The Big Chop Might’ve Been My Big Mistake

by Janelle Harris

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a swift reaction as the one I experienced immediately following the unceremonious chopping off of my hair. I could still feel the pressure of the rubber handles etched between my fingers when I eased those wretched shears onto the bathroom counter and took in the fruits of my handiwork. I’d woken up with my hair on my head but after six or seven reckless snips, it was strewn on the floor. In contrast to the white tile underfoot, it looked like an awful lot, like I’d just lopped off a mass of Esperanza Spalding’s locks instead of my own. I was romanticizing the glory of those befallen strands, of course, but the stark reality of what lied beneath them spurred an epiphany.

I looked in the mirror.

Then back at the floor.

Then, slowly, reluctantly, unbelievingly, I eased my gaze back into the mirror again.

On top of my head, where my signature, just-below-shoulder length wrap had hung since I’d wrangled authority from my mama to style my own hair, there was a halo of brown, cottony-looking bushiness. It lay shorter on the sides, packed tight at the top and gave up just a little hangtime around the nape, reminiscent of Bobby Brown’s shaggy back bang circa the Don’t Be Cruel era or Lester Jenkins’ perpetually misshapen box on 227. I hated it. Not the hair itself, though it was definitely far from perfect, but the way I looked underneath it.

My decision to grow out my perm wasn’t a me too! hop on the natural hair bandwagon nor was it the aftershock of some rebirthed commitment to my blackness. I was just as power-to-the-people in a wash and set as any sister in an Afro or dreads. I gave it a go to try something new and to allow my hair a well-deserved break from the deep-fried straightening process of the Dominican salons I’d faithfully patronized since the first Bush administration. I’d grown it out for months, trying to press the new growth to meld as inconspicuously as possible with the habitually relaxed ends. For a while, the effort was successful until a run-in with a bad, sulfate-free shampoo broke it all off and accelerated the inevitable.

So there I was, standing barely past sunrise on a Saturday morning, teeth unbrushed, face unwashed and topsy-turvy with my hair by my feet. But unlike so many other Black women who’ve celebrated the exhilaration of the big chop and reconnected with their minimalistic beauty, I didn’t feel free and I certainly didn’t feel cute (and wouldn’t have even if I had gotten around to brushing my teeth or washing my face). I felt awkward, I felt homely and I felt a trip the closest African braid shop coming on. I don’t mind telling you I was her first client of the day. Literally. First in the chair. And I’ll keep going back as a gold star customer until this crop grows back out. God bless the inventor of the kinky twist.

What an unfortunate discovery it is to learn that your face is not designed for short hair after you’ve scissored it to shreds. Bernadine did it in Waiting to Exhale and it was a hit. Janelle Harris did it in Washington, DC and it was a fail.

It’d always been one of my best assets, that hair, but I hadn’t realized just how much of a security blanket it had also been. I’ve never been “pretty” under the general definition of what “pretty” is, and that’s OK. Not everyone is a great beauty—someone has got to be average and I was unknowingly volunteered for the job. But seeing myself in that brazen stage of almost baldness brought to the fore all of the flaws I bemoaned but conveniently distracted from with sassy updos and fresh wraps and cute bangs.

Without my hair to hide under, all I could do was focus on the perceived mistakes Mother Nature had made. No pair of dangling earrings or dusting of makeup was going to compensate, and I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to embrace that version of myself. It was keeping it just a smidge too real for my liking.

Once, I accidentally died my hair platinum blonde after a bright idea, too much time on my hands and close proximity to a beauty supply created the perfect storm for an attempt at doing my own highlights. I had to rock a ponytail weave for months while my poor tresses recuperated after that debacle. Another time, I put relaxer on my new growth—while I had a headful of Poetic Justice box braids, mind you—in an effort to stretch the time between touch-ups. But none of those boo-boos compare to the baggage the big chop forced me to confront about how I look at myself, especially in the honest hours of the morning when it was just me and a spur of the moment rendezvous with a pair of scissors.

  • Yvette

    I’m curious to know if Janelle plans to stay natural once her hair grows out or go back to a relaxer. I think everyone has had their share of hair mistakes… I too once went blonde. BIG mistake considering my skin tone lol.

  • Natalie B.

