Friday, January 3, 2014

Hair Length

My hair length in 8th grade. It's not
normally this wavy; I braided it overnight
for this occasion.
I'm always torn about whether I should keep my hair the length it is now or grow it longer. (Right now it's a little below shoulder length). Here's why:

I started growing my hair long in kindergarten. By the time I was in middle school, my hair was down to my waist. I went to a Catholic K-8 school where we had to wear uniforms. We couldn't wear nail polish, makeup, dangling earrings, or pretty much anything that made you stand out. I never liked this and was really getting tired of it. One year I actually read the student handbook with all the rules and realized that there weren't any rules about how you could wear your hair other than that you couldn't dye it. I started creating all kinds of wild and creative hairdos that I wore to school everyday. It was lots of fun, but everyone kept pressuring me to wear my hair more normal ways and to cut it. Pretty much every single day in seventh and eighth grade, someone was pressuring me to get my hair cut and sometimes to donate it. I liked it long and never intended to cut it.

A couple times, my mom suggested donating my hair, and I always told her that I had no interest in getting it cut. If I ever wanted to get ten inches of my hair cut off, I would most certainly donate it, but I liked my hair long. When I was a sophomore in high school and my mom brought up the subject again of donating my hair, I was more open to the possibility. My hair was at its longest, so I knew I could lose ten inches and still have long hair. I wasn't at my Catholic school anymore, so I could wear whatever clothes or jewelry I wanted and paint my nails all different colors; I didn't need my super-long hair to express my style the way that I had at my old school. I also didn't have my classmates pressuring me to cut it. My mom and I talked about it for along time. We went to the mirror with a ruler and my mom showed me how long my hair would still be once I had cut it. My hair is wavy, and you can pull curly or wavy hair straight to get enough inches when you donate it. My mom assured me that it would look nice. I was in a play at the time where my long hair fit my character well, so I made the haircut appointment for after the play was over.

It did look nice. I mean, it didn't look like a bad haircut or anything. But I hated it. I still had "long" hair, but it wasn't extra-long. It was long the way everyone else's hair was long. It wasn't special anymore.

The haircut itself I could work around. I could still do everything I wanted to do with my hair. If no one had commented on my new haircut, I wouldn't have felt as bad about it. But absolutely everyone at school asked me if I got my hair cut and said that it looked nice, and I hated that. I know that they were being nice, but I hated it because when my mom and I discussed the haircut, I told her that I liked my hair just the way it was, that I didn't want a new look. My mom assured me that my hair would still be long after the haircut. I was really hoping that my hair was so long initially that ten inches wouldn't be that much, that I wouldn't look much different than I did before. But every time someone complimented my new haircut, even classmates I barely spoke to, it just reminded me that the haircut WAS a dramatic change that I didn't want, and I really felt like I had gotten coerced into the whole thing.

Later that year, I changed my style dramatically. I went from warm and sunny to glitzy and glamorous. I wore lots of sparkles and dressed more diva-ish because that was what I liked. No one commented on this, but people still commented on my hair months later. I understand now that a haircut is just something people tend to comment on more than new clothes, but it was really frustrating. Nothing that I changed about my appearance because I wanted to could undo the change that I had never wanted.

Hair grows back, and by the time I was a junior, my hair was almost as long as it had been before I got it cut. But now, after having worn it a little shorter, I wasn't so sure I wanted to keep it so long. As much as I had hated my new haircut, I couldn't get around the fact that it was much easier to take care of.  My hair is thick and wavy, and when it gets long, it is a real pain in the neck to care for. I never liked taking care of my hair. I was never willing to rinse my hair as long as I needed to in the shower to get all the shampoo out, so I had a lot of dandruff from the buildup. I rarely got every single tangle out when I brushed it in the morning; I had massive knots that I let build up and would take forever to get out. And when my hair got to a certain length, the ends would split and get all straggly. I didn't have those problems after my haircut. I immediately noticed how much less work my hair had become. Showering was quicker, brushing was quicker, and I never had those massive tangles anymore.  I liked that my hair looked neater because the ends were even. As much as I liked my old hair, I couldn't see myself wanting to go back to doing all that extra work. Junior year I was playing another character who had very long hair, so I decided to get it cut again after the play was over. For the rest of high school, I wore my hair varying lengths, and started to like different looks. For senior prom I got my hair curled and cut about shoulder-length.

