This essay originally ran on KQSD public radio in Santa Cruz, CA.
Right now, there’s a viral photo floating around of a white woman at a COVID protest holding a sign that says, “I want a haircut.” Her greying, blonde hair looks like a carefully constructed vortex. And she’s smiling like she’s proud to be taking a stand on government overreach, defying public health guidelines to claim her freedom against the “hoax” that is the novel coronavirus.
As a journalist, it is a huge part of my job to keep people informed about the latest science behind stopping the virus’s spread. I’ve been doing this work day-in and day-out since the first cases were confirmed in Northern California where I live. But every day since getting the shelter-in-place orders in March, I have started my morning looking at myself in the mirror, watching my barbershop fade grow out into an uneven mess. I don’t look like myself—I don’t feel like myself.
And I hate myself a little, because I want a haircut.
I am embarrassed to admit just how obsessed I am with my hair. I’ve had it long, short, blue, shaved… I use my hair to tell the world what kind of person I am—or at least what kind of person I want others to think I am.
I haven’t always had a choice in that.
As a baby, my bald little head was always adorned with a bright pink bow. My mother was proud of her first child—a bouncing baby daughter. As I grew up, my hair growing past my shoulders and down my back, my mother would help me brush and braid it every night before bed. “You’re such a pretty girl,” she’d say. Even then, I hated that, though I didn’t know why.
By the time I was 12, I was ready for a dramatic act of rebellion and cut off my luxurious locks till I had only a couple inches of hair left. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that I didn’t care what anyone else thought, which seemed to make sense in the logic of a tween.
What I hadn’t expected was my new “do” got me mistaken for a boy. My religion teacher even scolded me, quoting a passage from the Bible about how “a woman’s hair is her glory.” He told me I was a “bad girl.” As in, I was bad at being a girl. And that felt… good. It felt right.
I dug into that.
I started shopping from the boy’s section of the department store. I wore cargo pants with graphic tees and hoodies. My little brother got my hand-me-downs for years. I even had an alter ego named Tom who wore Vans because they were good for skateboarding, not because they were the only boy’s shoes that came in my size.
My mother hated it. She made every effort to get me to “snap out of it.” She regularly told me to change into something more appropriate—by which she meant something more girly. She said this boy thing was just a phase. To some extent, it was.
Eventually, I transitioned to a “tom boy” aesthetic in high school, then finally a complete 180 to manic pixie dream girl in college.
It was around this time that I became more aware of the other hair on my body. I experimented with any patch I could trim or tweeze. I became obsessed with my sculpted eyebrows, but stopped shaving my legs entirely because I so loved the feeling of the wind blowing across my hairy shins as I biked between classes.
I got to play—with my body, with my own beauty standards. More importantly, I felt seen—I felt like people could look at my short hair and unshaven legs and have an idea of exactly what kind of “bad girl” I was.
But when I got to graduate school, I started to realize that maybe, there was something deeper going on. Maybe…I wasn’t a girl at all. I had spent so much of my early life rebelling against the hair maintenance standards of my assigned gender that, at the age of 26, I decided to drop those standards all together. I came out as non-binary and switched my pronouns to they/them.
And at first, I thought that I might have done something horribly wrong—I hadn’t met any other non-binary people and maybe I was making it all up, I thought. But in the end, the announcement was anticlimactic. My work and social life continued with only minor interruptions—mainly correcting people when they referred to me as “she” instead of “they”. All of my friends were cheered me on and soon the horror was transformed into a deep feeling of acceptance and a sense of finally being whole.
But my mother… she had a hard time processing the change. The conversation about my gender turned into a deeply uncomfortable discussion of my sexuality. Mom says she’s supportive of the LGBTQ community—but she reserves most of that compassion to her professional role as a psychiatrist. Her patients can be queer, her patients deserve empathy and, well, patience–but why can’t I, her own child, just be normal? I was her daughter, she told me. Nothing I ever did could make her think of me otherwise.
I took that as a challenge.
My hair was already pixie length, but I walked into a barbershop and asked for a fade. It was a look I’d quietly envied of the military men I’d met living in San Diego.
The barber seemed unsure about putting the clippers to my head. He kept asking if I was absolutely certain I wanted a fade. “Please don’t be angry with me if you don’t like it,” he told me. “This is not a girl’s haircut.”
And truthfully, I didn’t know what I wanted. I made up a number for the clipper size. I googled the difference between high-fades and low-fades, and I honestly couldn’t tell them apart, so I asked for a mid-fade thinking it might be somewhere in between. In the end, my hair was radically shorter than I’d intended, and I loved it.
I could see my own face beaming back at me when the barber gave me a little mirror to inspect his work. I ran my fingers through my newly fuzzy scalp and tried not to cry for joy.
I sent Mom a photo.
“You look beautiful,” she said.
“I look handsome,” I told her.
Since then my routine has expanded to a bimonthly hair color appointment at the salon, recurring appointments at the European Wax Center every six weeks, and a regular three-week appointment at the barber. At home, I have razors, tweezers, clippers, scissors, magnifying mirrors with spotlighting. Every hair on my body has a different maintenance routine. I had spent so long raging against the gender norms I felt confined me, I wanted to prove my victory over conformity with the curation of my physical body.
But that proof only gets me so far.
“Your hair looks awfully short, don’t you think?” Mom asks me.
“What do you mean?” I ask back.
“It’s just not very feminine. You would be so pretty if you just grew it out a little.”
We’ve had this conversation so many times now. It feels like a broken record of rage and anguish, and sadness and rejection. These arguments have also become part of my routine.
“I am not your daughter,” I want to scream, but instead return to the comfort of the barber’s straight razor caressing the back of my neck.
But then, all of my hair care destinations shut down. No more Ulta Beauty, no more wax center, no more barber. My clean-lined fade looked shabby by week two. By week four, the uneven growth of hair on different parts of my head made my skull look misshapen and awkward. In week six, the hair on the crown of my head would cow-lick at different angles so I had permanent bed head.
The conversations with my mother continue and there’s nothing I can do about it.
My body feels overgrown with forests of hair that are blossoming to their full glory in the absence of my over-correcting eye. There is simply nowhere I have to be and no one to see me.
Sheltered in my home with only the company of my senior cat and the wild birds who grace my backyard feeders, there is no one to rage against. I don’t have to prove my gender identity to anyone but myself. I am my own witness, every morning in the mirror as I run my hands through my unkempt hair.
Rather than retreat to the familiar pain of plucking, of razor burns, and sticky sprays, I’ve created a new ritual. On those days where I cannot see myself in my own image, I run a shower with hot water and fragrant oils. I gently and lovingly wash every inch of my skin. I imagine that I am my mother’s newborn infant, bald with a pink bow once again, or a perhaps a corpse that my own children will prepare for a final resting place someday. I lather my hair with luscious shampoos and conditioners. I make an effort to feel every texture and touch. I try to experience myself for who I am, because I need to know that I am enough—not bad, not good, not girl, not boy. Just enough.
After one such shower, I worked up the courage to send my mother a selfie. My towel-tussled hair looked truly ridiculous, carefully arranged to create the weirdest possible angles. Mom said I looked like an exotic bird, which made us both laugh. An easy laugh that felt like progress.
My county has already reopened barbershops and hair salons. I don’t know how to feel about that. I still look forward to sitting in that barber’s chair with the security of the cape wrapped snugly around my neck. I want to go outside without a hat to hide my unruly tuffs. I still want a haircut. But after so many months, I no longer need it. Not the way I thought I did, at least.
Special thanks to Cheryl Devall, who consulted on this project.