I was 18 years old when my long blonde hair started falling out from chemotherapy. My Aunt Barbara cut it into a short bob so the hair loss would be easier to manage. Sometimes I would bend over a trashcan and vigorously rub my fingers over my scalp, watching hundreds of pieces of hair float out of my head like a leaves out of a tree in a storm. After a month or so my father, per my request, shaved it off to save me the trouble of shedding like a house pet. It was not a traumatic experience; I knew it would fall out and had already prepared myself for the inevitable. This cycle continued as I went on various chemotherapy regimens that rotated every few months. Not all chemo drugs cause hair loss, so for eight weeks it would grow in as a thin downy mess, and then it would fall out again. Hair loss was a part of chemo life, and I didn’t let it phase me.
After a year of what can only be described as various cocktails of nuclear-grade poison running through my veins, I transitioned to a light monthly dose, and my hair began to grow. Since I was no longer receiving the chemotherapy drugs that caused my hair loss, I happily watched it come in, knowing that soon it would be long enough to style and make me feel like a normal girl. I had close to a year’s worth of hair growth when I experienced an unexpected over-toxicity from my drugs, and the subsequent jaundice and kidney trouble caused my hair to fall out again. As I had done before, I requested my father to shave it off. This time when I looked in the mirror post-buzz cut, I burst into tears. This hair loss was not expected, and once again I looked like a cancer patient, an identity that, at least on the outside, I thought I had shed. Despite the fact that I was six months away from being done with chemotherapy entirely, and my body was getting stronger and healthier every day, this time my shaved head was a traumatic experience that left me angry and bitter.
When the jaundice passed, my hair began growing in again, and soon my cancer treatment was over. My hair was darker than it had been in my youth, and the longer it got, the wavier it became. It is not uncommon for cancer patients to have their hair grow in a different color and texture post-chemotherapy, and I was no exception. I employed countless bobby pins to keep the weird waves in check and would go into Supercuts for a neck trim when it got too long in the back. One day, on a whim, I bought a box of hair color and dyed it a color that I thought would be a rich shade of brown. Instead it came out auburn, and looked so natural that I kept it up for years. People who had met me post-Garnier Nutrisse though it was my natural color, and I didn’t mind. It made my green eyes and pale skin stand out nicely.
Then a day came when I no longer wanted to be auburn. I needed a change, and wanted to shed the nickname “Red” that an ex-boyfriend had given me. It seemed time to return to my roots (no pun intended), and so I began going to a salon and getting blonde highlights. I wanted to look like I did before I had cancer, to return to an identity I felt I no longer had. Then a funny thing happened: Those who knew me pre-cancer were so happy I was blonde again. “You look like you again,” they would tell me. Those who knew me as a post-cancer red head said, “I liked your red hair so much, why are you going blonde?” They were unsatisfied when I explained that I was technically a natural blonde, and the red was just a happy fluke that I kept up every 6-8 weeks. I wanted to tell all of them that no matter what color my hair was, I’m still me.
That was six years ago, and I’ve been various shade of blonde ever since. Some might call me a highlight-aholic. Last year after a series of unfortunate hair events and hair dressers that took my hair from blonde to brunette to apricot to blorange and then back to blonde in the course of five months, my hair was in pretty bad shape. I could see the breakage when I would flat iron it straight, but when I wore it curly, it was so weak that more damage would occur. Ever since the apricot hair incident (which was almost as traumatic as getting it shaved off) I had contemplated a pixie cut, but I never had the guts to go through with it because I worried so much about what other people would think. Would I look like a guy? Would men still find me attractive? Would my mother pass out from the horror? So I would look at pictures of pixies instead, thinking that when the day came that I didn’t give two shits as to what anyone thought, I would march into a salon and do it.
That day came four weeks ago. It was during a particularly stressful week in which I was starting an exciting new job and meeting great people, while at the same time dealing with the pain from someone who was walking out of my life. I realized it was now or never, and if I waited for the approval of everyone around me, I would never take the plunge. Feeling particularly feisty, I walked into a salon I had never been to before and showed my new hairdresser pictures of pixies I liked. He was all for it (my previous hairdresser always steered me away from the chop) and I walked out of there with two-inches of hair left on my head.