While I was away at college, I only got my hair cut when I was home. I usually got it cut twice over the summer, and once during either winter break or spring break. Sometimes I skipped my winter/spring haircut and only went in the summer. I often let it grow out longer than I wanted because I didn't want to waste my vacation time on a haircut appointment. One time when I was home for the summer and got my hair cut after it had grown out really long, my mom commented on how nice it looked and how the haircut made me look older. My mom had said the same thing to me in high school, but in high school, looking older was a good thing. "Older" was basically a synonym for "cooler." But when you're twenty, what does looking older mean?  More mature? More professional? More like college and less like high school? I wasn't sure this "older" look was what I wanted anymore. Then my mom said that some people can pull off long hair, but with my hair type, wearing it long looked like something that I hadn't let go of from my childhood. I knew at that moment that I was going to grow my hair out, all the way out, as long as I wore it in middle school.

It wasn't just about what my mom said. My mom brought up something that I had seen in our culture all along. When you look around, the majority of people who have long hair are young people. The majority of people over thirty have short haircuts. And there's this time in the middle - in high school and college - where people seem to go through this ritual of getting their hair cut shorter. I would feel differently if I had worn my hair different lengths all along, but since I had long hair my whole life and got my first major haircut at sixteen, I sort of felt like I was going along with that ritual. Other people acknowledge the ritual too. Several of my college classmates talked about whether or not they should get "the haircut." They wondered how it would look on them, and said they didn't want to just be jumping on the bandwagon of everyone getting their hair cut. But the way they talked about it, this particular haircut was clearly a specific thing, a ritual, not like saying, "Should I get a different haircut?"

When you get your hair cut when you're younger, it's different. You might be trying out a new hairstyle but it doesn't mean you're going to keep it that way forever. But because our popular hairstyles are what they are - because most young girls have long hair and most older women have short hair - getting that short haircut in high school or college does feel like some sort of ritual. Like what my mom said, letting go of your childhood hair. It sort of reminds me of when people who've always worn a two-piece bathing suit transition to a one-piece and never go back, because wearing a two-piece is just something you do during your teen years. And that is exactly what I NEVER wanted to do.

I still played with my Barbie dolls and watched Sesame Street when I was in middle school. I do what I like and I will never stop doing an activity because my peers have outgrown it. I only stop doing something when it stops giving me pleasure. It's really depressing when the older people at work talk about being "past that point," with New Year's Eve and Halloween and birthday parties. If you don't feel like going to a party or doing a particular activity, that's totally fine, but the way people word it makes it sound like all this fun is just temporary and I'm eventually going to be past that point also. I don't plan to be. If I develop a different idea of what's fun when I'm older, it will be because I truly have different interests, the same way that I eventually lost interest in playing with toys when I was about sixteen.

I have no interest in rites of passage because it always feels like you're leaving something behind, like you're saying that now you're not going do the things you liked from your previous stage of life. The only time I would want a rite of passage into the next stage of life would be if I truly didn't like anything from the earlier stage of life, such as with Colby. And even in that case, the rite of passage would have to be very done-with-Colby-specific and NOT about entering adulthood.

So junior year of college, I grew my hair down to my waist again. It was a symbol to me of not growing up. I still loved high school and didn't want to develop a college-student look. But towards the end of the year, I got tired of my long hair. I liked what it meant symbolically, but realistically, I didn't like the way it looked or the extra work. As soon as I was home for the summer, I got my hair cut to shoulder-length and donated it again.

My hair length now
Since then, I've kept my hair between shoulder-length and a little longer. Sometimes I really want to grow it long again just because I don't want to be participating in that transition-to-adulthood ritual of cutting my hair. But if I take that out of the picture, if hair length didn't have any symbolic meaning, then I really prefer my hair the length it is now. It's so much less work. I don't even need conditioner when my hair is shoulder-length, and I haven't touched a bottle of detangle spray since high school. More importantly, I like the look of my hair now. Since I usually wear it down or in pigtails, it doesn't need to be long enough to do all the things I did to it in middle school. A couple of times I got it cut shorter than I liked, but I'm learning where that threshold is.

I know I'm not planning to grow my hair out anytime soon. I just get conflicted because of all the symbolic meaning behind hair length and because I felt pressured to get that initial haircut when I didn't really want to. I think I will continue to wear my hair the way I like my hair, because there are plenty of other ways to express what I would be expressing by growing it super-long again. Ways that don't involve a dozen bottles of detangle spray. As long as I keep in mind that this is not a permanent rite of passage, and I can always grow it long again.

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