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Cutting Off the Whys

April 12, 2018

Today, I am cutting off a foot of hair, going from basic-with-bangs to a cropped pixie. It's not exactly my first time. I haven't kept the same style longer than five years at a stretch since the age of ten; my first big plunge into super short cuts was during my angst-driven, rebellious college years when I wore way too much black eyeliner and stole novelty ribbon magnets from cars on my walk to school. This time around, I made the decision all at once, realizing that after three years of letting it grow, I was finally done. My appointment has been creeping ever closer for the past six weeks, and I could not be more excited.

So why is my stomach in knots every time I imagine the result? After what feels like eons of growing my hair out, suffering through months of awkward stages, and wrestling through tedious styling rituals, I know for sure that I am officially done. Get it off my head. Still, on the eve of realizing a decision made weeks ago, there is a whiny little voice in the back of my head whispering, You're going to look so fucking ugly.

Which isn't exactly the position of confidence I was hoping to have going into what Coco Chanel would consider a major life event. I've had this cut before, I know I like it, so where is all this doubt coming from? There isn't much conclusive evidence proving why long hair is culturally synonymous with feminine beauty. After all, men can grow their hair long, many just chose not to. And as many women with shorter cuts can attest, myself included, abundance of sexual and romantic partners does not grow or diminish based on a woman's hair style. We don't really know why specific aesthetic expectations are placed on women, we just know that they are. Just as I know from experience the reactions I am going to get from friends and family.

I like you better with long hair.

It's just not feminine.

Did someone make a mistake at the salon?

You look like a cancer patient.

And my very favorite, the minimal-yet-effective, Why?

Why? as though I, as a woman, must have a reason for exercising my god-given right to get a haircut. I am of a passive, unargumentative nature, so I usually just paste on a tight smile and respond with a limp, Because I wanted to. Pretty lame, but the real answer requires more time and effort than I generally like to give to glib, dismissive, sexist remarks. Like pretty much every woman ever, my relationship with my hair is personal and complicated, encompassing not only my own aesthetic leanings, but also my upbringing, body image, and perceived societal pressures.

I have naturally wavy, thick, strawberry blonde hair. The envy of many women, the bane of all hairdressers. As a child, I had striking platinum blond ringlets, four perfect little curls on my forehead forming the cutest little bangs you ever did see. People would stop to compliment my parents the same way I react to puppies in my apartment elevator - look at that hair she's such a pretty little princess yes she is. Eventually, I came to believe that my hair was the best thing about me. I remember first learning about alopecia in middle school and thinking that I would rather die than go bald. That there was literally no point in living if I didn't have a pretty head of hair.

Is that what we want our children to grow up thinking? That the best use of a female life is to be purely ornamental? Even as an adult, the longer my hair grows, the more beholden to it I become. But I don't want to be my hair. Deciding to cut my length short never fails to feel like an act of defiance. Take that, Hair! You don't control me! Like my hair isn't a part of my body, but some intruding force telling me who to be.

But my hair isn't sentient, it has no agency. There are no competing agendas happening within my corporeal form. The real conflict is outside myself, with the insidious expectations that so subtly invade our collective consciousness. At every stage in life there are only a few acceptable ways for women to be, small margins within which we are allowed to exist, the smallest error in any direction sending us past the bounds of acceptance.

The why? I want to ask is why are we so threatened by non-gender-stereotypical physical presentations, in this case specifically hairstyles? Is it because homogeneity is the path of least resistance? Bangs for little girls, long cuts for teens, bobs for older women - there is no scientific reason that these styles and age groups fit together so perfectly in our minds other than they are simply what we're used to. The more accustomed we become, the more assumptions and judgments we make, the more reinforced arbitrary standards become. And to make things more complicated, it's not only age. Women are expected to present themselves certain ways depending on profession, economic status, and region. Any woman who works in a business formal office can tell you first hand there is a very fine line between a hairstyle that commands respect and one that labels you as a high maintenance employee. Sporting a hairstyle that is even remotely exotic for your age, profession, or region will inevitably prompt frequent, often aggressive, certainly unasked-for whys? Research has explained a lot about sexual dimorphistic traits, but can't explain away the unease and blatant hate facing those who choose not to style their hair in stereotypical gender/age/status fashion. And if it's not an issue of evolution, it must be an issue of culture.

The unfortunate reality is girls are taught to gratify others with their attractiveness above all other pursuits. We go from doll to sex object to trophy as we age, always an object for someone else to possess, herded in an endless lateral progression. I have come to realize that why? is predicated on the assumption that every female must inherently desire, before comfort, fulfillment, or personal value, first to be considered beautiful by others, which itself implies that she is an object before she is a person. This three-letter question is so harmful because it mandatorily requires women and young girls to justify their very existence - to come up with a simple, palatable, elevator-pitch excuse for taking up space and attention that could potentially be spent on a more attractive counterpart. Instead of assuming personhood for every individual, we force women to assert, I am, while simultaneously insisting, No, you are not. After all, any assertion can be debated and eventually "proven" wrong, allowing the staunchest believers in conservative beauty to continue living in a black-and-white world where people are possessions and being attached to a penis is the greatest possible achievement in life.

This cultural "we" includes myself and many women I know; we are complicit in holding our peers to arbitrary aesthetic expectations, and therefore share responsibility for the distorted standards by which women are taught to judge themselves and others. Such destructive beliefs are difficult to perfectly extract from oneself once they are ingrained. Hateful self-talk winds itself about the subconscious like a noxious weed, and once we begin hating ourselves, how we keep from hating others?

Admittedly, this is a lot of internal drama to go through over a haircut. Yes, it would be simpler to just keep my hair long and not have to worry about the social dangers of an unflattering, boyish cut. It would certainly prevent a lot of anxiety and doubt over my worth - if I have long, beautiful hair, I have an automatic right to love and acceptance. But I don't want to stay lateral. I want to do the hard thing because embracing the uncomfortable is how we grow.

I can't afford to give myself the opportunity to retreat. If I am going to have meaningful interactions and command respect, I have to get my hair out of my face and look people in the eye. I need to lean in to anxiety instead of running away from it - if I'm doing something that makes me vaguely nauseous (temporarily, not existentially), I'm probably making decisions that will ultimately make me a stronger person. Yes, I may leave the salon tomorrow feeling less conventionally pretty than I do today. But that's ok because being thought beautiful is not the ultimate form of success. Not for me. I know that I will also feel more like myself, more confident, and more proud that I chose what was best for me, as a person over what is easy for others to understand. Making the decision to exercise agency over how I wear my hair and answering the whys? fully, with conviction is a very small way for me to step away from a life of complicity and closer to a richer, messier, more fulfilled existence.

And that is why I am getting a haircut. Because I fucking want to.