    I just did the chop Saturday night. My boyfriend did the honors, and he loved it; I’m a bit ambivalent. It’s going to take some getting used to, that being said, I can tell my hair is much healthier. Yes, I miss my shoulder length tresses, but they will grow back; they have in the past, and they will do so again. In the mean time I’m going to make the best out of my twist outs and my curly ‘fro.

  • Marcia

    Why didn’t you go and get a cute cut after your BC? Natural doesn’t mean you take some scissors chop and then boom your hair will look perfect. I chopped my own hair a long time ago when it wasn’t known as the bc and it looked a hot mess, mostly because I just chopped and didn’t know a thing about cutting hair. I went to a salon later that day and got a banging cut to correct my misshapen fro. Getting kinky twist or braids wasn’t your only option.

  • Stefanie

    Your honesty was refreshing! Thank you for sharing so openly.

  • C

    I hate the way I look with extra short hair, so I understand. I let mine grow out about 5 inches before I cut the straight ends off.

  • Amaka

    i’m so confused. ” But none of those boo-boos compare to the baggage the big chop forced me to confront about how I look at myself, especially in the honest hours of the morning when it was just me and a spur of the moment rendezvous with a pair of scissors.” so the big chop forced you to confront yourself, the baggage, insecurities etc. and instead of work through those issues, you need more hair to avoid/cover them up again?

    “Without my hair to hide under, all I could do was focus on the perceived mistakes Mother Nature had made. ” I’m sure you are a beautiful person, inside and out. There are many options for natural hair. But mother nature aint make no mistakes…lol

    I guess my confusion is—is this piece about “not everyone looking right natural” or with short hair? Or is this about the author’s general insecurities in her appearance?

    I don’t care what folks do with their hair–I’ve been natural for over ten years and don’t preach to the non-natural. I think Black women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies and i celebrate the creativity that Black women have always had in regards to their hair. However, when I see folks making the choice not to grow and not to work on their issues, THAT is what concerns me. And this article reads like that to me.

  • Jennifer

    I’m surprised you didn’t have someone cut it for you. A barber or hairstylist could have at least given you a good cut or shape. But, you’ve got to be comfortable in your skin. In the words of every late 90s/early 00s rapper, “Do you!”

  • Jai

    A run-in with a bad sulfate free shampoo? That is not what broke your hair off. Transitioning requires care far beyond what you described. Relaxed hair is weaker and will break as the stronger strands progress. It seems you weren’t ready for a big chop and the decision to go it alone likely made it more difficult.

  • ImJustSaying

    I’m wondering if the issue is really YOU should not be doing MAJOR changes to your hair. That’s what stylists are for!!!
    I know the limits of my own hair skill (and they are few) if I want to make a change I go to my stylist and say “i’m thinking of doing this what do you think?” then I let her do her magic.
    I’m just saying all the examples of hair regret were ones where you did it yourself. That’s seems to be the link you are missing.

  • Yaad girl

    I’m transitioning now and I’m ambivalent about whether I’ll go back to a relaxer after braiding for a year or embrace the new me. I don’t believe in the natural nazi’s view of things. Wear your hair in the best way that works for you. That said, since braiding, I feel…homely, less glamorous- and people are constantly wondering if I’m on this church girl/roots-y binge. Naw man. Just growing out my hair. but, with a little more length we’ll see.

  • Nikki M

    I knew my hair was unhealthy but it was long and I loved it long. My daughter decided not to be held hostage by her hairdresser and that made me start thinking about my hair. Why was I willing to go bald (maybe forever) to say I had long hair over most of my head? Was I afraid of short hair or of looking “black” or any of the multitude of issues black women have about our hair? My husband encouraged me so in a moment I chopped. At first I hated my hair surprisingly only because it was short. My husband loved it at first sight and has expressed his hope that I’ll never go back.

    For me I discovered a few things about myself through my new short do. First I realized how I was so happy with the long hair that I neglected some of the other girly things like wearing cute earrings and taking the time to get fully made up beyond special occasions. Second, having never seen what my hair looked like without perm (aside from some baby photos), I had just assumed that it would be a horrible mess. I was completely wrong. After spending some time on youtube (thank you to all my sisters who have shared their hair wisdom), I began to experiment with different products to see what worked for me. Once again surprisingly it took very little (organic aloe juice and coconut oil) and I discovered that I was capable of making my hair soft, curly, and best of all pretty all by myself. I’ve never felt better and my hair has never been this healthy. To anyone who has chopped and isn’t happy with the results–take some time to get to know your hair. You aren’t going to find what works immediately but you will because like black people, black hair is RESILIENT.

