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.