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The Time I Cut My Hair To My Shoulders

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“How much are we talking about, Jeannie? Are you thinking a trim or something drastic?”

“I don’t know. I just know I need a haircut. Will you take me?” I asked.

“Depends. I love your hair. I want to know how much you are getting cut off. Has something happened? You aren’t opening letters from your boyfriend, and now you want your hair cut. This feels like the time my sister cut her hair off when she went through a painful breakup. I don’t want to take you to get all your hair chopped off,” Joe said.

“I’m not cutting it all off. I just need to cut it. I’ll decide when I get there. Will you take me or not?”

My friend Joe begrudgingly said he’d take me to the salon. He pleaded with me not to go too short.

I really didn’t have a length in mind when I asked him to take me to the hair salon. I woke up that morning and decided that I needed a change. A big one for me. I’d never cut my hair beyond a trim, and my current length was well past my waist. At the time, I’d never heard of the concept that women cut their hair when they experience great change or a traumatic event. No one in my family had ever cut their hair for that reason, and I wasn’t aware of it as a normal act. It was just a strong feeling that compelled me to ask Joe if he would kindly take me. I didn’t have a car, so I either had to take public transportation to the mall or walk to my destinations.

The afternoon of the appointment, Joe arrived with additional warnings of how short he felt I should cut my hair. The entire car ride he bemoaned my decision and tried to convince me that this was a bad idea. I told him all would be fine.

The hair stylist patted the seat and began combing through my hair with her fingers. She complimented the health of my hair and admired the color. She smiled at me in the mirror, asking me what I wanted to do with it.

Joe, who who was sitting a few feet away, announced that I wanted to cut it off.

She laughed and said I surely wasn’t doing that. She asked me again if I’d just like a trim.

“No. I think I want something else. Can you cut it to here?” I held my hand up to my shoulder.

Her eyes widened as she looked at me with shock. “You don’t mean to cut it off at the shoulders, right? Honey, that’s a lot of hair. It is so pretty. I don’t think you are prepared for how that will look. Have you ever had short hair?”

“No, I haven’t. It’s just hair,” I replied.

She kept combing through my hair with her fingers, her touch becoming more nervous. “Honey, I don’t think your boyfriend wants you to cut that much off,” she said with a laugh and knowing glance.

“He isn’t my boyfriend. He is a friend and my ride. It is my hair and my decision.”

Joe was silent now. His worst fears were coming to fruition.

“Honey, let’s talk about it and see if we can’t come up with something else,” she said.

“No, I want to cut it off at the shoulders. Can you do it? I can go somewhere else if you won’t.”

She sighed and put my hair in a ponytail. “You understand that once I cut it off I can’t glue it back together.”

“Yes. I understand that.”

She inhaled deeply and asked once more if this is what I wanted.

“Yes. It is what I want.”

“Honey, are you okay? Has something happened?” she asked.

“I’m fine.”

Seeing that I wasn’t budging, she sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. If I didn’t know better, I think she said a prayer. She opened her eyes, met mine in the mirror, and offered a sad smile. “Okay,” she said.

She picked up the scissors and cut off at least 18″ of my hair. Joe gasped. She held it for me to see.

“It’s just hair,” I said.

I had no reaction to my hair being cut. As I said, it wasn’t something I had planned. I woke up and felt that I needed a different look.

Thirty years later, I can see that my desire to cut my hair was a trauma response that gave me back some of the power that had been stripped from me. I needed to look as differently on the outside as I felt on the inside. Cutting my hair afforded me some control over the change I was forced to endure when I was raped. This hair cut, after all, was just a few weeks after my rape.

The hair that was removed from me was a physical representation of the change I had undergone. I was different now, and this new Jeannie needed to be physically different. It was a physical change I could easily alter. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just craved to have a haircut. I needed to shed something, in the hopes that better would grow in place of it.

Joe rode back to school with me in silence. He was devastated at my choice. He was the only person who knew I was making such a change. My roommate couldn’t wrap her mind around my new look and started peppering me with questions as to why I had done it. Strangers stopped me as I walked across campus, asking why I had cut my hair. It was antithetical to my intention with the cut. I wanted to disappear, and yet, more people than ever were approaching me about my hair.

Only one person had something positive to say about my new cut. A campus construction worker who had seen me a few days prior and after stopped to tell me he liked my new cut. Everyone else either proclaimed, “Oh, you cut your hair!” or went with the sage advice I hadn’t asked for and said, “It will grow quickly” and marked me with their sad eyes. My mother saw me at Thanksgiving and wanted to know what I’d done to myself. She said it was ugly and there was no reason I needed to do that. She didn’t know what I needed to prove.

Well, I guess I needed to prove that my hair and my body were indeed my own. Maybe I was attempting to be less attractive. Maybe I needed to take the one thing that had always garnered me attention and destroy as much of it as I could stomach. I didn’t want admiration. I didn’t want attention. I didn’t want to be wanted.

I didn’t think my hair cut was ugly. I still don’t. It was different and definitely out of character for me, but it didn’t make me ugly.

This was at Christmas, 1993, after two months of growth.

For those who are contemplating cutting their hair after a challenging time or traumatic event, I say, “Go for it!” It will grow back. If it is a step that you need, even if you don’t know why or can’t explain it to anyone, just do it. I have zero regrets that I cut my hair back then. It was my own little rebellion that hurt no one. It did grow back, although much slower than I could have anticipated. It taught me I’m not fan of short hair on myself, and I learned that cutting off my hair doesn’t carve out the pain. It doesn’t remove it or make it lighter to carry. But, that was my lesson to learn. Mine. I’m still proud of myself for stepping out of my box and doing something I hadn’t expected myself to do. A small freedom, in the prison of my internal torment, felt like a grand thing.

“You ruined your hair. You could at least smile for the photo.”

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