Peeling Back the Protective Layers

I’ve changed my hairstyle enough times over the years that I believe I’ve developed an accurate scope of how much hair plays a role in one’s appearance. As they say, hair “frames” your face.

Certain hairstyles can accentuate or conceal facial features, like the size and shape of your eyes or your forehead, problematic areas of skin, and bone structure (especially jaw depending on where your hair line sits).

On the scale of possible lengths, I’ve tried my hair at most, along with changes in colour, different parts, and the occasional addition of bangs. Looking back at the history of my notorious hair changes, they’ve mainly occurred around major life events, or else I simply got bored.

At this time last year, I’d had my hair grown out to full length for nearly two years, when one day I craved the thrill of a dramatic change inspired by some spur of the moment Pinterest research. Without telling my roommate or boyfriend of the time, I jumped on my bike and hurriedly pedalled the thirty minutes uphill from Queen West, to the nearest First Choice Haircutters on Bloor. I arrived sweating just before the salon closed, and was sat down immediately. I wanted it shorter than chin length I told her, and after heeding a few of her warnings about how short that would actually appear (in case I had any illusions), she shrugged and said I was easy. Twenty minutes later, I was homebound having the most glorious bike ride of my life, gliding downhill with a breeze on my neck and the hot sun falling into dusk behind me.

In the year that I’ve maintained this length, having also undergone a few colour variations, I’ve really begun to perceive how malleable my appearance is. It has occurred to me that I spent a great deal of my formative years, namely in high school, aiming for a “goal appearance” in which long blonde hair was the centre piece. Now I look nothing like that former image, and I’m okay with that. I have tattoos, piercings, different clothes and a hairstyle that I would have never attempted in my pubescent years, and I still like myself. In fact, I like myself more. I look at myself in a mirror to observe how drastically I have changed, and the contrast excites me, because what is indicated to me in these moments is that there has been a shift in power: from the hair, to me (said owner of hair). It means that my self-esteem doesn’t have to revolve around that ideal image. The hair doesn’t control me anymore! I have the power to make myself look however I want to look and no matter the result, that will be me. Not a me on the way to being someone better. Just me.

All of this isn’t to say that changing my appearance has been easy. I think that for all people, but in particular those aiming to have a feminine appearance, long hair is often the ideal because it’s safe. It is stereotypically female, and “pretty”. While in many cases, a long hairstyle is simply an individual’s preferred choice (my sister for example, has stunning long hair that I think really suits her), it is also a means of communicating conventional female attractiveness. In a lot of ways, that perception stems from long held notions of the male gaze, and the weight that has historically been placed on male input into determining female attractiveness. That may be an obvious point to make, and I think it’s the reason that short hair cuts can easily be seen as an act of defiance on part of female identities, and also a way for women or feminine identifying people to regain agency in their self esteem and self perceptions of attractiveness. I’m always reminded of a quote from the romantic comedy “The Ugly Truth” when I consider this, in which Gerard Butler (coaching Katherine Heigl into obtaining a boyfriend) tells her that men prefer long hair on women so that they have something to grab onto. To directly associate that quote with hair cuts as an act of defiance, you have to understand that this movie scene isn’t the only place I, or likely any other woman, has heard it. I’ve had boyfriends who, when I excitedly told them that I wanted to cut my hair, said that I shouldn’t because they preferred it long. I’ve had boys, who I did not ask, tell me that I should consider growing out my hair, because I’d be “prettier”. So in this light, I do see short hair as a self-empowering rebellion against male controlled perceptions of attractiveness.

I think it’s kind of a given.

But that alone isn’t what makes it so hard to part with long hair. There’s a comfort that comes with this perception of conventional attractiveness. Like I said, long hair is “safe”, and has been for as long as I remember caring about my appearance. And like I said before that, it can even be a way of accentuating or concealing certain facial appearances. Hair is a protective layer and long hair may be the easiest to hide behind. So when you cut it, you’re both literally and figuratively revealing a part of yourself that perhaps, you’ve never seen before. You’re peeling back a layer. That was certainly the experience for me. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this past year becoming acquainted with this new, malleable version of myself, who for some reason feels more authentic than any previous version. Likely, because short hair doesn’t really adhere to any of my teenage notions of attractiveness. When I cut my hair,¬† I took back the power I’d given it years ago: the power to determine how “pretty”, “hot”, or “sexy” I am. I realized that where that power was actually located, was in my ability to change it in the first place. And even then, those changes are impermanent. No matter what I do to it, it will always grow back, and then I’ll get to enact my power all over again.

That being said, peeling back a layer of yourself is a scary thing to do, because what is underneath is sort of raw. The more you cut, (and I’m absorbing this for myself since yesterday), the more exposed skin you have to adapt. Yes, ok, now I’ve alluded to it, the unrevealed piece of information that started me on this philosophical torrent in the first place. Yesterday, I cabin fever style cut all of my hair off. I was sifting through Pinterest when I landed on a particularly stylish pixie cut, and all of a sudden I wanted it, and could not wait until quarantine ended for someone to do it for me. Three youtube tutorials later, I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror with kitchen scissors, believing that my creative intuition would grant me the skills to perfectly recreate the reference photo on my phone. And holy fuck, I just started cutting, at which point I had no choice but to go through with it. What was the point of this anecdote? Oh right, my protective layers. I’m essentially three steps away from having none now (assuming a shaved head is none), and I feel pretty dramatically exposed. My sister says that I look like Anne Hathaway’s character in Les Mis√©rables when she disguises herself as a boy, so the consensus is that I’ll have to have someone even it out as soon as hair salons open again. In the meantime, my goal is to direct feelings of self love and confidence towards my newly under protected appearance, by means of styling it with my best outfits, trying out different makeup techniques and gleaming reinforcing pixie cut inspiration from Pinterest.

In the overarching movement of being my most authentic self, the pixie cut feels like a radical action towards overtaking that goal.

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