As I settle in the chair, hands clasped in my lap over the polyester gown, a sudden shiver of excitement rushes through my body.
“I’d like to go short,” I tell the stylist.
As he runs his fingers through my hair, he talks me through the various options and tells me which ones he thinks will suit me best: do I want a longer bob that skims my collar bone, a shorter chin-length bob, or something in between? But I’m not listening particularly hard. I feel a strange, unfamiliar detachment from the fate of my hair today.
“I trust you,” I say. Then, after a pause, “Let’s go shorter.”
There was something different about this haircut; for one thing, it’s the shortest that my hair has ever been in my life since I was about four years old. Once, the day after my father died, I got a spur of the moment shoulder length cut, but that’s as short as I’ve ever gone. Even then, when I was undone with grief and felt like doing something really radical to my appearance to reflect the change I felt inside of me, I lost my nerve at the last minute.
It’s not that this haircut was bad or deliberately unflattering in any way: quite the opposite. The stylist was incredibly skilled, and did a great job. It’s just that for most of my life, I’ve been pretty convinced that looking my absolute best involves perfectly coiffed, long, golden curls. In my dreams, I’d have someone do a Kate Middleton-style blowout on my hair every morning. My first semester at college after high school, I’d spend time each morning curling my locks before breakfast; one day when I didn’t go through this ritual, someone asked if I had used straighteners.
I’ll never forget the haircut I got after a particularly painful and confusing breakup, the haircut I got to make him see what he was missing; I told the stylist all about the heartbreak, and she spent ages blow-drying my long locks with a curling brush and then carefully coiffing it with curling irons. In my mind, that haircut was the pinnacle of perfect hair for me, the most flattering and knock-out it can possibly get, and I remember feeling like a million bucks that evening. If only I could look like this every single day, I thought.
What differentiated my recent haircut from all the rest, though, wasn’t just the length or style; it felt different because for the first time in my life I wanted to get a haircut just to see what it would look like, motivated purely by a sense of curiosity and fun, rather than to necessarily look my best. I wanted to feel less weight on my shoulders, to spend less time in front of the mirror in the mornings. I wanted to feel good in a deep-down my-hair-doesn’t-define-me kind of a way. I wanted to free myself from something, although at the time I wasn’t exactly sure what that was.
My husband loved my long hair, as did my daughter, who said “Oh, mommy, you’ve cut your hair!” with dismay when she saw my shorter style for the first time. I felt a little bit like Jo inLittle Women when she cuts her glorious mane to make some much-needed money for her family—although in my case the length of hair I had cut off went to charity. I no longer had something to hide behind, to fuss about.