In March, I started writing a piece on my newfound love and respect for long hair and what it symbolizes for me. Since then, I’ve entered into a long term flare that forced me to recognize that all the little allergic reactions I was having to various things was having a much bigger impact than I wanted to admit. It was time to change my ways. Since I react to hair dye, this meant giving it up.
There are only a few ways one can choose to go gray: You can let your roots grow out and live with the bag lady look until it grows out. You can spent $500 at a salon getting your natural colors blended through your dyed hair in a mutli-dye process, returning 2-3 times more for touch ups. Or you can shave your head and start over entirely. I chose to shave my head, as I can neither afford to spend a small fortune on hair services at a salon living on disability, nor should I put myself through additional exposures. Shaving my head was not an easy decision, despite it being the only real option.
To better understand what it cost, I wanted to share what I started working on in March, but never shared. It highlights the complexity of hair in society and the personal reasons why growing my hair out was so meaningful to me. For those who read this blog regularly, you won’t be surprised to know it has something to do with overcoming an old trigger.
Here’s what I wrote in March
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair lately. It’s always been a complex subject for me. Hair is one of those things you may think you don’t pay any attention to, but you’d be kidding yourself. Hair is a highly political thing. The way we choose to wear our hair signals much to other people, whether we choose to believe it or not. In the African American community, this is no secret. While African American and Indigenous American hair has layers of complexity tied to history and heritage that are unique to those cultures, all hair, how we arrange and cut it, is used as a tool of style, of conformity or rebellion, of cliques and individuality, and it may signal a return to one’s roots and heritage or a desire to be modern or even radical.
As a girl, I grew my hair out and permed it regularly. In the 1980’s, this is what we did. Only when I hit my teen years and my desire to reflect on the outside how I felt on the inside grew, I began playing with various cuts and colors, from black streaks in my blondish-brown hair to shaving it into a Mohawk to dying it radical shades of red and purple. Unlike now, dyeing your hair in rainbow colors meant something. It was a cultural and political statement. Then I met my first husband, who insisted that my hair match the status quo and once we were married, put a moratorium on all haircuts. By the time I left his controlling, abusive ass, I had hair that touched my ass. The day after I left him, I had my hair cut to a chin length bob.
Despite my Native American roots where long hair is a long held tradition for both sexes, I came to detest long hair. On a woman, it came to symbolize not just conformity, but oppression and misogyny. I went back to experimenting with radical cuts that were asymmetrical and even shaved my head and frequently wore Chelsea or Pixie cuts.
It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that I allowed my hair to grow to my shoulders again, but even then I felt out of place and ended up cutting it after a short time. It wasn’t until it occurred to me that I’d allowed my first husband, who had so thoroughly controlled my every move the year we were married, to continue controlling me by allowing him to shape how I felt about my own hair, that I was able to let go of my preconceived notions about what it meant to grow out my own hair.
The desire to grow my hair out came about because of other controlling factors in my life; my health. There’s the idea that short hair is easier to care for, but in many ways, it’s not. It requires being washed sooner because it gets dirtier sooner and usually requires more product to style. It also needs styled every day, as the bed head is daily and it is INSANE. I wanted to grow my hair out because I suspected it would make my life easier.
I also went through a period where I was losing my hair because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, not to mention the copious myofascial adhesions all over my head from joint dysfunction in my TMJ and occipital regions. Once I began correcting those issues, I started to experience a lot of new hair growth that produced beautiful, healthy hair. I wanted to grow it out and see what it looked like. I also knew it would save us money, as short hair requires regular haircuts, while you can go much longer between cuts when you have long hair.
Given these factors, growing my hair out felt like a triumph and a necessity, but I had to overcome my old bad tapes about what hair symbolized. I wasn’t sure I’d come that far, but I had to try it to see. In part, the act of growing it out exclusively for me helped to heal some of that old damage. It wasn’t for a mate or to attract a mate or because someone told me I should do it. It was solely because I felt it was the best thing to do for me. My husband, who lived through my constant nervousness and insecurity about my shoulder length hair in the mid 2000’s, remains carefully detached and silent about my hair. I don’t know if this is because he fears I’ll cut it if he expresses pleasure in it or if he really doesn’t care, but it works, even though sometimes I crave his input and occasionally wonder if he dislikes it.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that growing out my hair actually helped me to take back more of the power that he had stripped from me so long ago. Femininity is thought of as inherently weak, but women know this is a lie constructed to control and cage us. Our strength has nothing to do with the length of our hair or the color on our cheeks and eyelids. I thought I’d accepted and understood this, but I hadn’t really fully internalized it until I adopted the practice of wearing my own hair long again.
