Last May, I started working toward cutting all my hair off. I went through a rapid cycle of new hair-dos—the kind that usually happen to someone attempting to outrun the law, a drunken teenager with her first tube of Manic Panic® or a toddler with safety scissors.

It began with me begging my twin sister to chop my signature bob into a pixie cut a few weeks before we graduated high school. Then, in my first month at university, I had it dyed teal at a salon in a neighborhood that older people would describe as “funky.” Home for winter break, I dyed it so it went back to brown. New Year’s, I cut it into an even shorter pixie. The week I returned to school, I shaved my head.

Well, technically I didn’t shave my head. A very nice stylist named Rocky did. Rocky, if you’re reading this, I want to apologize for all the times since then that I have wished you ill. I know you are not in the business of ruining the lives of young women—you’re not a Republican, for one—and you were only trying to make a customer happy. But in the post-shave days I cursed your name every time I caught a glimpse of my reflection. I take full responsibility for any recent misfortune that may have befallen you as a result of all the bad energy I put out in your direction. Again, if you’re reading this, please contact us with your home address or P.O. box so I can send a cleansing sage bundle your way.

In the version of the story I told to my friends and family, I made myself out to be a hapless victim. I didn’t want anyone to think I willingly allowed this to be done (and paid for it and said thank you very much and added a generous tip). I told people that I had gone in for a trim and that there had been a miscommunication.

Here’s what actually went down: 

Me: Do you think you could maybe shave my head?

Rocky: Yeah, sure.

And he did. And it was horrible.

When Rocky spun my chair around to face the mirror, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. My hair had been short before, but it had been arranged in the semblance of a style and it had been there, on my head, existing. Now it wasn’t. I burst into tears as soon as I walked outside.

I didn’t realize how much I defined myself by my hair until I didn’t have any left. Without it I felt genderless, sexless, ageless, blank. Almost immediately, I started to have panic attacks. They were almost always triggered by being out in public. I had them in class, on the street and even when I was with friends. Any time I was visible to other people, I felt like I was going to die of shame. A phrase that whirled around my mind endlessly was, “I look mentally ill.”

For almost a year, I had been using my hair as a coping mechanism. Whenever I felt nervous or scared or sad, I changed it. Going to university 2,171 miles from home turned out to be the hardest thing I had ever done. Well duh, but I refused to acknowledge this and give myself the permission to mess up. Like every shy kid with unfortunate orthodontia and a penchant for fantasy novels, I had been repeatedly reassured by well-intentioned adults that I was going to thrive as soon as I left high school. The sucky thing is, a nice lie is still a lie.

But why wrestle with the realities of the transition when a few artful snips here and there or a quick dye had the power to transform me into the girl who could handle it all perfectly? When she couldn’t—when stress, disappointment and inadequacy popped up again and again—no problem! I’d be someone else.

The only problem was the magic trick hadn’t worked this time. What had once soothed me was now causing me pain, and I had no other ways to suppress it. It started to spill out. When someone asked how I was doing, I no longer replied that I was fine (as I clearly wasn’t) or tried to subvert the question. I told them my hair was making me miserable. And then something weird started happening. Once I felt like I was free to talk about this particular thing that was bothering me, I started to become aware that it wasn’t the only problem I was dealing with.

My fear of looking mentally ill had less to do with my hair than what I originally thought. I am mentally ill. I have struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life. But addressing it meant that I would have to admit my undergraduate life wasn’t as perfect as I wanted everyone to think.

I’m really lucky that my realization came about in this relatively low-risk way. I’m also really, really, really lucky to have a strong support network and the means to get help. A lot of people don’t have that, and a lot of people in situations similar to mine channel their distress into way more dangerous methods of coping. I escaped mostly intact.

My hair is growing out now. I’m wearing a lot of beanies, but I’m trying not to mind so much. It reminds me to sit with my feelings—even the uncomfortable ones—and,ou know, feel them as opposed to looking for a quick fix. Plus, some days I wake up and I look pretty damn cute.

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