The first time I had a panicked birthday was my 22nd. I was a senior in college, about six weeks away from graduating. I looked around at my friends and classmates, remembering how at 18 I had looked up at the seniors and seen them as a world beyond me. They were so adult, so learned, so together. I felt none of those things, and it terrified me. Also, 22 looked like a fat number. That second two looked a lot wider than 21.
I did not freak out at 25. I had just purchased a house and life was awesome. I did, however, freak out when my baby sister turned 25 two years later. But, for the most part, my family are not birthday freaker-outers. My mom did not flip at 40, 50, or 60. My grandmother is 93 and as far as I know she handles each milestone birthday with a positive attitude and a sizable helping of angel food cake.
I turn 30 in less than three weeks.
I am totally losing my shit.
I don’t think 30 is old. I am not grieving the end of my 20s, as far as I can tell. I just feel like I haven’t really made much progress on this whole “adult” thing since I turned 22. And I’m certainly not where I thought I’d be. I’m divorced, I have no children, and I’m broke. I haven’t had a raise, really, in seven years.
In the midst of my weekend freakout, a friend shared some encouragement with me: May you have at least as many lives and adventures as I have had….and am still having. May you be able to reinvent yourself as often as your cells regenerate. When I saw her later that evening, we had a conversation along that topic, regarding hair. If hair represents my regenerations, I am currently in my Tenth Doctor tousled phase. All I’m lacking is a personal hair tousler.
That said, my hair has been fairly representative of my life since moving to Idaho, and I am grateful for the conversation this weekend. During most of my life, I kept my hair long enough for a ponytail, even if it was a short “sumo” ponytail. I am perpetually low-maintenance. I haven’t even used shampoo in seven years, let alone any hair product. To say I have thick hair would be a gross understatement. My hair is grotesquely thick, monstrously thick, thick-beyond-words thick. Whenever I have started with a new stylist, their shock the first time they have hefted my vast coif is worth capturing on film. I have a lot of hair. My current stylist books an extra-long block for me now, simply because we spend so much time thinning, and that’s even after he buzzes out the bottom third of my hair.
Anyway, I put as little effort into managing this mane as possible, which for the vast majority of the first 24 years of my life meant ponytails. Then, I chopped off a ten-inch braid, and my hair has been getting progressively shorter ever since.
During the same time frame that my hair has become strikingly short, I’ve taken control of a lot of areas of my life. I started going to counseling again, I started a 12-step program, played roller derby, took control of my health (sorta), embraced my feminism, appeared in two challenging productions with provocative, award-winning scripts (How I Learned to Drive and The Vagina Monologues), and started graduate school.
Correlation is not causation, but the correlation between my ever-shortening hair and my bolder approach to life is no coincidence.
I am loud and awkward and passionate, and I spent a lot of time apologizing for my elbows and my voice and my opinions. My parents were always shushing me. I no longer apologize for taking up space. I used to try to blend in and shrink back and hide the parts of my body and my personality that were deemed unfit or flawed. I spent too many years hiding in ponytails, oversized jeans, and hoodies. Now I wear what I want and I embrace my hips and my breasts and my tears and my fists when I’m fighting for the underdog.
Every time I’ve cut my hair, I’ve shed a layer of myself. Like a sassy snake. My hair was ridiculously fluffy last Wednesday, and the sensory integration therapist met me in the hallway and said, Your hair is so… awesome today. I replied, genuinely, Thanks! I used to fight with my hair, but I always lost. Now I just let my hair do what it does. Who wants to start every morning losing? One of my students thought that was really funny, in part because she has a mane of curly hair that has at least an 80% correlation to her mood. She’s like Japanese animation. She retold that story three times on Wednesday. The next day, after a good-morning hug, she told me we both won with our hair that morning.
Last semester in Feminist Theory, we regularly returned to the theme the personal is political. Hair is one of those personal-political feminist issues. Any time a Hollywood actress shaves her head for a role, she gets major headlines. When Jennifer Lawrence cut her hair in a pixie style (was that in 2013?) just because she damn well wanted to cut it that way, I’m pretty sure the internet broke. The fact that cutting one’s hair is considered so newsworthy makes it pretty clear how much a woman’s hair means in our culture. And when we add race to the equation–because I love me some intersectional feminism–the implications and consequences of short hair are magnified. In 2012, Rhonda Lee, a small-market meteorologist in Louisiana, was fired after defending (in a Facebook comment) her choice to keep her black, ethnic hair short and natural. It seems to me, at least in certain contexts, short hair is where the personal becomes political.
Women with short hair get noticed. I am okay with that now; I don’t have to hide. I may not be where I thought I’d be, but I am certainly not where I was.