I got in the car and pulled down my visor to look in the mirror. “What have I done?” I thought. The more I looked at it, the more I felt a mixture of emotions. I was excited, terrified, and antsy. I drove to the store, picked up hair paste, threw it in my hair, tousled it up, and suddenly felt very confident. Ridiculously confident. Like the honey badger of pixie cuts, I was pretty badass and didn’t give a shit. I was going to take over the world.
Four weeks later, I still have days where I feel that way. Other days I feel the same way I did in the car, wondering what I’ve done to myself. Getting a pixie cut has caused me to feel more concerned with what people think of me than I did when I was bald and walking around everywhere wearing my father’s wool black beanie, looking like a small, frail, pasty bank robber. Friends, family, people on the street- it doesn’t matter who it is, I ask myself, “What do they think of my hair?” When anyone compliments me on the new ‘do, on some level those compliments feel like platitudes, not because I think that person is being disingenuous, but because (and oh how I loathe to admit this in writing) I am completely wrapped up in how my hair defines who I am.
At some point in the past eleven years I managed to forget an undeniable fact about women and image: for females all over America, and likely in most industrialized counties, identity and hair are inexplicably intertwined. Looking back over my 20’s, I realize how true this has been for me. Bald = cancer, chemo, sick. Hair = healthy. Auburn = college, Mark’s girlfriend, Outback Steakhouse server. Blonde and straight = “the original Brittany.” Blonde and curly = sassy and flirty. Dark blonde pixie cut = ? Right now my own mother looks at me and sees me as not myself.
I don’t know where the fault for this lies. Is it the beauty industry, for telling us that in order to be attractive and feminine, we need long flowing locks? Is it men, who often see short hair as ugly or butch? Or is it the scorn of other women who are competing with each other? I read a few articles written by women who have taken the pixie plunge, and the comments were startling. Most women loved the look, telling the author how cute she is and how they wish they had the courage to get a pixie. What can I say about the men’s comments? While honesty is usually always the best policy, in the internet world people say anything they want because of the privacy and anonymity of their computer screen. The men’s comments were particularly scathing. You would think that the author had not only cut her hair, but gained 100 pounds and broke out in leprosy.
Luckily, regardless of how they actually feel about the cut, the men in my life are kind enough to keep any rude or hurtful thoughts to themselves. However, there is the undeniable truth that long hair equals femininity and availability. When I returned to Portland from Roseburg, I began noticing how much male attention I was receiving. It was a great confidence boost. Now that I’ve cut my hair, the attention has plummeted. It doesn’t matter how much mascara I wear or cleavage I show, I don’t get attention anymore. I knew it would happen, I warned myself before I walked into that salon, but now that I experience it on a daily basis, I realize that it bothers me so much more than I hoped it would.
I feel like I should pause and make an important note- I don’t feel sorry for myself. I am actually proud that I had the guts to go through it such a drastic change. I recently told someone that, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea, I tend to eventually just do what I want. The pixie would have happened sooner or later. When contemplating the pixie in the past, I once told myself that I would wait until after I was married, because I wanted long hair for my wedding photos. I realized last month that I can’t wait for things that may never come to pass, or else I could be waiting forever. There will never be a perfect time to do something, whether it is apply for a new job, go back to school for my masters, get married to a person that I want to laugh with for the next 40 years, or do something as simple as cut my hair.
The challenge now begins to divorce my identity from my hair, and my feelings from the perceived judgment of others. I don’t know how I will accomplish this, because for every confident feeling I have about my hair, a joke is made (most often by yours truly) that I look like a boy (and it always makes me laugh anyway). For every time I leave the house feeling feminine and beautiful, I see a woman with gorgeous long shiny locks and I feel inadequate. But the truth is, the way I feel about myself is no one’s fault but my own. I can place blame on the media, I can point fingers at the cruel comments left by men (and some women) at the end of an article, or I can just accept the fact that I can’t rely on anyone else to define my self-image, and I certainly can’t allow my hair to shape my identity. Self-improvement is an ongoing struggle for most people, and I am no exception.
So, I am going to end this essay with at toast. Cheers to taking scary risks in work, school, and love. Cheers to doing what makes you happy. Cheers to tackling the future with confidence. And, my personal favorite, cheers to women with pixie cuts, because it takes a lot of chutzpah to walk around in this world without the ability to hide behind your hair. I know because I do it every single day.