  • Pseudonym

    Girrrrrrrrl, I (and others) have been there. No worries! When I big chopped, the hairdresser straightened my hair so it was at chin length and still easily workable on its own. I always had hair below my shoulders and never learned to actually “style” my hair besides switching the part from the left, right, or middle, so when I did that first wash and my hair drew up to and inch or so (and I had no idea what to do with it!!!- the front kept flopping down into my eyes), I almost cried.

    Then I put a headband on it, threw on some bigger earrings, and got used to it after a couple days once I figured out how short hair works.

    Not sure how long it’s been, but you might just need time to adjust to your new face. I’m a creature of habit and that’s what I’ve always needed the three times I’ve changed how I look. Even now, when I straighten my hair, it takes me a day to get used to it and like despite the fact that that’s how I used to wear my hair for years!!!

    But don’t worry too much. and I agree with a lot of the comments above: if you can afford it, go see a natural hair stylist who can give you a nice shape and some ideas on how you can style your hair to your liking.

    Bests!

  • Nikki M

    Was I afraid of short hair or of looking “black” or any of the multitude of issues black women have about our hair?

    Just to clarify. I think I bought into the idea that my hair could only look pretty if it looked nothing like an afro. I was completely wrong and my idea of pretty has expanded. My new hair looks pretty and makes me feel pretty too and that is a whole new hair sensation for me.

  • deb

    A nicely shaped tapered fro does wonders for any face, check out ladies with TWA on tumblr. I’m not gorgeous by any stretch and they flatter my face. I agree that you should have got it shaped up.

  • Ash.

    I agree!!! My sister chopped off the relaxed ends of my hair and I was left with an uneven, shapeless, mini-fro. I did my bc early so my hair was ear-length when stretched…very short. Weeks later I went to a natural salon to get my hair styled and the stylist suggested that I get a tapered cut to give it a nice shape. Best decision that I’ve made during my twa period!

  • http://Sparklebloom.wordpress.com Nina Renee

    The BC doesn’t have to mean all-even kinks. I’ve kept mine very low for almost a year now, and I like fading it on the sides and in the back. That gives it a more deliberate, more stylish look. I like experimenting with color, too. It all depends on what you plan to do with your new ‘do.

    Having said that, if you don’t feel comfortable with your face on full display, no amount of styling will make much of a difference. The value of confidence, of fearless self-acceptance, can’t be overstated. Many people won’t like your hair, and if that group includes you, you have to be honest with yourself. Long or straight hair will only be bandages for your insecurities if you don’t accept yourself.

  • L. Scott

    Hi Janelle,

    I do believe we used to work at the same company here in DC some time ago. Great to see you doing wonderful things!

    Well, I “big chopped” and relaxed about 3 times before I finally felt comfortable with my natural look. I had been natural for a year and one day hastily slapped a relaxer in my hair because I realized I just wasn’t feeling “pretty,” Like I said, I did that 3 times. It took the 4th time around for me to actually “take” to my natual hair and become “one” with it lol! I had to realize that I would not look like all the naturals that I viewed on Youtube and the internet, my hair is just that…my hair. I had to just let it be. By this time around I knew exactly what it would look like, do and not do and how fast/slow it would grow. So, I was ready. I know I’m rambling but what I’m trying to say is that not everybody gets “it” the first time. And, for that matter, natural hair may not be for everybody. You have to make sure that you are comfortable with your inside and your outside. Do you boo!

  • Stephanie

    I remember when I big chopped. My hair was breaking off at the point between straight and curly. It was turning into a shaggy mess. I tried as best I could to hold onto those ends. But alas, one afternoon I found myself on the chopping block. I walked out the hair dresser with about an inch of hair. I didn’t like what i saw in the mirror. I felt plain. I didn’t realize how big my face was, lol. The next day I bought some shea butter and pink oil moisturizer and proceeded to do an all over two strand twist. It stayed that way for 4 years. Four more years later and my hair is halfway down my back. I hardly touch it. I only comb it when I wash it. I always wear it curly and I straighten 2 or 3 times a year. But pretty much no matter what I do it looks awesome because I’ve grown to love what I look like at every stage. I wish this feeling for everyone. Now if I can just get my body together… i’d be in business, lol.

