In the summer of freshman year, I got a haircut. For months I had begged my mom to let me go natural and get what the black community calls a “big chop,” usually done to remove chemically damaged hair. Though my hair had never been chemically treated, I wanted one.
“Why do you want to cut your hair off, Jo?” my mother frequently asked. My response was always “I’m tired of wearing my hair like this”, and it was true that I was bored of wearing my hair straight. Maybe embracing my natural hair would be a fun change. But that was a half-truth. The other part was that for months, the image of my face framed by straightened hair frizzy at the roots sent me into sobbing fits. The unspoken truth was that I avoided looking in mirrors, smoothed and pulled anxiously at hair, and obsessed over hiding what I was sure was the mess on my head.
At the age of twelve, my mom officially stored away my animal-shaped barrettes and hair beads in an orange bucket and produced a flat iron in their places. I spent hours sweating between my mother’s legs, fighting tears as she pulled combs through my unruly hair and flinching at the heat on my neck as my mom conquered the naps and knots on my head. When it was over, I shut myself in my bedroom to examine my reflection in the mirror. I lost my face beneath the big curls inhabiting my head. My new hair was fragile and demanding, so I fought to protect it. The smallest inconvenience meant a frizzy and unkempt head, so I befriended umbrellas and hoodies. I envied my friends for their naturally straight hair and carefree attitudes. They didn’t hesitate to join balloon-fights or shrink away when their friends wanted to play with their hair. I learned to see my new hair as a liability.
My insecurities heightened during middle school as I struggled with a new demon: my sexuality and gender expression. Instead of seeing my hair in the mirror, I saw a wig, something terribly out of place. I began a collection of bandanas to tie around my head. For my whole life, I had seen my long hair as proof of my femininity, but suddenly I felt like I was in drag. The girl I thought I knew had slipped away, leaving me uncertain and angry. My hair made me want to cry out in frustration, to beat against the walls of my body until I found a way out. I fought wayward curls that hadn’t successfully assimilated into the hairpiece atop my skull. IllneverbeprettywhydoIeventrywhycantIjustfeellikeagirl.
Repressed sexuality added to my frustration, but at the end of ninth grade I met a girl who I couldn’t deny my feelings for. My attraction to her forced me to confront my identity as a gay girl. It was only then that I was able to look in the mirror with some understanding rather than being terrified by the alien looking back at me. I realized who I was, saw that long, straightened hair did not fit, and decided to chop my hair off.
So in the summer of freshman year, I got a haircut. I faced my mom in the barber’s chair as the stylist clipped off large sections of my hair with quick and certain movements. I felt my face contort from an expression of surprise to a smile. When the stylist finished and offered me a mirror, I admired my reflection for the first time in years. I was enthralled by the tiny curls that were all my own, no heat required. As content as I was and still am, I can’t say that I found the girl of before in the mirror that day. Instead, I saw my present self looking steadily back at me.