Making My Hair Mine
I have a bit of an obsession with the Instagram feeds of my friends who parent. All those pics and videos of their kids being… well, kids! At 39, my inner child’s heart bursts with appreciation for all that praise of their uniqueness, the silly moments alongside them, and even encouragement for them to experiment with whatever clothing and hairstyles feel right to their personalities, genders, and whims.
A few years ago, my good friend and fellow writer Avital Norman Nathman wrote about why she “lets” her son — who inherited her whimsically curly, often multicolored locks — grow his hair past his shoulders. She’d fielded comments from self-professed, well-meaning bystanders who worried he’d be confused with a girl. As both a fierce feminist and loving mom, she rejected the false gender binary — which taught her son that he’s unique and valuable just as he is, however he is.
My own experience growing up was different.
Parents (and guardians of all titles) are people. They have their own emotional baggage, insecurities, habits, and idiosyncrasies that are part of their personalities. Because they have authority over us, it is naturally hard to see them that way when we’re growing up. Their words and actions have power long before we’re able to see themselves outside their role as the chief influencers in our lives.
Meanwhile, they incorporate those insecurities and habits into their relationships with us. In my house, my adoptive mom’s primary obsession was my hair — all of it: the length, the color, the style, and the amount of curl. And most importantly: how much it made us alike or different.
When a parent has and expresses a particular and constant attentiveness to your appearance — be it praise or criticism -- that constant feedback takes root. When I had light blond hair and soft baby ringlets through age four or five, she LOVED my hair. She played with it like I was a doll. I remember wanting to run around, but having to sit still while she brushed or braided it.
As I got older and let my hair grow, it got thicker, browner and straighter. I hit a couple of growth spurts and lost my chubby baby cheeks, too. Overall, I started looking less and less like her — triggering her insecurities about having had to adopt a child rather than being able to carry and give birth to one. At a glance, anyone who cared to take notice and didn’t know I was adopted would've simply assumed I was going through a phase where I just looked more like my darker, Hungarian father.
But people stopped commenting about how remarkably alike we looked. For her, every new trait pushed us further apart and made me less hers. I’m positive this would've been true even without a birthmark on my scalp for her to focus intently on.
Since reuniting with my birth mother last year I learned that my delivery was long. Like, so long she wasn’t particularly sure which date she’d given birth on. I was born after almost forty hours of labor, and that makes the birthmark — a dime-sized bald spot with a small bump in the middle — likely a result of the doctor using forceps to help me along. It’s always been there, just left of center midway down my skull in the back. My hair has always been thick, so it’s always been covered. But the fear that it could be seen — what if I did a cartwheel? or the wind blew at recess? — pushed my mom to cater hairstyles around it, narrating her thought-process as she did.
At some point she noticed that the hair around the bald spot was curlier than the rest of my hair. It was also darker (probably because it was covered and never got bleached by the sun like the top layer). With a furrowed brow, she sat me down in front of a movie and cut the curlier hair down to half an inch, creating — of course — a larger bald spot. Three times the size of the original, in fact. I couldn’t leave it alone because it was new and felt weird. And thus, an almost thirty-year-long tick was born. Beating it would take therapy, meds, and an intense desire to cast off all the insecurities I have that are tied to her.
In the ten or so years between the first time my mom excised the “extra” curly hair and when I won the battle to control what was done to my head just before my senior year of high school, she went through various phases — which meant I had to go through them with her. At one point she was so grossed out by this thing that made me weird and different and ugly (or at least that’s how it made me feel) that she leaned down and, in a giggle-whisper voice like we were both ten years old, said: “It’s almost like ya got pubic hair back here!”
What kid wouldn’t get a complex? I think that now, but I would never have asked a peer for validation or their opinion. I was terrified of just the idea that someone would see it.
She’d also been frosting my hair at home for what felt like forever. For those who don’t know, frosting was a do-it-yourself highlighting kit from the olden days (the 70’s). It was something my friend’s moms usually did for themselves while we kids played with less permanent homemade concoctions for our hair made from different Kool-Aid flavors.
Frosting first required brushing your hair to within an inch of your poor scalp’s life, and then squeezing a plastic cover, like a swimming cap, over your head, eyebrows, and ears. Then, a tool that should only be used for crocheting is poked through the cap 75-200 times, to pul a few hairs through at a time. Once you look like a potato that’s been allowed to sprout, all those pulled-through hairs are brushed again (OUCH!) and a packet of chemicals is mixed using a mask. Why a mask, you say? Because the fumes are f’ing toxic. My hair usually took half an hour to get tugged, completely stripped of color, super dry, and extra frizzy.