  • cosmicsistren

    I commend you Janelle for writing such a open and honest article.When I read your article I saw myself. I remember when I first did the BC I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t remeber what my natural texture was like because I hid it under braids. It took time geting used to though. I have to say please invest in a good natural stylist. I know for me if I didn’t find one that transformed my hair into BEAUTFUL hairstyles I wouldn’t be natural over ten years later.

  • http://Sparklebloom.wordpress.com Nina Renee

    I know what you mean. I felt exposed and unattractive the first time I BC’d. Four years later, after some serious soul-searching and self-esteem boosting, I chopped my hair again. The second time was the charm for me :-)

  • http://gravatar.com/tp72 LA Red

    I’m glad you said it! I was thinking huh? Shampoo isn’t going to break your hair especially not sulfate free.

  • silkynaps

    When I initially cut my relaxed ends, I felt a momentary tinge of disappointment.

    Based on the texture of the hair exiting my scalp and the fond memories I had of my pre-relaxer hair, I was not expecting frizzy, dried-out, afro hair. I expected something silkier with a looser curl pattern that would look pretty much the same dry as it did wet.

    Like I said, it was a momentary tinge of disappointment. Like a mother hoping and praying for a baby daughter, but, instead receives a baby son. Momentary. She gets over it and loves her son with all her heart.

    Likewise, I got over it, grabbed some olive oil, moisturized it, styled it, went to work the next day so everyone could fawn all over it. And they did fawn over it. It never once occurred to me that they wouldn’t fawn over it.

    I guess the first step in convincing others that you’re fly is to believe it yourself.

  • http://gravatar.com/tp72 LA Red

    Just one other thing. You tint your hair and dye clothes. You tweeze your eyebrows and pluck a chicken. You shampoo hair and wash your clothes. Just as a reference, no biggie though.

  • African Mami

    I big chopped in undergrad, and oh my, I got hit on by lesbians! And although it was not explicitly stated, some folks thought that it was my coming out party! Back then, it was only a handful of us on campus that DARED to be natural haired. As far as people were concerned, short natural hair=lesbianism. It was an interesting and exciting time, to say the least. I wasn’t fazed, as I held on to that short do for 3 years till graduation, and decided to grow it all out!!

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Thanks for saving me the typing because I agree I am so confused with this article because it feels unfinished. So many questions and loose ends that wasn’t addressed…personally I loved my big choo and did it myself with kitchen sissors…lol thank god I had my mom who knew how to shape and tidy up my cutting. I think so many new naturals underestimate a great cute/shape. However I don’t think that this was the author’s problem it seemed she would have hated it regardless if she went to a professional. But I know where she is coming from when you big chop you have to deal with a whole lotta face time because their is nothing to hide behind so either you get real comfortable and embrace you as is or you regret it….as in this case which reads more about self esteem issues than a hair issue to be honest. I hope the author know she is beautiful no matter if she has a twa, blonde lace front, box braids or straighten hair down her back your face is ALWAYS the star everything else is your co-stars.

  • Sick

    Don’t worry sweetheart, you will experiment like we all have and come up with a style that works for you. Something beautiful, I’m sure. I have big chopped many times in my lifetime and the first time I did it, I felt exposed. No hair to hide behind, but I enjoyed the texture. Since then I have gone natural many times and am natural now and loving it. My hair seems to grow like weeds when it is natural and now that there are many more products available for curly, black hair, I am sooooo loving the way my hair waves and curls!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Give it time before you succumb to the dreaded chemicals again!!!

  • ?!?

    I can understand. I transitioned for almost a year. I was just not brave enough to do a BC.

    You killed me when you said you put a relaxer in while you still had your braids lmao!!!

    But your hair will grow fast. My hair was back to the length it was before I cut it in a year. It was down my back in two and even longer after three. I usually wear mine in protective styles though. A crazy hairdresser got scissor happy and cut it around May though.

  • http://walkingthroughhoney.blogspot.com/ DeeFlowers

    I big chopped 3 months ago. Immediately after that, I got twists put in. I just took them out on Sunday, and I am still not 100% comfortable with my natural hair being out in its natural state. This weekend I am going to experiment with twists and see what I get. For the most part, alot of my coworkers and friends always comment on my new hair styles or ask me how did I do that. But, I must admit that I just want to put on a wig because I really don’t know what to do. I feel like my face is too big for short hair…and so is my head. Its different and I have to get used to it . Youtube and instagram will be my best friends this weekend! I don’t have the urge to get a relaxer and I hope that you don’t either!