Now, as my hair stretches toward the middle of my back, I look in the mirror and sometimes remember the young woman with hair down to her ass and the powerlessness she was steeped in. I still cry for her sometimes, but she is no longer me, no matter how much we look alike. Nearly three decades later, I may possess a frailty of body that young woman would have had a hell of a time swallowing, but I also possess wells of inner strength she never knew existed.
I also see more clearly my Native American roots, which has always been a distinct point of pride for me. I always loved listening to my father talk about his Cherokee grandmother’s long hair, still solidly black long after her face grew withered with age. It probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to others, but it somehow makes me feel a little closer to the culture for which I’ve always craved being apart. Our hair was one of the first things settlers took from us when attempting conversion. I may be more white than indigenous in both how I was raised and in genetic makeup, but in my overall values, I am purely indigenous.
Shaving My Head
It’s amazing to think something we grow naturally can mean so much, but it does. That MCAD robbed me of my long, beautiful hair is a bitter pill that I’ve been trying to swallow since I shaved it off and shipped it out to be made into a wig for someone else on the first week of June. Every time I look in the mirror, I see a different person. She is nearly bald and looks like she has mange in bright lighting, as the purely silver portions of her hair disappear in reflected light. Once it grows out, it still won’t be the same, as it is now dark gray in some sections and silver in others instead of the dark brown I am used to. I have aged at least 10 years overnight, my smooth Ehlers-Danlos face an odd juxtaposition to my melanin depleted hair.
It’s not really the effect of aging that bothers me. My plan was to quit dyeing my hair around age 50 and I’m only 4 years shy of that goal. I know it’s not cool to admit in the age of gray hair acceptance that seems to be sweeping the nation, but there’s a sea of difference between me and those other women, the sea of Choice. I loved my shaved head when I chose to do it. Being forced to do it because of my health, not so much.
My Facebook friends and my partner were all very cool about it, of course. They showered me with compliments, assured me that I looked even better with a shaved head than I did with long hair. I suppose I needed that support. I realize now that I’d dissociated just to deal with the act of cutting it off, even though I gave myself weeks to prepare. They told me to wear it with pride, and I assured them I would, as I’ve had the cut before and that didn’t really bother me. But it did bother me and still does. It bothers me a great deal that my hair was gone and so many people were saying they didn’t even like my long hair when I had loved it. Do I believe them? Not really. It’s hard to internalize any truth that doesn’t feel genuine to you, at least not for any length of time.
After that, I kept my opinions about my hair to myself and suffered in silence. I even decided not to post about it. The thing is, these feelings have stuck with me. The inch of growth I’ve seen over the last six weeks has only highlighted how painful the next two years will be. I try to look forward to all the different styles I can choose in the meantime, but the fact is that I dread the portion of the growing out process where it’s long enough to tickle and annoy my face, but not long enough to put up and I worry I won’t be able to get through it again, given the sensitivity of my skin.
I bought hair chalk to play with, hoping that it will help me feel more amicable toward my hair. My natural hair color works great for it and I love to play. But when I go to play with my hair or see a new updo I’d really like to try and it hits me that my hair is gone, things like hair chalk is little consolation. I’d rather be using the $100’s in hair supplies I have for my long hair. Instead, all the curling irons, straighteners, accessories and products will sit and rot while it slowly grows.
I have every intention of growing my hair long again, but the reality is you can never go back home. Will I even like it long now that it’s salt and pepper gray? Will it behave the same being completely natural or will the wiry curly bits finally have their way? Will I look more like the Crypt Keeper than the Lilly Tomlin I’d love to look like?
In the big picture my hair is really just a tiny thing I’ve lost to my illness. It pales in comparison to my severely restricted diet, losing my career, being trapped in the house for everything but necessity and so many other things. It may never be the same, but it will grow back and maybe I will love it even more, with its pretty silver. At this point, I’m not yet prepared to embrace it. It represents yet one more thing chronic illness has robbed me of in a long list that’s been rapidly accumulating lately thanks to my MCAD and while I have to take it, that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.