I take a pair of scissors and hack off the bottom part of my hair. When I do this, my boyfriend, who is sitting on the bed, does not look at me. Neither does his friend, who is sitting on a chair beside him. I am looking at myself, though. I am looking directly into the mirror and at the lopsided bob of my hair and at my face. I turn the clippers on and shave a chunk out of my hair. Now they are looking at me. What matters is not that I am shaving my head. What matters is that they are looking at me.
When I was fourteen, I got my first pixie cut. I went to a Supercuts on the outskirts of town, and an older woman hacked my hair into the shape of a football helmet. It was the kind of hair you see on women in their sixties who sit in the front row at church just to remind you they’re better than you. It was the kind of hair that you put into rollers overnight and wake up and twist out and coat with hair spray until it is stiff and sticky. I looked horrible, and I was in love with it. I ran my fingers through it, admiring the emptiness of my head as though I had been freed of some burden.
My uncle looked at my pixie. He told me that “a man will never like you with short hair.” I smiled at him because I expected him to say this. My grandfather asked me when I was going to start dressing like a young lady. I told him I would when I felt like it. The response to my hair was something I expected because any good Bible-believing Christian will tell you a woman’s hair is her glory. It covers her and her shame. I was not covered. I was naked and scandalous and I made the men in my life uncomfortable. My hair was a political statement, and I knew this. I cut it because I knew this.
At some point I stopped cutting my hair to make a statement. I cut it because I liked it, or I didn’t cut it because I liked it. I simply did it because I liked it. Sometimes, the hairdresser frowned at me and refused to chop it all off. Sometimes, my family members made snide comments about the hair on my head, which I cut, or the hair on my legs, which I refused to cut. But I did not do things for them or for performance or for shock value. I did not do that anymore. This is what I told myself.
When I came to Wesleyan, my hair was long and full and I was hidden under it. I don’t have much of a sense of style, besides wearing sweaters and military jackets, which I see as necessary staples. The clothing that other people wear are a mystery to me, some kind of code I cannot decipher. At Wesleyan, I am bombarded with signifiers that I don’t know how to interpret and categorize. My brain wants me to categorize. Sun dresses from the sixties and military boots. Boys with long hair and painted nails. Puffy jackets that look like the pride flag. Those wire earrings bent into the shape of a woman’s face. Slips that are worn as skirts. Dad sneakers and mom jeans and outfits with outrageous colors that clash on purpose.
I start to get the sense that much of it is political; the gender bending, the looking like you don’t care, the breaking societal codes. I am critical of it. “It is performative,” I say, pretending that I am not performative. Everyone else says this, too, pretending that they are also not performative. I adapted. I purchased a pair of Doc Martens and mom jeans. I shaved all of my hair off.
When I told my friend that I was thinking of shaving my head, he made a face. Then I indicated that I was not kidding and he asked, “Really?” Then I said yes and he said “You do you” in the type of voice that means yes queen, slay, girl power, *finger snaps*, etc. When I told my boyfriend that I was going to do it, he said “Okay.” Later, he accused me of being a Wesleyan student. I suspected my friend and my boyfriend did not believe that I would do it, not until I turned on the clippers and cut a chunk of my hair off my head. Having it shaved feels like all of the things they tell you it feels like: freeing, powerful, fun to run your fingers through. My hair is gone and it is only me, my face. There is nothing to hide behind. The two boys looked at me and that was what became important, their looking, their attention.
When I got to work at the café, a co-worker looked at my shaved head. They then launched into a rant about gender-neutral pronouns.
“People who use they/them pronouns,” they said, “that’s just weird to me. We had sensitivity training about it. And I think that you should respect it. But it’s just weird to me and sometimes I can’t remember it and I think people should be understanding that I can’t remember.”
They told me a story about someone they know who uses they/them pronouns but they kept saying “he.” I was just at the end of my patience before I realized that the speech was directed at me and my shaved head and my pronouns. They assumed that I was going to ask them to call me they/them, and they did not like this. I realized that my hair is a statement. My hair is political, whether or not I want it to be.
The people who come to the café look at my hair and punctuate their drink orders with, “by the way, I love your hair.” My friends look at my hair and congratulate me, as though I have just single-handedly destroyed the patriarchy. I cannot be sure whether anyone is genuine, whether they actually think the haircut looks good on me and suits me or whether they are proud of me for performing an act which subverts gender norms. I ask myself the same question. I wonder if I did this because I like it, because I think it suits me, or because it gives me social capital. I can’t be entirely sure.
When I look in the mirror and put on my wireframe glasses, I look exactly like the kid from Stuart Little. Now that my hair is gone, I have to look in the mirror more often. I have to reassure myself that I am pretty. My head seems tiny and my body seems bigger, so I think that I am fat. I get exasperated with myself because I do not think it should matter. A woman with body issues, a woman who thinks she is not pretty. What a cliché. I tell myself to get a better narrative.
I do not want my hair to be a political statement. I do not want long hair to be my glory. I do not want short hair to mean that I am smashing the patriarchy. I would not want my co-worker to be upset if I asked them to refer to me with they/them pronouns. I do not want my friend to say “Yes, queen” when they don’t really mean it. I do not want to reevaluate my femininity every time I look in the mirror. I want short hair, and that is all. But it does not matter what I want. What matters is that they’re looking at me.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.