It is perhaps unsurprising that I did not undergo this process willingly.
By the time I got to middle school, I’d completely adopted my mom’s paranoia about the hair around the spot and the spot itself. The popular hairstyle in my peer group was “The Rachel” (from “Friends” — flat, straight, with just one or two playful layers in the front to fall in the face). My hair was never going to be flat, but it hadn’t totally transitioned to curly, so I was still trying to wrangle it smooth. That two-or-so-inch ring of trimmed down hair was making most of the hair near the crown of my head poof out noticeably. I was willing to do something more time and money intensive.
Lye had already gone out of fashion as a chemical in hair straighteners because it burns like hell. It feels like your scalp is being literally fried. I — voluntarily, this time — let my mom take me to a stylist who applied the old-school formula and brushed it in, dragging a comb over the skin of my bald spot. The back of my head hurt for days afterward. We repeated this every three or four months.
Eventually, I told her I was tired of messing with it. I’d never picked up her love of a two-hour morning make-up and hair routine. I was going to be taking a “zero-hour” class at 6:50am before the regular school day started the following Fall. I was smartly looking to cut out things I didn’t need (or want) to spend time on. I must have sounded sensible enough (I often cited my academic goals when I needed something), because I got to drop all the extras, and so I also got to see what my actual hair looked like. Luckily, the 90’s had loosened up a bit (or I had) and my curly hair was either a non-issue (better than being bullied!) or people liked it because it was different.
Even though it felt like a HUGE victory to have wrested control over my hair back from my mom at 17 (and without a fight!), it would be another two decades before I was truly comfortable with it. Appearance is about our features, and my often waist-length curly hair was my most distinguishing one. I’d let Mom talk me into cutting it the month before I went to college and it’s the only decision I regret. So I let it grow. And grow. And the more I heard how cute it was short, the more I grew it out of spite.
More than seven years after disowning me the first time (just before Christmas in 2011), when I looked in the mirror I still saw the result of choices that have been about defiance.
Why was anything this toxic person had ever said about my hair to me or anyone else still defining what I did with it?
I think about my hair every day, even if it’s just to pull it back out of my face. So every day a tiny piece of that trauma plays out in the back of my head — right underneath that damn spot causing all the trouble, LOLsob — even if I don’t consciously notice.
Then I thought: what if I just cut it?
I realized I didn’t care if it was perfectly even (a big step for someone with even my mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder). I didn’t care if my current partners would like it. I popped by a drug store and grabbed decent scissors. I flipped my head upside down over a towel and started chopping!
I didn’t expect to feel so lightweight and fancy free.
I brushed it. I washed it. I ran my fingers through it. I posted a selfie three full days after washing it, sleeping on it, putting it up and taking it down for work, and otherwise playing with it because it was new. As people popped up to say how great it looks, I didn’t feel my typical trepidation and immediately launch into rejecting or mitigating the compliments. I thought, “Yeah. It does!” By the next day, it’d been elevated to my favorite haircut EVER.
I had a date with my primary partner/boyfriend who I’d been with for almost two years. This is someone who has seen my body at various weights and shapes as my health fluctuated, different versions of my hair, with and without makeup. I've never been perfectly comfortable naked in front of a partner; like most of us, I have an insecurity or two. But I believe him when he says he loves my body — including my hair, which I always wear up when we have sex.
Every time my hair got in the way during a sexual situation and a partner groaned (not in the good way, but usually not intentionally) I had a jolt of mood-killing insecurity. Which lead to me automatically pulling it back. I didn’t realize it until very recently, but those unintentional disapproving sounds definitely triggered memories of my Mom’s judgemental noises as she snipped the tight curls around my birthmark.
Even though my current boyfriend has said it isn’t/wouldn’t be in the way, and I believe him about that too, I never wanted my hair down. I just didn’t want to have to manage it — or be distracted by it, or think about it at all — during an enjoyable, but admittedly often messy, activity. Even though wearing it up was a long-standing habit, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that it was affecting my overall body image.
Well. Two weeks ago I found myself unconsciously taking my hair tie OUT OF MY HAIR as things were heating up with Current BF! When I realized it — I realized it felt GOOD. That I felt good! I didn’t feel any kind of insecurity. An hour later when I was all blissed-out I didn’t even try and picture what I looked like — what my hair might look like. I didn’t care. It was just part of the rest of me.
Of course it was. It is! IT’S MY HAIR. It always has been, but now it feels like it is.