of us stubbornly/lazily stay in our often-woefully-outdated “style lane” for decades, desperately holding onto the idea of who we were, and what we looked like, in our more youthful “prime.”
But in my case, I felt like I needed to start being honest with myself. Now, at 47 (and after two pregnancies), when I try to grow my hair, it’s not thick and lustrous with natural highlights anymore. It’s a flat, darker brown color, flecked with more and more gray (which I don’t balk at that much, honestly); and not only does it not look particularly healthy or full even at shoulder length, it also kind of stops growing at around that length. So this isn’t something I really have a choice about anymore. As women age, their hair changes. Lesson learned.
Plus, I’d long ago reached the point where I put my hair up in a stubby ponytail EVERY DAY. It was a reflex. A grooming given.
So I finally thought, “Why am I still holding on to this hair?”
Perhaps because it was one last vestige of a younger, more “successful” version of myself.
Yet when I started my part-time job at the local public library on March 20, and one last painfully unflattering photo was taken of me (no reflection on the person taking the photo, believe me), I girded myself via some episodes of the new reboot of “Queer Eye” (HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS FOR ALL) and decided I’d take action. I was going to really go through with it this time.
And I did. I showed my hairdresser the photo, and she started by grabbing her shears and lopping off my – you guessed it – stubby ponytail.
I’d been nervous about this moment, wondering if it might be emotional for me. After all, the last time it had been this short, I was a child, and I’d punished my mom about it for days.
But as I watched in the mirror, I remained completely dry-eyed and unmoved.
Clearly I was ready for this.
Because after all the changes I’d been through in recent years – finding my way through motherhood without my mother (who died in 2009), losing my father-in-law, getting laid off from what had once been my dream job, mourning a lost family connection, adapting to the changes of middle age, and losing my sense of professional and personal identity as I failed, for MORE THAN TWO YEARS, to find a new job (during a confidence-destroying job search) – I’d come to realize that my exterior was no longer in sync with the person I am now.
More broadly, I like to think that my choice demonstrates a new willingness to grow and keep moving forward in my life. An openness toward making the best of what’s yet to come, and a letting go of past sources of pain.
But no matter how much I may wax poetic, it is, in the end, just a haircut we’re talking about.
The rest of all that is on me.