  • ?!?

    @silkynaps – I’m not going to lie. I still deal with texture envy. I have a section of my hair that is more loosely coiled, and when I first went natural I was just so upset that the rest of my hair wasn’t that texture. My hair is very thick, but that’s not the problem. The problem is tangling. I don’t think I’ve ever met another natural who deals with tangling as much as I do. Strands just want to wrap around each other and do their own thing right after I detangle them.

    I wear my hair in two strand twists, and it looks great when I wear my twist out, but post-shower, detangling, and styling are not fun. But the look is nice. It also grows a lot, so I don’t think I will ever go back to a relaxer.

  • Debbie

    here’s some tumblr inspiration: twasftw.tumblr.com/

  • Lauren

    This story is the perfect example of how it takes an extra special woman to cut off all their hair and still think she’s the baddest chick on the planet. If you are considering the BC, don’t do it unless you have confidence. I hope the author knows she’s beautiful regardless of the length of her hair. Putting hair in your head won’t solve any insecurities you have.

  • http://gravatar.com/lorrainyday Ashley

    Before my BC, I pushed myself to tears with anxiety. It’s not easy! But what helped me was to treat the BC as an opportunity to learn to become the woman I want to be. When I looked at the experience this way, I actually became thankful for the opportunity. I was still scared, but I became motivated to push through it because I knew it ultimately would give me the chance to shed my insecurities and become a more confident person. It is such a relief to know that my hair no longer has control over my perception of beauty. I really hope that whatever you decide, you can eventually find this relief too!

  • http://gravatar.com/godivabap godivabap

    I never BC’d. I transitioned with braid extensions, hats and headwraps for almost a year before chopping. And even after the chop, it took me a couple days to feel “cute”. However, my motivation for going natural was to free myself from the mentality that straight hair was best, seeing as how the texture growing out of my scalp is decidedly not. Going natural has been one of the best decisions I every made and I don’t regret it for one second. But, its not for everyone, and that’s ok too.

  • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

    You are not doing your braids right if you feel homely with them. Hop onto tumbler and get great style inspiration.

  • silkynaps

    @?!?

    The beauty of our hair is its diversity.
    No, I don’t have naturally loose curls and I don’t envy anyone with that type of hair.

    I’ve learned that some strategically placed rollers will make it appear that I have 3a’s and 3b’s growing out of my scalp ;)

  • http://twitter.com/reeceecup reeceecup™ (@reeceecup)

    I did the bc a few weeks ago and I love it! But it is not for the insecure.I love how it suits me..

  • http://gravatar.com/mrsmartin1123 mrsmartin1123

    My Bc wasn’t as intense as Janelle’s although it was faded down to damn near to the skin. I actually cringed alittle bit in the early days but as it grew out alittle bit, I was cool with my twa. I turned plenty of heads, shortly after my BC I colored my hair, and it looked awesome. I did the big earrings and make up, but it still required supernatural confidence to walk outside in the public bald headed and still feel like you are the ish. I was cool with the twa phase…but I’m loving that I have more hair to play around with these days. I will be 1 yr natural next month. YAY!!!

  • RyG

    You are entitled to wear your hair anyway you want. Confidence has to do with how YOU see yourself on the inside and out. If you are not comfortable being natural then find ways that make you love you. Worrying about how others feel is not important. I did the big chop, wore my hair short and I was natural for close to two years, my hair had grown a lot, and is naturally curly. However, I recently put a quick relaxer in my hair because I did not feel comfortable with the fro. I like the loose curls and I am happy. Hair Is HAIR and always will be. Do you…

  • Shady

    I did the B!g Chop several years ago on a wim. I took the scissors to a trusted friend early one morning and simply said, “DO IT.”. She asked if I was sure, then started cutting. At that time I had no idea of the emotional impact that decision was gonna have on me, but it didn’t last too long. The December, I passed by several beauty shops late at night… there parking lots were full. I questioned why, then it hit me, the ladies probably had been sitting in those shops for upwards of a shift at a job. By this time I had found a reliable barber and was grateful that I only had to sit in the chair for upwards of 20minutes at a time and only paid $20 including an eyebrow arch. On top of that my scalp was healed completely, after some many years of chemical burns and bad bad bad dandruff. So more power to the B!G CHOP!!! :D

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